Each summer, UNC-G’s Historic Preservation program offers its students a chance to attend a three-week Field School, giving them hands-on experience with a variety of preservation trades. Each year includes a week at Old Salem, during which students get a number of behind-the-scenes tours; lessons on historic wood, brick, and metals; and an opportunity to try their hand at a number of eighteenth-century trades.
This year also included a week at the Barker House in Henderson, North Carolina, a fascinating little house built in the mid-1700s, where we learned more about how to identify the type and age of wood and how to repair and reglaze historic windows, cut slate, form concrete, and install a wood shingle roof, just to name a few. Not only did I learn a lot, but I finished the week with all fingers in tact, despite some quality time with a chop saw, glass cutter, and nail gun.
We finished the class off with two days at the High Point Friends Meetinghouse doing masonry repointing and grave marker repair, followed by a lesson in historic paint analysis, which included spooning out a tiny fleck of paint layers and looking at the divot through a microscope to identify the different layers of paint that have been added to a surface over the years. Though I found the paint analysis fascinating, after two and a half weeks of wanting to DO ALL OF THE THINGS (!!!), I was relieved to discover one preservation profession that I do not want to do. While I am perfectly content to go down a rabbit hole in an archive, the tedious, microscopic detail of paint analysis was not for me! Now I know who to call if I need it done, though, and that makes me happy!
I learned so much during field school. Here are just a few of the lessons I took away:
Buildings talk, if you know how to listen. OK, so I knew this already, but before I really could only listen intuitively. I could stand in an old building and feel its history. And of course I know how to research buildings in archives. But in field school, we learned how to listen visually. The craftsmen and historians at Old Salem and Dean Ruedrich or Ruedrich Restorations taught us to date buildings using wood types, saw marks, nail technologies, and types of metal (among other details), and I am continuing to learn about the chronology of architectural styles (I think i am going to print architectural history flash cards). With an unlimited budget, dendrochronology (dating wood based on its rings) and paint analysis can also confirm observations made with the naked–but well-trained–eye.
Excitedly talking about the brick bond used in a restaurant will make your friends look at you weird.
Since I learned the different kinds of patterns used in masonry, I have become a brick-bond-identifying crazy person. “Flemish!” I proclaim in a restaurant with friends. “Common!” I explain to my husband as we walk downtown. It’s like I’m a toddler who has learned how to say a bad word, and I just won’t stop saying it (except this is probably way less amusing). This is really my penance for all the eye-rolling I did when my mother would turn over chairs in public places to see who manufactured them. Now my friends and family are rolling their eyes at me (as if that’s anything unusual)!
Some of the lessons were as applicable to life in general as preservation. For example, you don’t always get something right on the first try. Just ask Johann Gottlob Krause. (We’ll call this Philosophical Life Lesson from Field School #1.)
Krauss was a potter-turned-brick-maker in eighteenth-century Salem, and his first attempt at molding bricks was, from a modern perspective, a bit comical. The bricks and bond patterns in his first building–the Tavern–were awkward and irregular. But within a few years, he had become skilled enough to mark his initials using the bond patters of his buildings. A lesson in perseverance.
The first step is always the hardest. Or, getting the plaster from the hawk to the trowel is the hardest part. (Philosophical Life Lesson from Field School #2)
Master plasterer Dwight Love’s lesson also featured the moral of perseverance. It’s interesting that the hardest part of the process is the first step. Well, at least I think it is. I only took a few swipes at the wall with the trowel, so I can’t really say that it’s easier than getting the plaster to the trowel in the first place. But the first step is hard. That much I know. Dwight said his father made him practice that one motion (which he made seem effortless, of course) over and over and over until he had mastered it. He also started out doing the plaster work in closets, so when he messed up, nobody would notice. Our afternoon with Dwight was awesome and though none of us will be master plasterers anytime soon, we did learn a lot about the craft (and life in general)!
Keep moving forward. (Philosophical Life Lesson from Field School #3)
Dwight Love told me this as I prepared to apply the plaster to the wall (once I finally got the plaster to the trowel), and I decided it was my new motto for life.
Sometimes, it’s hard to master the fine line between too much pressure and not quite enough. I found this to be true with cutting glass for window repair and life in general. (Philosophical Life Lesson from Field School #4)
I really struggled with cutting glass for window repair. Slate was no problem (Dean even convinced me not to be scared to punch a hole in a piece of slate while I was holding it in my hand), but glass was hard. I somehow became the glass cutter for the project, but I never got completely comfortable with it. So I definitely want to do it some more. Anybody have a window repair project they’re willing to let me fool with?
Things were much harder without power tools. Does this really need any explanation? Our time at Old Salem gave us a new appreciation for craftsmen of the pre-modern period (and the modern ones working at Old Salem today)!
Except sometimes power tools can make things more difficult. The nail gun and I … how can I put this … we didn’t really hit it off. I on more than one occasion channeled my inner construction worker and called it many bad things. I think at one point, after I was sure I had it working and then it failed me again, I might have even shed a little tear. It finally started working better for Cat and, while I’m still not quite over it, we persevered and got the roof DONE! Well, half of it, anyway.
Teamwork is important.
And so is laughter.
This might have been the most important lesson I learned: If you love your job and you surround yourself with good people, you won’t ever “work” a day in your life. At the end of these three weeks, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I knew that I was definitely on the right path.