Graduate students learn historic preservation with hands-on work

Nestled in the hillside above downtown Portland sits a classic mid-century modern home. The densely forested property is serene, yet it was bustling with activity on a chilly September day.

Construction trucks lined the long driveway. Workers painted railings, fixed a broken stone patio and sanded down wood slats.

At first glance it seems like a standard home renovation — until it was time for class, which took place in the fir-paneled living room next to the built-in floating couch. Or in the raised dining room where blueprints and microscopes and blocks of wood covered the tables and buffet.

This was the fourth of a five-day immersive experience for students entering into the historic preservation graduate program through the University of Oregon’s College of Design. For more than 20 years, the Pacific Northwest Field School has been a hands-on introduction into preservation, giving students the chance to work on a historical site with professional preservationists and trades people. The students stay on site together, and the week is filled with learning restoration skills, having discussions, listening to lectures and taking tours.

This year’s location was a house designed in the 1950s by acclaimed architect John Yeon for the Cottrell family, part of the UO’s John Yeon Center for Architecture and the Landscape. Unlike most previous field schools, this one was held in an urban location, not far from where the students will work toward their two-year master’s degrees at the UO Portland campus.

Exterior view of house

“The field school is a great way for students to work with a building and see real-life issues,” said Chad Randl, interim department head for historic preservation. “In the classroom we talk about a group of buildings and we have to make some generalizations about issues and ideas. At a house like this you’re dealing with literal concrete challenges, and you’re working with tradespeople and professionals who know the realities of a job, like budgets and timelines.”

A few students crouched down to inspect a deteriorating flagstone patio. With trowels in hand, they pushed and smoothed mortar between the stones.

Tim Rea, the lead mason with Pioneer Waterproofing, led the students through the repointing process.

“Most people don’t have experience with historic mortars,” he said. “The materials changed over time, so I’m trying to help the students learn how to identify the ingredients and not do future damage. Historic mortars before 1890 were more flexible, and then Portland cement came along. People would make repairs with modern materials to historic properties and it would look good for about 10 years, but those materials do not mix over time.”

Out in the garage, student Erin Swicegood partnered with Brad Richardson, a preservationist for the National Parks Service at Ebey’s Landing in Washington. They sanded down a teak railing that had turned green from moss. Earlier in the day she participated in a cultural landscape class in the living room with Amy Hoke, a historical landscape architect for the parks service, who helped the students rediscover some of the property’s original features.

Student talking with preservation expert

“My undergrad degree was in the history of art and architecture,” Swicegood said. “I worked in interior design for a year, which was new-build and a lot of tearing down of older places. I realized I like the historical aspects more so than newer builds. I really enjoy mid-century modern, which is why I stayed on the West Coast and chose this program. Portland is a really great city to do historic preservation.”

The UO’s historic preservation graduate program allows students to focus in sustainable preservation design, cultural resource management planning, or cultural heritage and history.

“The field school is successful because of the exchange that happens between students and experts,” said Allison Geary, a graduate of the historic preservation program and the field school coordinator. “Our partners see the value in having students who understand the needs and conditions of heritage and historic sites. This year we had outside companies donate time and materials to advise us on best practice, like for painting and masonry.”

Partners in the field school include historic preservation officers from Oregon, Idaho and Washington; the National Parks Service; Oregon Parks and Recreation; and Washington Parks. Trade sponsors were Pioneer Waterproofing, Rainbow Painting, Fortis Construction and Greenline Fine Woodworking. UO partners were from Environmental Health and Safety and Campus Planning and Facilities Management.

“One of the misperceptions is that historic preservationists desire to only freeze buildings in time and put them away under glass,” Randl said. “Structures are subject to all kinds of conditions, from wear and weather to development pressures and changing popular tastes. Preservationists work to extend the appreciation and utility of old buildings and ensure they’re around for future generations to enjoy.”

By Heidi Hiaasen, University Communications