Restore a Building, Renew a Community
Jamie Donahoe graduated from Hamilton in 1985 with a degree in American Studies. In 1995, she co-founded architectural preservation nonprofit Adventures in Preservation.
It was an interesting request: what in particular from my experience at Hamilton played a role in the creation of Adventures in Preservation, the non-profit preservation organization I co-founded in 2001?
It took a bit of pondering. My first instinct was to try to point to a particular class, but after reflecting on it at various points over the following week, I realized that there were enough bits and pieces that I had to say, “the entire experience since entering Hamilton.”
Of the courses I took at Hamilton, I can point directly to two that I drew upon repeatedly in my career in historic preservation: a black and white photography course, and a winter term class in architectural history.
I couldn’t recall the name of the class, but a quick conversation with the ever-helpful college archivist, Katherine Collett, brought it all back. She read me the title from the 1984-1985 catalogue: 394W Nineteenth Century American Architecture. It promised to be “A study of nineteenth century American architectural styles beginning with the Greek Revival, including the Gothic and Romanesque revivals, the High Victorian and Beaux Arts or American Renaissance style.” (Hamilton College 1983-1984 course catalogue)
The phrase was instantly familiar. How many times have I told people my primary academic interest is 19th century American domestic architecture, i.e. old houses? Of course, once I moved outside the United States it became completely irrelevant. Nonetheless, it has guided me on an, admittedly roundabout, journey that kept my interest in historic buildings and other cultural resources alive, a journey that culminated in Adventures in Preservation (AiP).
A friend and I founded AiP in 2001. At the time, I had just moved from Bangkok, where I’d been working with UNESCO on World Heritage Site nomination, to Basel, Switzerland. Judith had previously had a small company doing hands-on building conservation courses and was looking to get back to that kind of work. Inspired by a book about volunteer vacations, she asked if I was interested in helping. I suggested setting up as a non-profit and we were off.
All these years later, AiP continues to connect people and preservation at heritage conservation projects around the world. Guided by an expert, project volunteers – known as jammers – learn specific building conservation skills and immediately put them into practice at the site. AiP jammers have painted, plastered, hammered and hewn all over the world and this year worked in Missouri, Virginia, Scotland, and Armenia.
I brought to AiP an incredibly varied skill set that I had acquired over the years, beginning at Hamilton and continuing through a series of internships, volunteer positions and real jobs. Each of those was a learning opportunity and chance to get new skills or at least a greater understanding of how organizations and the world function. To those of you just starting out, I will say this: The path may zigzag like crazy but somehow it will all work out.
To illustrate my point, here’s how my particular thread worked. I spent college summers in Washington DC, the first year working in a sports shop and summer of my junior year interning at the then-fledgling National Building Museum four days a week while working two days back at Racquet and Jog. The summer after graduation I had a full time (paying!) internship at Preservation Action, the preservation lobbying group. There I encountered preservationists from around the country that I would come across for the next two decades; preservation is a small and almost incestuous field!
When I moved to Boulder, Colorado I got a temp job working at a water resources engineering firm, and less than a year later was offered the position of office manager. I had to learn a lot of business stuff, but they knew I could do it and sure enough, I ran that office very well. It wasn’t preservation though, so I volunteered with the local non-profit preservation organization, Historic Boulder, and was soon a board member, organizing outreach and education events. It was through Historic Boulder that I met Judith Broeker, my AiP co-founder.
To get my NPS historian job, I volunteered one day a week with the Denver regional office, requesting the time off from my very understanding co-workers at the engineering firm. There I cleared a backlog of projects submitted for approval as part of the Historic American Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER) documentation program. Cue my experience as a copy editor for The Spectator and the eagle eye I developed for catching typos. That volunteer experience was critical in applying for an actual historian position with the National Park Service.
I found myself moving to San Francisco and was able to get a new position with the NPS’ revitalized List of Classified Structures Program, documenting historic structures in the parks and monuments of the Western region. During that four-year stint, I took well over 10,000 black and white photographs (thank you, Professor Salzillo) as well as hundreds of digital images using new-fangled technology (50 low res images on each mini floppy disc!) This was the early 1990’s so although we were using GPS, we did not get real-time data. With the computer skills I’d acquired at the engineering firm, none of the GPS post-processing, work with databases, etc fazed me – I was the most computer literate person in the office.
Those computer skills also came in handy at CARE after moving to Croatia in 1996, when I morphed into the office IT Coordinator, responsible for all computer purchases, training and technical support in addition to helping coordinate school and housing reconstruction projects. At least I was working with buildings!
When the time came to help build a non-profit providing preservation training and support, I therefore had a lot of what I needed, including the ability to write and communicate well. The Internet made it possible for us to exist as a virtual organization, with “offices” in Colorado and Switzerland.
AiP started small, with projects we identified and approached. Soon we had more requests for assistance than we could handle – and still do. AiP now runs sessions at three to four sites a year. Our volunteers come from around the world to learn new skills, experience a new culture, and contribute to a historic building conservation project, all the aspects of volunteer vacations highlighted in the book Judith picked up all those years ago.
Note: I resigned from AiP at the beginning of 2017 because it once again became time to move – literally and figuratively – on to something new.