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Home arrowInclusiveness arrowGreta Gustavson Interview

Interview with Greta Gustavson, Vice Chairman, Norfolk, VA Architectural Review Board and community advocate

Greta GustavsonGrowing up on the other side of the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, Greta Gustavson always wanted to live in Norfolk and, following graduation from college, she did just that. Gustavson retired from Norfolk Public Schools after 32 years during which she served as a teacher, central office administrator, and middle school principal. She received her Bachelors, Masters and Certificate of Advanced Studies all from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. Gustavson has renovated two Victorian-era houses in Norfolk's Freemason Historic District where she has lived for the past 38 years. She has been a volunteer docent and walking tour leader for the Hunter House Victorian Museum since 1988 and currently serves as Co-Chair of the Chrysler Museum of Art's Flower Guild. A "reluctant" sailor, Gustavson and her husband have sailed their 44' sailboat to Europe and back via the Canary Islands and the Caribbean on two separate occasions and have made multiple sailing trips along the U.S. coast from Maine to Florida. She and her husband both gravitate to the older parts of the cities and towns they visit in search of interesting architecture.

Gustavson was a member of the committee that crafted Norfolk's current design guidelines and Historic District Zoning Ordinance and was appointed to the city's first-ever Architectural Review Board in 2013 and currently serves as its vice chairman.

What led you to your field?

I am not a preservationist by training; however, I have lived in Norfolk's Freemason historic district which is on the state and national registers and also is a local historic district. I also have volunteered for the Hunter House Victorian Museum since 1988, and that peaked my interest in architecture of late Colonial and Victorian eras.

I was appointed to our City's Architectural Review Board (ARB) as a resident/owner in a local historic district.

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?

I have advocated for historic preservation since moving into the neighborhood 38 years ago. As a former president of our civic league, I frequently had to speak before our planning commission and city council on issues related to zoning and design review issues. Prior to being appointed to the Historic & Architectural Preservation Committee (HAPC), I attended their meetings as an observer because I would be an "end user" of whatever they recommended to the planning commission and city council, and I wanted to make certain those recommendations would be workable and easily understood.

I did a tremendous amount of research during those years (both pre- and post-appointment to HAPC), mostly in the area of zoning ordinances in the state that were written for towns and cities that were certified local governments but also reviewed ordinances for cities that gave a great deal of emphasis to historic preservation, such as Charleston.

Prior to appointment to ARB, I also chaired our neighborhood's oversight committee. The committee was comprised of homeowners of historic houses, and we would ask to review plans for exterior renovations/alterations prior to submission to the City for a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA). If the person chose not to meet with us, one or more of us would attend the meeting at City Hall to voice our concerns. In almost every instance the request was continued until the applicant could meet with us. It gave us a strong voice.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?

I don't think you can know where you are going if you don't know where you've been. Historic preservation helps tell the stories of our cities and towns.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?

Because I am not a preservationist by training it would be difficult for me to cite specific university level courses. On a practical side, however, I would recommend a working knowledge of building and architectural terms, basic construction, and interpretation of zoning codes and design guidelines.

Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?

My favorite project was helping to rewrite the Zoning Ordinance for our local historic districts. There was a faction on the committee that was opposed to a demolition clause, which would require a COA, in one of the districts, and I was able to work with an advocacy group to get owners to support the clause. Because the City was working toward CLG status, I carefully read the requirements and found that the demolition clause had to be in the ordinance for the City to be considered.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?

Sitting on the ARB has been the main focus of my historic preservation work currently. I will be working with a group in my neighborhood developing a "welcome" packet for new owners of properties within the historic district boundaries. There also are some areas that I think are missing from our current ordinance that I will advocate to have put in, such as disaster plans and creating a buffer zone for new construction that is adjacent to historic districts.

How do you think the national historic preservation programs help your community?

I think they provide a wealth of written information - which I have referenced frequently over the years. The tax credit program also gives property owners the incentive to retain the historic aspects of their properties.

Do you have advice for novice preservationists?

Read as much as you can, listen to others in the field, and always question authority!

The ACHP's mission is "preserving America's heritage;" can you give us an example of how your community is preserving its heritage?

It has been a long and tedious process. During the late '50's and early '60's when lots of federal money was coming our way for redevelopment, the mentality of the City was pretty much "out with the old and in with the new." Hundreds of buildings in both the city center and our older neighborhoods were demolished and replaced, although much of the land was vacant for years afterwards. It was in the early '70's that our neighborhood was given National Register recognition; however, that does not guarantee anything. In 1977, local historic districts were formed which was the real beginning of preservation of our historic buildings. Ordinances, however, cannot always catch every vinyl window (had to mention them somewhere!) being installed or demolition by neglect. In our own neighborhood, each newsletter has some mention of preservation, and reports are included at civic league meetings. We encourage people to call the City before starting work, and we ask people to report actions that might be contrary to the design guidelines to the City.

It all is a cooperative effort, and one person cannot do it alone. That spirit of cooperation and community engagement was one of the reasons the American Planning Association named Freemason one of the 10 Great Neighborhoods for 2013.

How does advocacy play a role in historic preservation?

I guess the old saying, "The squeaky wheel gets the oil," is true. Unless there are people who are willing to keep historic preservation in the forefront, it can be lost in the shuffle of day to day business. I believe it is our responsibility to keep ourselves informed and to keep our elected officials informed of the importance of maintaining a sense of place and retaining the history of our city.


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