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Home Inclusiveness Daniel J. Hoisington Interview
Interview with Kaitlin O'Shea: Vermont DOT, Historic Preservation Specialist
Kaitlin O'Shea has a B.A. from the University of Mary Washington and a M.S. from University of Vermont in Historic Preservation and currently works for the Vermont Agency of Transportation as a Historic Preservation Specialist.
She is founder and writer of the blog, Preservation in Pink, which discusses preservation in applicable and approachable manner for preservationists and non-preservationists alike (with the help of pink flamingos).
Kaitlin loves original wood windows, vibrant communities, transportation enhancement projects, metal truss bridges, roadside America, and a strong cup of coffee.
What led you to the preservation field?
As a grade school student, I loved history and writing, but never had an exact idea of what I wanted to study in college or what career to pursue. Still, I love those subjects. My mom grew up on Long Island, as did I, so she could answer my questions about how things had changed and what a building used to be, those sorts of curiosities. My grandfather used to tell me about the potato farm down the block that became my elementary school. It fascinated me. I don't recall ever hearing the phrase "historic preservation" until my mom came across it in something she was reading (it might have been a civil service test book, but that detail is fuzzy). This sounds cliché, but it actually happened: once my mom said "historic preservation" to me, I knew it was for me. A light bulb turned on in my brain. Coincidentally, within the next few days, I received another round of college brochures and Mary Washington College had "historic preservation" listed as a major, along with all of the other qualities I wanted in a college. Still not knowing much about it, I contacted the Historic Preservation Department at Mary Washington to learn more about the program. And it was the perfect fit. I jumped into the program right away, felt at home, and never looked back.
Why do you think historic preservation matters?
This is one of my favorite questions. Historic preservation matters because it affects everyone, everywhere, whether he/she realizes it or outwardly appreciates it. Historic preservation, of course, is about our heritage and how we remember the past; but it is so much more than that. Historic preservation cares about communities, their past, present, and future. In a simple explanation: people want to live in good places. And the definition of "good" differs to everyone, but it is a place where people feel they belong. And that has to do with buildings and aesthetics and well-planned communities, engaged communities, places where people want to be and are proud to be. Preservation takes the pride that people had and have in place and keeps it alive through the built environment and intangible elements.
What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
A range of classes will prepare you best for the field: architectural history, preservation theory, planning history, documentation (photography and measured drawings/drafting), preservation law, architectural conservation. It is especially helpful to understand the connected but different fields: folklore, oral history, archaeology, museum studies, conservation, material culture studies, geography. Increasingly, it is important to understand mapping programs like ArcGis and other programs like AutoCAD. You never know what facet of preservation will intrigue you academically or professionally, and having a wide reach of courses will make you more marketable as an employee.
Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?
That's a tough one, as my professional jobs have been incredibly different. But what will remain dear in my heart forever is working as the Overhills Oral History Project Manager for Fort Bragg, NC. In brief, this was a three-year oral history project dedicated to documenting the history of a 10,000 acre piece of property currently owned by the U.S. Army, but previously owned by the Rockefeller family.
My job entailed interviewing 40+ people, transcribing, and writing a report using archival research and oral history. It was quite the tremendous task, and I was lucky to work with a great colleague, Jeff Irwin. Oral history, in itself, is challenging, but this project was so much more than that. It was the opportunity to become an expert on this property (one that encompassed tenant farmers, a railroad station, a post office, multiple houses, hundreds of people, horse stables, different races and classes), one that existed relatively unknown from the early 1900s-1997. Overhills was its own world, and interviewing the people who lived and worked there allowed me to enter this world. My days were spent interviewing, transcribing, or delving into the Overhills archives and documents (then housed at the Fort Bragg Cultural Resources Program office). I knew who lived where on the estate and when, and just about every detail of Overhills; I was an encyclopedia.
Being an oral historian (which I consider a preservationist) is rewarding because you're able to really show people how their lives are important. Listening to stories and finding the connections between their lives and their histories is a wonderful task to have.
Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
I work for the Vermont Agency of Transportation as the Historic Preservation Specialist, so my days are filled with projects involving bridges, sidewalks, roadways, and unique projects like historic railroad building relocation and rehabilitation. I review all transportation-funded projects under Section 106 and Section 4(f)* to insure that the projects are not impacting historic resources. This involves working with engineers, project managers, local officials and the public, as well as other resource groups (archaeology and natural resources) in order to get the projects built in a way that fits the purpose and need and minimizes or avoids impacts to historic resources.
Outside of work, my ongoing project is Preservation in Pink, my historic preservation blog that I've maintained since 2008. The blog content and focus changes over time, but the intent remains the same: to connect readers with historic preservation in a friendly, approachable medium. The message that I hope to convey is how historic preservation matters to everyone.
Do you have advice for novice and grassroots preservationists?
Be open to anything and all facets of historic preservation. Start small, start at the bottom, and work your way up and to bigger projects. It's a small, connected field so work hard, be dedicated and invest yourself in historic preservation.
The ACHP's mission is "preserving America's heritage;" can you give us an example of how your community is preserving their heritage?
One of the most exciting projects recently was the rehabilitation and opening of the Richmond Checkered House Bridge.