Field Notes

My field notes are horrendously illegible to anyone besides me.  I know this.  To remedy this problem and ease the stress of creating worthy field notes, I accept the fact that I redraw my field notes.  Yes, this takes more time, but it is also a good way to double check which measurements I’m missing and to become more familiar with the house.  This was my method in HISP205 & 305 in college and as I found out today, it remains my method.  If you are not quite sure to what I’m referring, the answer is measured drawings for measuring buildings.  Before arriving at the beautifully drawn HABS drawings, we must take measurements of every part of the building – window sills, overall wall lengths, chimneys, door frames, you name it – we measure it and draw it.  Despite my long-winded documentation methods, I truly enjoy it.  Drafting seems to take me longer as well, but it’s something that I willing to keep working on and adjusting. 

Here are a few pictures of the house that we measured today in field school:

Above is the front of the house, but unfortunately it is right on Rt. 29 and therefore, a good photograph would have caused some injury.  The front porch is not original (too Greek for this Federal house) but you can get the idea of its beauty.   The walkways and formals gardens were beautiful (at some point) as well.  Sadly, this house has been vacant for almost one decade (my guess) and will probably be demolished, which is our reason for doing the documentation.  Currently we do not know much of its history.

east elevation

This photograph, above, cannot really do justice to the complexities of the east elevation.  We weren’t exactly doing elevations, more like a building footprint but some of us (including me) felt the need to sketch the elevation and add basic measurements.  It took quite a while.  The addition here, ca. 1960 or so, is not the pretty part of the house but we obviously had to include it as well.

I love it. I love buildings and measuring (though I’ll take interior over exterior in this house.) I love tape measures and clipboards and pencils.  I love sitting on the porch and eating lunch.  However, I had forgotten how exhausting measuring and sketching can be.  (And that house certainly brought out some sneezing and coughing.)  Today we did the exterior measuring and descriptions and the interior measurements.  Tomorrow we are responsible for drafting the floor plans that way we can begin interior descriptions and details on Monday.  This is quite the intense field school, but extremely valuable and fun.  Another good point is that many things I have learned are seeping back into my brain.

I’ll fill you in on drafting tomorrow.

Abandoned buildings and the lime cycle

Restoration field school continues to be interesting.  Today we began with a lecture about building materials (lath and plaster, wood, nails, etc) and then some nail identifications (ever heard of a burr? Did you know there are three main categories of nails: handwrought, machine cut, and wire nails.)  We had two field trips today after lunch. First we headed north on Route 29 to investigate a house that someone wanted Travis to look at – they claim it was a tavern at some point.  I’m not sure how long it’s been abandoned, but the doors to the first floor (from this side of the photograph) or the second floor (from the road side) were locked.  I’ll bet there is still furniture inside.  My oral history side wondered when the last time someone sat in the chair on the porch.  But about building investigation…it was a good exercise to look at ghost marks, bricks, floors, windows, etc.  See picture below.

investigation house

Then we headed to Virginia Limeworks where they create mortar, burn lime, and all of this crazy. It is amazing, the work that they do.  They are also amazing masons and have reconstructed the church at St. Mary’s City in Virginia.  Reconstruction, as in by hand using traditional put-log timber scaffolding and methods. It is just amazing.  The picture below shows what happens when you add limestone with water, called slaking.  It bubbles and spits things at you and steams!  Chemistry plays a large part in it, obviously. It is truly amazing what these guys know and how involved craftsmen are in preservation. I love it.  And they truly care about the projects. 

VA limeworks

Tomorrow we are investigating our house and documenting the outside.  Hooray for measured drawing or at least sketches!

Restoration Carpentry

Field school is so much fun!  Today we began with discussions about building materials, which will aid our house site investigation for our own project. Last night I read about 7 articles concerning building investigation; they were quite entertaining.  After our morning lessons, we went into the restoration workshop to hear about how the staff has accomplished the tasks of replicating moldings and seeing which tools they use. Maybe now that I have seen some of these tools in person, I will remember their names.  The best part was getting a chance to use these tools! (Of course these were just practice pieces of wood.)  And it is as hard as it looks!  See me below:

Another benefit to being a field school student is getting to go in the Poplar Forest attic to examine the timber framing and rosehead nails.  And….we also go to go on the roof!  It was so cool, for lack of a better word.

down the road to the north from the roof

And another pretty photograph from the roof, of Jefferson’s 16′ skylight:

Okay, one more:

That’s all for now! If you want to see more pictures, let me know.


Poplar Forest Day 4: The highlight of today was most definitely our visit to Monticello. I have never been there and I was thoroughly impressed – more so than I thought I would be.  Of course, the best part about being in a certain group are the special parts of the tour that most people don’t see.  The architectural restoration crew talked to us and their techniques in such things as fixing a bow in the stone wall, paint analysis, deciding on the roof structure, etc.  Granted, house tours are always a nice thing but I prefer more architecturally centered tour.  Anyway, for now, I’ll just post a few Monticello picures.

 From the west lawn

Monticello from the west lawn (the rear of the building.)

View from the dome room!

We were allowed in the dome room! (Turn your head for now _ I can’t figure out wordpress.) (The third floor. It is amazing and really hard to capture in a picture.  I’ll post more soon.)


Ever see the inside of a lock? We learned about door locks!

More to come.

Poplar Forest Day 4

Poplar Forest

Welcome to Poplar Forest.

I know that I said that I would be updating daily, however, my computer refuses to connect to the Lynchburg College internet system. Therefore, I will not have this luxury – but I will still do my best to feature some of it. Sorry!

This is currently Day 4, though the first day was just meet & greet time while we had appetizers and wine (or your drink of choice.)  Everyone is really nice. There are nine students, including me.  Some are grad students, some are working in the field, some are deciding which route of history/preservation to go.  It makes for interesting conversations (hooray!)

I have found so far that there is so much that I know I studied at Mary Wash, but haven’t used in the past two years and therefore cannot remember. It’s frustrating, but we do get readings every night and I know that eventually it will come back to me. 

Highlight of the first few days: Poplar Forest is gorgeous, peaceful, and amazing because the restoration began in 1989. This means that they have been able to do everything from the ground up, using modern technology and benefiting from prior restoration projects. The board completely supports doing everything as historically accurate as possible, which provides the leisure of time. And Travis McDonald has been with the project since restoration began. It is an amazing experience.

Stay tuned.


Poplar Forest

Tomorrow I am heading to Lynchburg, VA for the annual Poplar Forest Architectural Restoration Field School, directed by Travis McDonald of Poplar Forest. I am SO excited! It is going to be two glorious weeks of everything related to restoration and conservation. I can’t wait to see everything, take notes, absorb it, study it, and work on the yet-to-be-identified group investigation report.

Be prepared for possibly daily posts. I’m thinking the highlight of the day and a photograph, rather than rambling on about everything I learned that day. However, I am an excellent note taker and will gladly share what I’ve learned if you are interested.

I have never had the opportunity to attend a field school, so this is will be an adventure. Stay tuned for hyper preservation posts!

My Ode to Oral History

I never imagined myself to be an oral historian, although Professor Stanton always made it sound devilishly interesting. He told of folk festivals and cowboy coffee and remote places in Nevada; I was, and still am, enthralled by the wild Wild West.


Here I am now, an oral historian in North Carolina, which is not quite the wild west, but still a new environment to me. I love oral history, despite the days that cause me to complain. I would never have guessed that I’d somehow become an “expert” on a remote Carolina estate of the Rockefeller family. Every detail has seeped into my brain; 1.5 years of studying something will have that effect, I suppose.


Today I’m reading through the gigantic binder of interview quotes that I have organized into topics, according to the research design goals. And as I read these, I can hear the voices of these people, imagine their faces and the scenes they describe, and I just can’t help but smile with them as my love of Overhills beams. I have fallen in love with their stories.


Oral history invites me into the lives of these people; not only do I know the forty or so people I have interviewed, but I know everyone they mention in the interview. I hear their childhood memories, loves, regrets, and random anecdotes. And before we’ve finished, they point me in the direction of an Overhills friend who also has a story to share. It is a relationship building profession and of a truly unique nature.


Overhills is a unique place; oral history has the power to bring that out in every place. Everywhere you go holds a story to tell and a cast of characters and a setting. The history of who we are and how we got to where we are is embedded in the tales that people tell. And sure, oral history is just that – a story. But so is everything else, whether a newspaper article that didn’t quite get all the facts correct or an older written history that hadn’t solved a mystery. Oral history is powerful and important; it serves to capture a fleeting story, one that will eventually be lost for one reason or another. These are the stories not in documents. These are the stories that talk about daily life and how we lived. These are the stories of the common man and sometimes the uncommon man.


I had always figured that I’d be more in the mainstream of preservation, rather than in a tangential field like oral history, which connects to anthropology – the class (not the subject) I least enjoyed in college. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being an oral historian (or at least doing my best to be one and collecting the oral histories) is an honor. I will never forget these people, their voices, and this place called Overhills.

[*Note: I still have one year of Overhills work remaining.]


Another day in the field…

Certain rites of passage exist in every phase of life, whether it’s being beat up by a sibling, pulling your first all-nighter in college, or making your first on-the-job mistake in your profession.  Rites of passage are badges of honor, like an induction to the secret club.  They symbolize acceptance because everyone in that group has faced a similar trial, mishap, or victory along the way.  They signify a deeper understanding and dedication to the particular field.  Some rites tend towards moments of pride, whereas others lean on the humbling side.  It has taken me 1.5 years, but I have finally earned my official rite of passage.  This isn’t quite the rite of passage I would have expected, but it’s another day-on-the-job / in-the-field for me.  The days have been graciously diverse for me, as of late.


Kristin Landau has been featured in my preservation related stories lately. She visited North Carolina for a few days and participated in my escapades.  On one particular Friday, I treated Landau to a tour of Overhills, my life.  Having read many chapters of the Overhills book (another story for another post) the vast acres of structures and sections of the estate would make sense to her, whereas, when I first visited Overhills, I had no geographic orientation.


Landau and I were having quite the enjoyable Overhills day in the warm Carolina spring weather and we were on our way to another part of the estate.  Before heading in that direction, I drove up to one house to give Landau a closer look.  Upon driving away, I took the wrong dirt road (they still all look the same.)  Before long, we encountered a big mud puddle, leftover from the rainstorm on Thursday night.  It wasn’t that big, so I drove the big government truck through it.  Unfortunately, on the other side of the mud puddle was another mud puddle – a much larger one.  Now we were stuck in between the two.  Unsure of whether to go forward or backwards, we discussed this for a little while.  I eventually decided that I didn’t know if I could drive in reverse through a puddle, but certainly forward would be easier.  When I drive in the sand, I drive with one half of the car on the embankment, where there is more traction.  I thought that this would work just as well with puddles.  


Forward I drove.  Within seconds of slowly entering the mud puddle, the front left side of the truck began to sink.  I panicked, immediately.   “Oh my god, Kristin, what do I do? I don’t know what to do!”  And I’m getting progressively more nervous as the truck is sinking and suddenly Kristin, in the passenger seat, is a higher elevation than I am.  Unfortunately, she didn’t know what to do either.  My panicked solution: turn off the engine, get out of the truck, and grab our stuff.  For a split second, we thought that her door was stuck, but it was just really heavy as it now began the top of the car. 


Being out of the truck felt better, more solid, but it certainly didn’t look any better (see photographic evidence credited to Landau.)  The truck does have a wench and we were surrounded by trees, but we didn’t know how to use it.  The next step?  Hang my head and call the office, despite knowing that this would be something I’d never live down, never.




The jist of my panicked conversation went something like this: “I’m sorry, the truck is stuck but I can’t get back in because I’m afraid it’s going to tip and I don’t want to die.”  The boss’ reply: “Don’t worry, I’ll send someone out to get you guys.”



[These photographs may not look so terrible, but believe me – we were stuck.  That back right wheel was not touching the ground and the front left wheel was sunk in the mud.]


While we were waiting for our savior, another truck drove by with two other contractors who just happened to see us stuck in the middle of nowhere.  They were gracious enough to help with big chains to pull the truck out of the mud (with only a slight bit of teasing.)  I was so grateful to them, particularly because there were two of them and I did not have to assist in driving the truck through the puddle. 


After the traumatic experience, all seemed well.  Off we went to the next part of Overhills, promising to stay away from any form of puddle.  We turned the corner and suddenly the truck’s speed dropped from 20 mph to 10 mph to 0 mph.  It just stopped.  Great.  And it began making a terrible noise.  Figuring that perhaps water got in the engine, we turned off the truck and opened the hood.  Everything seemed all right.  I had no choice but to call work, again. 


Apparently, there were three reasons why this would be happening: 1. that truck just does that for no good reason.  2. Water may be somewhere in the engine (transmission? I can’t remember.)  or 3. it may not be in the proper drive (i.e. 2wd, 4wd.)  After trying to follow directions and trying to shift into 2wd, I had no such luck.  So we were about to wait on a rescue again when this random family of hikers came up to us to find out what is wrong.  (Keep in mind, this is government property, aka off limits to hikers.)  An older man convinced me to let him try to put the truck in the proper drive.  He asked if I wanted 2wd or 4wd. I said, “2wd I guess.”  And then something wonderful happened: the truck moved!! We could drive again.


Without visiting the next section of Overhills, I told Kristin that we had to go back to the office.  The truck sounded terrible, I was still scared-to-death, and who knew what was wrong with it.  Because of the terrible noises the truck was making, I decided to drive back to work the slower way, rather than on the busy highway, just in case we had to pull over.  The entire way we could go no more than 40mph and the truck was working so hard and sounding so terrible.  Talk about nerve-wracking! 


Finally, finally, we arrived back at the office, safe and sound.  One of my colleagues went out to check the truck and found one reason why it would sound so terrible: the truck was in 4×4 low, which apparently is only used on dirt roads.  Yes, that was cause for an uproar of making fun of me.  My response: “I grew up in suburbia. I drive a Subaru. What do you want from me? No one ever taught me how to drive a truck. I don’t claim to be a truck driver!” 


Well, anyway, the truck is fine. I have no idea why the man put the truck in 4×4 low rather than 2wd.  Driving home slowly was a smart decision.  Someone is going to give me a truck lesson sometime soon. I’ll be made fun of forever (fortunately, that means they like me around here.)  I’m neither the first nor the last person to be stuck somewhere in our work trucks (though previous cases have been flat tires, stuck in the sand, or just a truck that stopped: hence, my rite of passage.) Everyone wanted to see Kristin’s pictures.  Kristin found the whole situation hysterical, but I did not because it was my responsibility, myself, and my best friend at risk!  I suppose, now, it’s funny.



Take Action!

Some of you may receive the National Trust member e-newsletters. In many cases, these newsletters ask the reader to personalize a letter to his/her Congressman in order request more funding, assistance in saving a landmark, etc. Like a good preservationist, I fill out the forms with my name, address, and occasionally I’ll add something to the letter, hoping that the personalization shows the importance of the issue. Unfortunately, more often than not my letter is rejected by the web server because I don’t live in the associated area of the landmark. Well now, isn’t that unfair? Shouldn’t the letter be able to go to a higher official who can accept letters from anyone? (I obviously don’t know who that would be.) The landmark could be just as important to someone who lives in New York as it is to someone who lives in California. And if this is not possible, why doesn’t the form say you can only live in these states to send this letter? Beats me, it’s just a particular pet peeve of emails of mine.

But, I can’t address a problem just to complain. As preservationists, we realize this a major problem in our country. People complain and do nothing about it, despite knowing exactly what the problem is. There are other issues, which could use help from everyone everywhere. Upon further investigation this newsletter has this link: Here nationwide causes are listed. Preservation support and action is needed all of the time and it’s important that we support issues that we can. It takes a few minutes to fill out these forms and if enough people participate, it will definitely make a difference. So, give it a go, preservationists. There’s no sense in just talking – we need to act!

South of the Border, part 1

Report to follow, but there is good news for those of you who love kitschy-road trip tourist traps: while some parts of South of the Border are definitely neglected, on the Saturday that we visited, many people were out and about doing the same. We were not alone in a desolate roadside attraction.

These photographs were taken by Kristin Landau. (I’m stealing her images because my house in the woods only has dial-up!)