Oral History & Me? It’s Complicated.

You know how it goes. You’re tired, you’re covered in dirt, your brain hurts, and you want a glass of water or a soda or something stronger.  You can’t bear the thought of measuring one more darn window sill or trying to accurately document a door frame.   At what point does it become ridiculous? Or you can’t lift one more screen of dirt. Yes, you’ve succumbed to just referring to it as dirt and rocks.  Or you’ve transcribed hours of interviews and if you have to replay one more line of recording, you’re going to explode! 

Sometimes our work is exhausting and excruciating.  Sometimes it’s all we have to keep doing what we’re doing because it gets monotonous and plain difficult. Where is the light at the end of the tunnel, we may ask.   

In my oral history line of work, I have listened to recordings and excerpts from recordings and read the text excerpts more times than I would ever want to count.  I’ve heard everyone’s voices so many times that I can truly hear their voices in my head. When I’m reading a piece of the transcript, I remember the inflection of a particular word before I hear it.  Do you call this a sickness? Perhaps it is an acquired skill?  Maybe it is an inherent skill? No matter what the cause, you can see what oral history does to a person.

However, I imagine that all fields benefit from the suffering that our brains incur by absorbing the information.  This is how one becomes an “expert.”  [Readers: examples from your branch of preservation are welcome!] And while I may complain about the tedious nature of oral history once in a while, I realize that without this occasional redundancy, I would not understand my project as well.  I’d have to look up something that an interviewee said rather than automatically have it in the front of my brain.  Having everything at hand saves time and assists in compiling the history I’ve learned. A necessary evil? 

I have come to think of my project, Overhills, as a sibling.  No matter how much this place drives me crazy and how much I want to escape sometimes, I love it dearly. I love everything about Overhills: the environment, the people, the buildings, and the history.  I love the fact that I do remember about 90% of what my interviewees said during an interview.  I love that I know the community of Overhills because of my indulgence in the oral history project.  No matter how mad it makes me, it can always make me smile.

And thus I tell myself: these are the sorts of trials that we must face in our professions in order to do our very best and to offer our subjects of study what they deserve. Whether a building, a community, a landscape, or the unknown: without hard work, memorization, immersion, and tirelessness (okay, and tiredness), all aspects of the historic preservation field require our unwavering devotion.  And these subjects forgive our times of frustration because they know we’ll come crawling back to them to continue our research and studies. It’s a labor of love. Thankfully, I have found a balanced love-hate relationship to be healthy.   But, still, my feelings are complicated.


Secret Gardens in Charlottesville

Wednesday September 17 was the United Way’s Day of Caring where thousands of volunteers from area organizations and companies go out into the community for various service projects. The City of Charlottesville was sent to the Monticello Area Community Action Agency for landscaping/yard maintenance. I was looking forward to a morning outdoors away from the office and getting some exercise so I could later rationalize my decision not to go to the gym. The day ended up being more than that, it turned out to be a ‘secret garden, this is why I love preservation’ type of day. It turns out where the school now stands was once a large manor estate. All that remains of this parcel of land’s former identity are a series of terraced gardens separated by field stone walls dating to about the 1910s.

When we arrived that day all we saw was vast overgrowth and the promise that we may find some cool things. By the end of the day, Charlottesville workers and State Farm Insurance workers had cleared out level upon level of gardens. Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures of what the gardens look like (I may have to ‘visit’ the grounds to get some). Roughly, they start at the top of a large hill and then descend down the hill towards what is now Schenks Branch Creek. A rock wall wraps around the entire property with a foot trail running along the wall. The manor house is now completely gone along with this large pond that was once on the property. (I can understand tearing down a house, but how does a pond just disappear?!)

The coolest part of the whole day was getting to see all the other volunteers begin to critically examine the history of a place and realize that things may not always be what they seem, but that with a little sweat (literally in this case), the past is just waiting for its secrets to be uncovered.

-Missy Celii

Subscription Update

Latest Update, 4pm on Sunday the 28th: Email subscription now works! (I suppose it just took a bit to kick in. Hooray!)

For those of you who have subscribed to Preservation in Pink via email, I have not quite figured it out, apparently, since no emails went out today.  It might be a weekend thing or it might take a few days to kick in – we’ll see. I’m working on it and will get back to you.  Have no fear, you will receive emails in your inbox soon.  And if anyone has helpful suggestions for this matter, please let me know. Thanks.


Receive Posts Via Email

Updates! As you probably notice, the sidebar to the right now has a “Subscribe & Share” section with three options. 

1. You can choose to receive the Preservation in Pink posts in your inbox, which is especially helpful if you are very busy and don’t have time to check for a daily update.  All you have to do is click the link, enter your email, receive an email and click that link to confirm your subscription.  It’s that easy! And now, you’ll never miss another post again.  Please subscribe, even if you are a faithful website checker. Please note: emails will be delivered by FeedBurner between 0700-0900, EST, daily.  So, today’s post is published around 3:30 pm on Saturday, but will not be delivered until Sunday morning. 

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You Slept Where?

What do a tee-pee, a school house, a lighthouse, a library, and train cars have in common?  All across the country, properties such as those are being rehabilitated into unique inns.  Properties that may have suffered a terrible fate are saved and shared with the public while making a profit! It certainly seems better than turning it into a static historic site museum, huh?  Without further research, I am not able to verify a property’s historic integrity or if it meets the Secretary of Interior Standards for Rehabilitation, but I still think it’s fascinating. 

A friend’s parents recently visited the Grassy Creek Cabooses & Depot in Fancy Gap, VA, which has inspired me to look up similar places. The cabooses were transported to the site, so integrity can be questioned; however, check out the moving pictures on the site.  If the owners of Grassy Creek had not bought these cabooses, then they’d probably be long gone! It turns out that you can rent a train car in many states.  I’ve known about lighthouse inns, but none of the others.  

Rehabilitating a school house into an inn seems like a very environmentally friendly idea.  Many historic school houses face neglect and demolition because they are deemed to small to suit a district’s needs or not up to fire code.  After all, there can only be a certain number of viable historic school house museums. School houses have rooms and probably enough space for a reception area. In similar fashion, many school houses are being converted to apartments or lofts.  School houses are typically in a downtown setting, therefore nearby many tourist friendly activities.  And historic school houses are typically beautiful and visible.  Check out this one in Lava Hot Springs, ID and this one in Bisbee, AZ

Lighthouses must be wonderful places to spend a few nights as well. After all, they’re small, solitary, on the water, romantic, gorgeous…and sadly out of use in the nautical world (the historic ones that is).  Lighthouse inns are easy to find, but this one in California is beautiful. 

The website, Unusual Hotels of the World, lists many in the United States (disclaimer: not all are historic) including a library in New York City, the Route 66 Wigwam Hotel, more lighthouses and more trains.  And of course, you should check out the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America.

In regards to all of these historic properties, mentioned and unmentioned: there is nothing more satisfying than seeing that property finds new use once it has fallen out of favor with its old use.  We live in a society that needs to recycle buildings and sites and bring the past with us to the future.  A misconception is that historic hotels or unique inns are much more expensive than the chain hotels, when in fact it is often not true. A solution? Branch out from your usual lodging on trips. Those privately owned motels are not necessarily better or worse than the chain hotels.  And share the love – where have you stayed or where do you want to stay?  Do your preservation tendencies influence your lodging choices? If not yet, do you want them to influence your decisions?


Billy Joel is a genius. [Don’t believe me?  Study some of his lyrics and get back to me.]  Moving on, it wasn’t until recently that I started to understand the political analysis and social commentary of his music [aside from We Didn’t Start the Fire, but that’s plain obvious.]  No Man’s Land, a song from River of Dreams album, didn’t top the single charts and it’s not played at parties or on the radio, but it definitely one of Joel’s great commentaries.  [Vinny can elaborate on such topics at a much greater length.]


Preservationists, do yourselves a favor and listen to No Man’s Land or at least read the lyrics.  To hear the song, click “launch player” in top right of the page.  From here, choose River of Dreams from the Albums tab.  No Man’s Land is the first song. You can listen to the entire song. [Beware that music plays right away.] Without posting the entire song, here are portions: 


I’ve seen those big machines come
rolling through the quiet pines
Blue suits and bankers with their
Volvos and their valentines
Give us this day our daily discount outlet merchandise
Raise up a multiplex and we will make a sacrifice
Now we’re gonna get the big business
Now we’re gonna get the real thing
Everybody’s all excited about it
Who remembers when it all began
Out here in no man’s land
We’ve just begun to understand
Out here in no man’s land
Low supply and high demand
Here in no man’s land
I see these children with their
boredom and their vacant stares
God help us all if we’re to blame for
their unanswered prayers
They roll the sidewalks up at night,
this place goes underground
Thanks to the condo kings there’s cable now in Zombietown
Now we’re gonna get the closed circuit
Now we’re gonna get the Top 40
Now we’re gonna get the sports franchise
Now we’re gonna get the major attractions…


Now isn’t that a cry against suburbia, if there ever were such a thing? Maybe it’s not as entertaining as some of his other songs.  Maybe this song rings true for too many people that it just never became a favorite. Of course, there are many people in this country who like strip malls, subdivisions, shopping malls, fast food chains… or do they do?  Do they just not know otherwise?  Is society brainwashed?  Well, another issue for another time.  After all, some might say preservationists are brainwashed. 


Speaking of brainwashing, here a few reasons as to why I love listening to No Man’s Land:


1. Hearing a famous musician who happens to be from Long Island speaking out against the new Long Island and what suburbia has become, offers a refreshing glimpse of hope.  Billy Joel likely has everything thing he could ever need or want, but, at least in this song, he is still concerned with the trends of society.  [Please, this is not time to bash Billy Joel. Substitute any appropriate celebrity name here.] 


2. It undeniably sings to preservationists.  Any form of inspiration is appreciated, and if it’s a great song, then it’s even better.  It reminds of the effect that Big Yellow Taxi has on us preservationists, even if slightly different.  The lyrics don’t offer instantaneous understanding, but upon closer examination it is so obvious what they are actually saying.


3. The descriptions of suburbia, while to one extreme, are just accurate enough to further my own personal case against suburbia.


4. And simply, I have always loved Billy Joel, as previously implied. 


Thank you, Billy Joel, for helping our quality of life and sense of place case.


Route 66

It’s Wednesday, which means all of you readers probably need something fun to see.  Here are two photographs from Route 66* – a travel day for you, on my favorite road.  The drive-in theater is just outside of Carthage, Missouri, still in operation and quite the sight.   

Route 66 drive-in theater

Route 66 drive-in theater

Note that this is one of the very few remaining drive-in theaters in operation on Route 66 today.  See a list of all open and closed 66 drive-ins.  Go see one while you can! The (literal) road sign was taken in on “Old Route 66” that leads drivers through the tiny section from Missouri to Kansas.  

Road Sign

Road Sign

For more Route 66 information, check out Route 66 News.  It is an incredible site (and listed under Resources, for future reference.)  Anyone else traveled Route 66? 


*Photographs taken by Vinny & me on my 2006 Route 66 trip.


Northern & Southern. Nature & Nurture.

Lately, I notice myself strolling, lingering, and talking to people in line at the grocery store or even people I pass while running.  Small talk is easy to do.  But, really, when did this happen? I find myself wondering if I have always been this nice.  What happened to the me who walked extremely fast and never made eye contact with people on the sidewalk or while running?

Let, me clarify a few things. I grew up in New York. I grew up with sarcasm, Billy Joel, tough sisters, my father’s words like jerk & knucklehead, phrases like ‘breaking your shoes,’ ‘busting your chops,’ ‘ knuckle sandwiches,’ and playing kickball in the street, barbecues, and sitting on the front stoop.  My father was raised in Queens and took the subway to school and my mother remembers Long Island as the country. 

I was raised a New Yorker, only I didn’t know it until I left. For so long, I wanted to escape and live in the middle of nowhere. I was the only one I knew in my high school who loved country music.  When I arrived at Mary Washington in the fall of 2003, I was ecstatic to find myself living in a hall with only girls from Virginia.  I played the how-do-you-say-this­-word game with my roommate and we constantly teased each other for pronunciations. 

Throughout college, I remained fascinated by open space, towns that didn’t overflow to the neighboring town, and the world outside of Long Island.  I traveled to Kentucky and Oregon with my preservation club friends and suddenly had justification for my adoration of the United States.  Still, west of the Mississippi called me – I had to live in the Great Plains. After college, I had my wish.  Finally I had a reason to wear cowboy hats and boots! I lived in Omaha, Nebraska for the summer. 

Oddly enough, I found that my gypsy soul easily became homesick. (Not to mention, no one in Omaha actually wore cowboy boots and hats.) I wanted to be closer to the east coast with my family.  Next, I returned east, this time in North Carolina, living in a small town, which happened to be another long time goal of mine.  My job threw me into a variety of southern culture, from upper class to lower class.  Some of the accents were rather hard to understand at first and posed troubles in transcription. 

Two years later and I know what a cookout is, what a pig pickin’ is, what a dune buggy is, more about tobacco farming and fox hunting than I ever thought I’d know, and the accents no longer pose a problem.   And, despite my resistance, I am slowly acquiring certain words that sound southern.  When I go home, my family and friends tease me for the slightly different ‘o’ sounds I now use.  I never had a very strong New York accent. I never picked up a Virginian accent from college.  But, two years of transcribing southern voices and it’s slowly seeping into my own voice. 

My newfound mixed accent is not something I had wanted.  You see, I’m not southern. I don’t plan on becoming southern. I love country music and the easy-going southern life, but it’s not for me. This is mostly due to my abhorrence of hot weather, my remaining sarcasm, and my need to stay connected to my roots.  Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against the south and for the record, I would never live on Long Island again either.  I am just meant for the north. 

With that said, how did I succumb to the extreme politeness and the accent?  Just call it an occupational hazard.  In oral history, it’s hard not to live in the world that you are researching.  But, this begs the question: which has been more powerful for me, nature or nurture?  I don’t know. I lived in New York until I was 18 and then for two summers after that.  But I grew up as an adult in Virginia, Nebraska, and North Carolina.  Would I be different I worked in the north after college?  Maybe.  It’s an interesting thought to ponder: how much do regional differences shape who we become? Every place you live must offer some form of nurturing and environmental/regional influences.  Where we live must speak to and about who we are, whether as children or adults.

I’m northward bound in one year, but I must clarify that as much as the southern climate and I do not get along, I am grateful for who the south has helped me to become as an adult.  I’m also grateful for country music, which is my absolute favorite aspect of southern culture: that modern country music and the good old timey bluegrass music.  I love every region in this country, but I just can’t live everywhere – hopefully that makes sense.

[And for the record, I’ve never said “yous guys” (even as a New Yorker) and I’ve never said “y’all” (even as a Carolinian.]

Where have you lived and how has it shaped you?

Future Historic Districts

Recently I was at a lecture with a couple different design professionals and one of them (bless his little heart) stated something that I believe should be tattooed on more than one designer/developer’s head: “We are designing America’s future historic districts.” How powerful is that? Too often those who are in charge of designing and building our new spaces and places can’t see past the potential profit they stand to make. A quick look at materials and construction methods will clearly show that they clearly are not concerned with the longevity of the project. But let’s just say these cookie-cutter-cracker-jack-boxes survive into the next 100, 200, or even 300 years, what will they say about life in America in the 2000s? What cultural and social clues will future generations learn from these buildings? I can’t even begin to fathom or comprehend the fact that one day school children may visit Ye Olde Wallyworld where re-enactors in blue vests greet them at the door and show them all the crazy things their ancestors used to buy (“and these q-tips came all the way from China kids on boats and planes but the cotton came from India. Of course this is what they used before ionic ear cleaners…”)

Now, of course, to have an accurate view of history you need to preserve both the good and the bad, brutally and honestly; otherwise, you get a false sense of what the past really was. Sure those historic buildings and gardens at Monticello are much more elaborate than what people have today, because hell, I’d have the nicest house on the block if I had a couple hundred people who willing took care and maintained it for free. And sure Germany, Poland, and other European countries have pretty fields full of flowers and soft soft grass at places like Auschwitz…almost as if there is a lot of rich organic matter beneath the ground fertilizing them. I think you can see my point. So it is important to save the good along with the bad (in this case the poorly designed and executed). But when the bulk majority of what our society is creating just makes you want to shake you head and sigh disappointedly, its hard not to write a letter to the future apologizing and explaining that we were not all commercially shallow people who lived in identical houses on identical streets in identical sprawling towns. If nothing else, perhaps we can start designating well-thought out and sensitive developments as historic at their ribbon cuttings, thus ensuring we have some good representation in the future.

-Missy Celii

Call for Articles

It’s that time of year again, the time when I begin asking for articles for the next newsletter.  The plan is for the next issue of Preservation in Pink  to come out in December 2008, continuing with the 2 per year quota. 

Please send articles, photographs, quotes, songs, anything you want, to preservationinpink@gmail.com.  Articles can range from opinions to more academic subjects tp job experiences or travel stories, book reviews, or anything else relating to preservation.

I would like to solicit for articles about preservation in the academic world vs. preservation in the “real” world. What do you think biggest difference is? Do you prefer one over the other? Is there a happy medium?  Etc. 

Please send me these articles by Thanksgiving – that’s over two months away.  The length can range from a few hundred words to 1,000 words (or more if necessary.)  I will edit the articles and send them back to you for review, if you’d like.  I will post semi-frequent reminders on here, just so you don’t forget. 

Thank you!