A Life in The Trades: February 2010

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009. December 2009. January 2010.

By Nicholas Bogosian

“Why in the world would you move here?” This is a question I get all too often. They can’t understand why someone would move to the Ohio Valley. Most of them are younger and can’t wait to get out. Columbus lies two hours to the west – a bustling college city with enough to keep you busy for weeks. Pittsburgh, PA offers the same advantages an hour northeast. Wheeling, WV (the closest city) lies ten miles to the east and offers an impressive collection of Victorian architecture, no matter if any preservation effort exists to keep it alive. But St. Clairsville, “paradise on the hill,” gets squashed between the three.

In answering the question, I subdue my glee and explain to them that I’m here for school – that I’m studying building preservation at Belmont Technical College. I explain that there’s only a handful of preservation trade schools in the country and that Bel Tech’s program is the only one of its kind, with a pretty stellar reputation. Never mind trying to comprehend somebody studying building preservation, they still seem surprised that “little ol’ St. Clairsville” and that “little ol’ Belmont Tech” has a nationally recognized preservation program. In past blog posts, the issue of the preservation trades as a sort of “secret field” has been brought up. It seems the same is true for its training institutions.

For somebody wanting to study historic preservation with a trades/technology emphasis one could seek out any of the following programs: College of the Redwoods (Eureka, CA), Colorado Mountain College (Leadville, CO), Belmont Tech (St. Clairsville, OH), SCAD (Savannah, GA), American College of the Building Arts (North Charleston, SC), and North Bennett Street School (Boston, MA).

Belmont Tech’s program, established in 1989, was the first preservation trade school in the United States and a few of the later programs have been loosely modeled on Belmont’s. Most of these programs, however, are still in their infancy, with the exception of North Bennett Street School & SCAD. Despite the common thread of “preservation trades” in these institutions, each have their own distinct way of doing things and none are exactly the same. The primary factors that attracted me most to Belmont when researching these schools were:

– national reputation (high job-filling rate upon graduation)

– intensive hands-on focus on all basic materials of buildings (masonry, plaster, metals, wood, ceramics, wall finishes, etc )

– rigorous academic parallel in curriculum to preservation theory and history as well as historic research, field documentation, and the history of American architecture.

– focus on building pathology and available technologies to conserve structures and their materials.

– ample opportunities for field labs including four quarters of mandatory field labs at local sites (run in conjunction with Allegheny Restoration)

Examining the curriculum at Belmont, I got a true sense that the program embodies the interdisciplinary nature of historic preservation and that it acknowledges preservation as an act that is theoretical, scientific, and artistic.

The BPR (Building Preservation & Restoration) program is housed on the second story of the Science & Engineering building on the Ohio Eastern University Campus. I don’t have an exact count, but the program is relatively small – roughly forty students. The program’s only form of major publicity is an ad every month in Old House Journal. But the name seems to get around otherwise. Students arrive from “all over.” A map of the United States hangs in the lounge with a cacophony of multi-colored pins marking their hometowns. Recently, a map of Croatia was added as an addendum with a single blue pin.

I feel inclined to give the reader a James Agee approach in documenting the annals of the program and what it symbolizes in minute detail. I want you to smell the wood shop and the saw-burnt poplar, to feel the exothermic heat rising off of curing plaster, to hear the planer in its glorious mechanized chipping upstart, to hear the clinking of the Mexican Coca-Cola bottles when anyone opens the mini-fridge, the smell of the soldering metals permeating from downstairs, the tidy and almost choreographed way in which the stained glass students maneuver around the lab with monk-like focus. I want you to sit through a week of Dave Mertz’s lectures and see that a whole hour can be devoted to pigeon crap. I want you to peer deep into his eyes as he simultaneously laughs at and laments the common roofer’s default obsession with roof tar.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Ruskin’s words beam in the industrially-lit stairwell.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The library has over 1,000 volumes of books, videos, and magazines pertaining to the preservation field at large. This resource has been an immeasurable blessing. There is always research to be done. The St. Clairsville Public Library just wouldn’t be sufficient in this case.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The draft room is where a lot of projects take their shape.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The plaster shop, displaying medallions. Model & Mold Making class meets here as well as Plaster class and Chemistry for Conservators labs.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The wood shop is where I’m spending most of my time this quarter. Between Material Science of Wood class and Building Carpentry class I’m reconstructing a bracket, doing Dutchman and epoxy repairs, traditional and modern joinery, lathe shaping, wood carving, and marquetry. Students have access to a wide variety of hard and softwood species.

Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The paint and glazing lab houses the Stained Glass, Material Science of Paint, Wall Finishes, & Historic Interiors classes.

Lab spaces also include a darkroom and a metals shop. Off-site field lab classes are in pretty constant rotation. The surrounding area is graciously in the habit of donating jobs which need to be done on historic sites, but would otherwise not have the funding to go about such repairs. We, of course, are happy to have the opportunity.

Dave Mertz, the director of the program, has been here since the beginning. He has shaped the program into what it is today and has developed a national reputation and a great list of contacts as we begin to network in the field and ultimately graduate to our first job.

In short, Dave Mertz is my hero. I was wary in the beginning about entering a field so blindly, having no previous formal exposure to the field. I was concerned about the “movement” status of the field. In my case, I was not interested in becoming an “advocate,” per se. Rather, I was more compelled by the natural and concrete rationale behind preservation and conservation. Material objects have no value besides the value we place on them, and people have a tendency to change their tastes over time. Like Ruskin proclaims: “let us not build for present delight…” What lasts is intention of design and quality of craftsmanship.

Ironically enough, a large part of our jobs as preservationists is to fix mistakes of the original builders, or the mistakes of the handymen which followed them. Granted, we are often dealing with natural deterioration processes as well and, if we are so blessed, even buildings of exquisite craftsmanship and high art. Unfortunately, the preservationist is a separate entity from the building construction force in society today. This wasn’t always the case. Would we even need “preservationists” today if modern builders commenced with Ruskin’s ethic to build for posterity? Would we even need “preservationists” if modern builders had the knowledge of building materials to effectively maintain these structures?

Dave Mertz is not a preservation hobbyist. He is more than talk. I am happy to say that a large part of his focus is teaching us the correct way of dealing with a plethora of preservation related problems and simply how to be good workers. In the age of the “Millennial,” this concept seems somewhat rare and admirable.

In addition to Dave, Jeff MacDonald joined the faculty this quarter after serving as the Lead Preservation Specialist to the Montana Heritage Commission. His specialty lies in the decorative arts and crafts and is passionate about the development of preservation education worldwide.

The BPR program is typically a two year program. The degree earned is an Associates of Science in Preservation Technology. The program attracts students with all sorts of academic backgrounds: fresh out of High School to full-out Master’s degrees. Many continue their education beyond Belmont. The great thing about the program, as already mentioned, is the wide scope of focus. While the trades are key, so is preservation philosophy, architectural history, historic research, and design. Graduates find themselves in all sorts of preservation related jobs around the country – whether they be working for a State Preservation Office or as a masonry conservator at the Lincoln Memorial.

So while the Ohio Valley is a completely new world to me (i.e. frigid winter weather, a desperately struggling economy, and largely rural) I have come to find a home in the BPR program. The high quality of work that is expected from us and the amount of critical thinking involved in the preservation trades can seem like an overload at times. Not to mention the excitement of learning new things every day. I have to stop myself from investigating things beyond the depth that I have the time for. Other students struggle with this problem as well. It’s just impossible to do thesis-level research on every single thing we come across day to day, though whole theses could indeed be devoted to the evolution of the wrought nail, the damaging Deathwatch Beetle, Copper cleaning, and Histoplasmosis. In reality, this is just preparation for our jobs at large. The learning process does not end when we are handed our degree. It is something we will take with us.

The Great Western School House. Past field lab structure. Photograph courtesy of Jess Warren.

For more information on the BPR program, please visit: http://www.btc.edu/bpr/

3 thoughts on “A Life in The Trades: February 2010

  1. Carolyn Mckenzie says:

    Hi Nick,
    I loved your article!!!! I have a more comprehensive understanding of the college and the detailed studies that you accomplish everyday.
    I really laughed at the comment re:Dave Mertz’s lecture on “pigeon crap” 🙂 Never would have even thought about the potential caustic effect that pigeon “droppings” can have on paint and etc.
    You are blessed to have a talented lecturer. His passion for his work comes through in your writing about him.
    I was trying to explain to a friend exactly what ‘kind’ of school you are attending and couldn’t find the proper words. I’m going to print off your article and give it to her as I know she will appreciate your writing.
    P.S. Since I’m an ardent lover of the rural scene;I know you will go away from there with an enhanced appreciation for the beauty and individuality of the area.
    Thanks for send me the article! Again,I just loved it.
    I also love the Kitty mascot with the pink ‘Bird’.
    Much Love MeMaw

  2. Kelly says:

    I have to be honest, that’s my first reaction to the idea of moving to easter ohio too! But this program is still on my short list- thanks for your glowing review! It’s nice to hear that you’re really loving it.

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