A Life in the Trades: February 2011

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009. December 2009. January 2010. February 2010. March 2010. April 2010. May 2010. June 2010. September 2010. October 2010. November 2010. December 2010.

By Nicholas Bogosian

A New Beginning

Coolidge Architects in Topeka, Kansas started giving hints that there could be layoffs.  The year was 1988.  Dave Mertz, then twenty-eight-years-old and married with two young kids, was perusing job listings in the back of the PRESERVATION newspaper put out by the National Trust.  He applied to three.  The position as Architectural Division Director for the statewide West Virginia Main Street Program looked promising, all except for a recent indictment of Gov. Arch A. Moore, Jr. and the threat of more job cuts.  Steve Meridian, past President of Belmont Technical College in St. Clairsville, OH called.  Mertz had applied for Director of a new historic preservation program there, but hadn’t heard any word until now.

“It is evident that other countries concerned with historic preservation are far ahead of the United States in providing for the conservation of craft skills.  Czechoslovakia, for example, has a national system of craft centers supported by the government for this purpose.  Japan, by law officially recognizes certain skilled craftsmen or groups of practitioners of early skills as “intangible cultural monuments” important to the life of the whole nation.” Whitehill Report of 1967

Bob Ney, Ohio State Senator, appropriated $300,000 to Belmont Tech for a new program.  It was Meridian’s idea for creating a two-year historic preservation program.  In an early interview, Mertz pointed out to Meridian that the program should be trades-related; otherwise two-year graduates of a purely academic preservation program wouldn’t stand a chance against students with Master’s Degrees of a similar study.

While Mertz was in grad school at Kansas State receiving his M.Arch in Architecture with an emphasis in Historic Preservation, he had the opportunity to teach undergraduate drafting classes as well as architectural studios.  “That’s where I fell in love with the teaching aspect.”

Meridian saw that Mertz had a true vision for the program.  He was offered the position, and he accepted.  For the next four months he worked on developing the curriculum, ordering tools and equipment, ordering books, restructuring space to accommodate lab classes, and promoting the program to local news stations and high schools.  Belmont Tech initially saw the Building Preservation & Restoration [BPR] program’s demographic as older students that were recently laid off from their job, but Mertz questioned, “Why aren’t we recruiting high school kids?”  Both saw the program as an opportunity to provide the local valley with skilled labor, but neither could have conceived at this time of the national thirst for preservation craftsmen.  By the summer of 1989, twenty local students had signed up for the first quarter.  Classes began.

Some would have argued that the BPR program was ahead of its time in fulfilling a specific need in trades education, but John Fugelso had conceived of a two year hands-on preservation program at Durham Technical Institute in North Carolina over a decade prior to Belmont Tech’s.  The stars hadn’t quite aligned, though, for the public’s grasping of the whole idea of building preservation training at a trades level.  The Durham program lasted only a couple of years.

A Rare Breed

While at Coolidge Architects, Mertz realized that it didn’t matter what a designer wanted on paper.  The skilled craftspeople available dictated whether a design was feasible.  “BPR is a technical program…it exposes you to all sorts of things – it allows you to find yourself.  To become a craftsman takes decades.  This is the first step in a long journey,” says Mertz.  “…as late as the nineteenth-century, the construction trades were considered highly desirable fields which required manual dexterity, critical thinking skills and advanced technical knowledge.  This array of skills attracted highly qualified apprentices who were academically proficient and career driven.”

BPR students re-glaze window sashes. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Then things started going downhill.  In the second half of the nineteenth-century, higher education in America became an instrument of upward mobility for many.  Though this may have been a beacon of opportunity for those wishing to make such a transition, it set in motion a trend which has become a national epidemic.

“Our testaments to physical work are so often focused on the values such work exhibits rather than on the thought it requires. It is a subtle but pervasive omission…. It is as though in our cultural iconography we are given the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no thought bright behind the eye, no image that links hand and brain.” Mike Rose, The Mind at Work

A recent documentary Race to Nowhere brings the epidemic into bright light.  Many students today are pressured on all sides to become successful.  White-collar success is the rule.  Parents don’t want their kids to have to “toil” with their hands.  Students feel a sense of ruination if they don’t get into the college that is going to set them for life.

“Today, students who struggle academically or who are socially maladjusted are often pushed into high school vocational programs.  This influx of under-prepared and often unmotivated class of students, along with the shift to assembly-like construction practices during the post-war building boom, has led to the “dumbing” of the trades,” (Mertz[i])

BPR student, Hilarie Manion, conducts paint research. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

It is precisely the preservation activity in the past thirty years that has been the force which is bringing about a revision and reawakening of the tradesman’s place in American society.  Present-day craftspeople which harbor the jewels of historic building trade skills are a rare breed.  They are a breed which various organizations and leaders within the preservation movement have begun to reproduce in various education experiments.  To attract academically and manually proficient students that the preservation trades require, a work has begun to legitimize the trades once again.

The Experiment

The first International Trades Education Symposium [ITES] took place at Belmont Technical College in 2005.  More than seventy-five preservation trades people and educators from around the world came together under the common understanding that the future of our built environment is under imminent threat.  Projected shortages of trades people is alarming.  America is not the only victim; it is an international problem.

“PTN [Preservation Trades Network] formed the concept of the International Trades Education Initiative in 2004 when it became clear that an important part of PTN’s educational mandate was to provide an opportunity for networking the people involved in the process of creating and sustaining programs that provide education in the trades worldwide.” Rudy Christian, Executive Director of PTN[ii]

If the apprenticeship model carried on a legitimate craft force in the past, today the trades are being legitimized and propelled at the collegiate level.  “The more programs, the better.  The more there are, the more legitimate the whole idea of it becomes,” says Mertz.

The BPR Program, similar to the hands-on preservation programs at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, CA and The American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, SC, bridges preservation theory and preservation practice.  By gaining an understanding of preservation history, law, and economics, the student can have a better framework by which to base their implementation decisions.  By gaining an understanding of building pathology and material sciences, the student can diagnose the root cause of building problems rather than make narrow-minded and wasteful repairs.  The student is also prepared to gauge meaning and significance in the material world by studying architectural history and research/documentation methodologies.

BPR student, Renata Bruza, in the BPR library. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Eventually, though, the student must step away from the textbooks and put on their Practitioner helmet.  They must evaluate the problem before them, consider all the variables, and eventually make an informed decision of what to do about it.  Jon Smith, superintendent of Allegheny Restoration in Morgantown, WV, teaches the field lab class every Friday for the BPR Program.  Students work on actual historic sites doing everything from structural repairs to Dutchmans to lime slaking and soldering.  In the field labs it is all about developing your technique; whether it’s gauging the consistency of mortar as it hangs from the trowel or hand chiseling mortises and tenons for heavy timber joinery.

Jon Smith & BPR Students at the Swaney House in Morristown, OH. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

An Era of Change

The National Council for Preservation Education (NCPE) was instituted as an organizing body of academic programs around the country.  In order to be included in this body of programs, certain standards must be met.  Through NCPE, prospective students can identify preservation programs around the country which have specialties that interest them.  Michael Tomlan, president of NCPE in the early nineties and current Director of Cornell’s Graduate Program in Historic Preservation Planning, was instrumental in creating PreserveNet – an extension of NCPEs database.  PreserveNet keeps a regularly updated listing of preservation resources, internships, jobs, field schools, and scholarships.

“…NCPE acknowledged the need to foster historic preservation education in public primary, secondary, and technical schools (K-12).  However, their organizational infrastructure comprised exclusively of post secondary educators limited their practical contribution to the development of curricula at these “primary” levels…There are only a handful of educational institutions that confer degrees with an emphasis in historic preservation building arts, craft, and construction related skills…less than fourteen percent of our educational institution capacity is oriented toward these practitioner skill sets.” Robert W. Ogle, Dir. of Colorado Mountain College Preservation Program[iii]

Originally, NCPEs academic institution database included only Graduate and Four Year programs.  In the mid-nineties, two year programs like Belmont Tech’s were not yet considered a legitimate training mode.  But Michael Tomlan had a different perspective.  “He understood the value of a community college education in how it related to finding you work,” says Mertz.  Tomlan changed the format to allow for a two-year program and quickly encouraged Mertz to run for Chair of NCPE.  Mertz was elected Chair in 1998 and completed a four year term.  Suddenly new doors opened for the BPR Program and trades education initiatives.  Mertz became the new voice of trades education development and found himself sitting in Dick Moe’s office at the National Trust and consulting new programs developing around the country.

Dave Mertz & student Cori McMillan installing a dead-man in a structural stabilization effort. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Over the years, the BPR Program gained momentum.  Eventually students started arriving from out of state.  What may have been a degree for the out-of-work or the high school graduate started becoming secondary training for students already having undergraduate and graduate degrees.  A local venture suddenly turned into a national commodity.  “What I didn’t realize early on was how badly these people were needed on a national level.”

Beauty and Dignity

“From the very beginning, at Tuskegee, I was determined to have the students do not only the agricultural and domestic work, but to have them erect their own buildings.  My plan was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity, would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake.” Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery

He [Mertz] pauses.  “Nothing has changed in twenty-one years.  I have a paternal responsibility to every student.”  There is a litany of names; names of students past.  His pride for their achievements is palpable.  He casually mentions them in class, in lab, in late night conversations.  I have learned them myself.

“Nobody wants to work for a living anymore.  There’s a sense of entitlement.  Our parents are largely responsible for that – they want the kid to be a “professional” so they can earn the “big bucks,” and people complain that you can’t get into the dentist, doctor, or get your car fixed anymore.”

Students don’t always come to BPR to begin their journey as preservation craftspeople.  Many graduate to become economic developers, preservation consultants, architectural historians, or administrative personnel at state preservation offices.  Mertz wishes there were a through-line in all the stories of students that have decided to enter the field, but everyone’s story is unique.  If there were a particular type of person with a particular set of interests, marketing for trades education might hit more directly.

BPR instructor, Cathie Senter. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

As a student of the BPR program, I can see now that the diversity of skills gained here can open doors to so many avenues of the complex and interdisciplinary field we call Historic Preservation.  In a world where hard work has been equated to “mere drudgery,” I am proud to be entering a profession which challenges that belief on every front and is restoring not only our built environment but also the beauty and dignity of our work.


[i] Mertz, David.  “Shifting Sands:  Why We Are Where We Are and Where We Are Going.  Papers from the International Trades Education Symposium.  2009: Preservation Trades Network, Inc.

[ii] www.iptw.org.  Feb. 3, 2011.

[iii] Ogle, Robert W.  “Historic Preservation Craft Education Leads the Way: The Colorado Story.” http://www.iptw.org/rogle-ites07.htm.  Feb. 3, 2011.

Rose, Mike.  “The Mind at Work.”  Viking: 2004.

Washington, Booker T.  Three Negro Classics.  “Up From Slavery.”  Avon Books:  1965.

The Whitehill Report:  http://www.iptw.org/whitehill-home.htm.

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