Last Field School Post

Last week I received the field school project: the HSR of the Hill-Woody House from Madison Heights, VA.  Travis McDonald, our field school director, continued to work with Jesse on historical research, revising the measured drawings, and any other necessary work to produce the final product.  Without Travis’ dedication to completing the reports each year, there would just be a bunch of random information lying around Poplar Forest and in everyone’s notes.  On our last day we handed Travis a cd with the compiled text and photographs, which, although we worked hard to format nicely, it was far from perfect. And our measured drawings and detail sketches were not embedded in the report either.  Travis was our editor in terms of layout, content, and in any other way that was necessary.   

Hill-Woody HSR

Hill-Woody HSR

Yes, I’ve said this before, but to anyone who is even a bit interested, look up the Poplar Forest Restoration Field School and consider attending. It is extremely worthwhile and the most affordable field school you will find. I’d bet it’s even better than some of the most expensive field schools.

Just a few excerpts from the report.



Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Floor Plan & Notes

Floor Plan & Notes


measured drawing of door

measured drawing of door

typical page in report

typical page in report

Anyone else with field school reports to share?  Please excuse the poor photographs of the pages; I know that they are not very clear, even when you click on them. If you are seriously interested, I can scan a particular page. I just wanted to offer a sampling of our work. Great job, field school colleagues!

Field School Final Exam

During the last week of field school, Travis often joked about what would or would not be on a final exam.  Exam?!  Were we really going to have an exam?  We didn’t really think we would, but lo and behold, Travis presented us with an “exam” on the last morning, which was matching clever phrases to each site that we visited.  (No, it was not collected.)  We also had course evaluations, reminiscent of the last days of college classes. If in fact we did have a real final exam and let’s say it was an essay about what I gained from field school, it might go something like this:


Often I find myself believing that I have my career path planned out exactly how I want it; I’ve finally figured out what would be the perfect job for me in terms of diversity, enjoyment, challenges, and satisfaction.  Before attending field school at Poplar Forest, I had decided to pursue architectural restoration or building conservation.  However, I am willing to admit, that I often interweave these two terms despite knowing the difference.  I thought that a project such as the Kenmore restoration or the Poplar Forest restoration would be something that I’d love to do everyday.   In these past two weeks, I have since changed my mind.


These two weeks have provided me with a base for constant preservation thinking and pondering.  I have sat awake at night thinking about the large multi-year restoration projects such as Monticello, Montpelier, and Poplar Forest.  Then I thought about the smaller projects like restoring my own home someday.  And I thought about all of the other facets I love about historic preservation and acknowledged that restoration is only one piece to the puzzle.


An extensive restoration project, while admirable and incredible, is not something I would want to undertake.  Perhaps, I am, at this point, quite daunted by the knowledge required to accomplish such a task.  Another part is that I cannot imagine doing the same job for 20 years (this could, however, be quite affected by my wanderlust personality.)   But, the biggest part is that I cannot “settle” (aka decide) to follow one path in historic preservation.  Sometimes, I think that this might hinder my potential success, but success is all subjective anyway. 


So what do I want to do with my preservation life?  I want to be the roots of a community in a non-political sense.  I love to talk, write, and teach preservation. But at the same time I want to do preservation. I want my job to involve the theories of quality of life, sense of place, and incorporating historic preservation into the community.  Perhaps this is a bit of advocacy and I’m alright with that, though you may not see me on the steps of Washington D.C.  Kerry Vautrot and I have great plans to work together and involve our ever growing network of preservation friends.  We want to be self employed consultants but do the above things. 


This remains quite a puzzle, but currently I can imagine a community preservation center in which we can serve as consultants for historic preservation projects or direct the community to those who need someone in our network.  Perhaps we’ll take on National Register nominations, Historic Structure Reports, architectural conservation investigation, and then plan community events, preservation camps for school kids, and many more things.  By developing a plan for this form of “business” we would be able to incorporate everything we love about preservation, helping anyone in the community, and bringing preservation to everyone. 


Granted, this is another plan in its very beginning stages.  I thought of this the other night, probably wired on coffee and on a preservation induced high.  Two significant field school events helped to trigger this round of ideas.  First we visited Point of Honor in Lynchburg, which is a city run house museum that hosts community events as well.  The restoration is not perfect, but I could just imagine it as a great place to visit and have events and learn about Lynchburg.  That same evening we visited another house, Rivermont House, which Travis and one of his preservation friends have saved from demolition and restored the outside (basically on their time and energy.)  Travis mentioned that it could serve as an architectural resource center.  It sounded wonderful.  Every county (give or take) should have one!


At some point I noticed the difference between nationally / worldly significant historic site restoration project vs. more locally significant projects and then of course, the differences in restoration and rehabilitation.  For me, I believe it would be more rewarding to work on a smaller scale and be able to do part of everything that goes into restoring/interpreting/running a historic site while educating the public through more than just exhibits. I realize that larger sites do this as well, but I’d like to start small and see where I go. 


Again, this is a vague plan but it is my current dream that I’d like to follow and develop as I learn and experience more in the preservation field.  And I credit the weeks at field school to this latest update.


The second aspect for which I am grateful to field school is the ability to once again talk and work with new people from different backgrounds and interests, but all who are interested in the world of preservation.  We had wonderful conversations whether about quality of life and suburbia or architecture or restoring houses.  The combination of the site visits, projects, and people has allowed me to step into preservation theory and be content to sit and think about historic preservation and what I would like to do in the years after graduate school.   And field school has reminded me what I know, but more importantly, how much I have to learn and how much I want to learn. 


In a time warp of preservation

Tomorrow, Saturday, is the last day of the 2008 Poplar Forest field school. These past two weeks have flown by in a blur, feeling long and short at the same time.  These often 12 hour days have revolved around historic preservation work, theory, field trips, conversation, more work, etc. And then it would repeat the next day.  [Hence, the lack of field school updates.] It’s a unique experience to extract myself mostly from my usual life for two weeks to induldge in preservation. I have truly enjoyed these past two weeks, even with the long days.

I don’t think that there is a sufficient way to describe field school, or at least not succinctly.  So when I think of field school I’ll think of measurements, sticking my head up chimneys, crawling around on dirty floors to investigate the floorboards, lunch on the porch, exploring southern Virginia, coffee in the mornings, van rides, staying up to write and draft with everyone, laughing at cheesy architectural jokes, meeting great new people, being able to consistently talk preservation (theory or practice), learning that Travis McDonald is pretty much preservation superman, and getting to go cool places that no one else but a field school gets to go. It has been a wonderful experience. 

Below are some more photographs, although they are only three instances of our adventures.  There are just too many to include and many more topics to address (such as visited sites) in other posts.

This photograph looks to the front portico on our “Hogtown” house from the north room on the first floor.  This poor house; it is so beautiful.  It’s just crying to be loved. Again, the hours upon hours of measurements and descriptions were exhausting and fun, although after Saturday’s round we all could not think anymore or carry on a conversation.  Hopefully, our efforts will at least preserve some of the house’s story.  If local records do not exist, this would be a good house for some oral history work.

Pictured above is Barboursville, the home of Governor Barbour.  It was designed by Thomas Jefferson. (The center room is an octagon.)  The house burned on Christmas Day in 1884, but was never rebuilt.  Since 1884, the ruins have been preserved and now there is a vineyard, restaurant, and inn on the property.  (We only visited the ruins, fyi.)  I’ve never seen such well preserved ruins that have not been vandalized. It was amazing and educational to be able to see the ghost marks of stairs, closets, timber joists, and architraves. There is still plaster on some of the walls!

 As our last field trip we visited Prestwould Plantation in Clarksville, VA. This is very much off the beaten path, but deserves more than just some recognition.  This was the home of the wealthiest (and possibly smartest) 18th century woman in the United States. Being as wealthy as she was, she possessed the finest wallpaper, furnishings, and paintings.  If there were going to be a set limit on house museums, this one would definitely need to be included.  A local gentleman named Julian Hudson has spent the last 20 years tracking down the original furnishings from this house. It is restored beautifully.  The best part is that everything in the house is documented (receipts, received notices, budgets, everything!)  People from Sotheby’s and Winterthur come here to study the decorative arts and material culture. It is just an amazing place, but barely known.  It is located 2 hours from Lynchburg, but the beautiful drive and the house were worth the trip.  (If you are interested, here is a link to the National Register Nomination.)

Of course we have been many more places, that is just a sampling. And there is still more that can be recounted about field school, perhaps, for another post.

and p.s. my drafting still takes forever, but it is certainly fun to practice again!

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.