Talking Preservation

Matthew M. Davis



Communications is a central but often underemphasized aspect of preservation planning. In working with architects and conservators, my role is often to convey the larger message by taking complex architectural or even engineering processes and explaining them in a way that’s meaningful to the general public, a historic review board, preservation advocacy groups, or a potential funder. As preservation projects grow in complexity, and the public’s attention to them continues to increase, this communications role is becoming an ever more important aspect of my work. Let me give three examples.


The Pittock Mansion Society recently asked ARG to help develop fundraising materials as part of a larger seismic strengthening and waterproofing project. Pittock Mansion, completed in 1914 and open to the public since 1965, is Portland’s premier house museum. The nonprofit Pittock Mansion Society collaborates with Portland Parks and Recreation to operate the museum and its 46-acre public park, which has a dramatic location in Portland’s West Hills.


The society asked ARG to provide seismic strengthening and waterproofing, but also to help develop content for fundraising materials, because the current project is just one phase of a series of rehabilitation projects that the building needs. So the challenge will be identifying how to package the rather technical work we are doing in a way that serves as a springboard for future fundraising efforts. And all the while, we have to keep in mind that content should be tailored to the particular interests and expertise of each intended audience, including tourists of the mansion, potential donors, and Portland civic groups.


Any promotional materials we help develop will include compelling descriptions of why the Pittock Mansion is important, what its current deficiencies are, and how we can remedy those deficiencies. These narratives will be supported by high-quality photographs, architectural plans, and renderings: photographs to convey the mansion’s grandeur while also demonstrating why intervention is necessary; simplified architectural plans, sections, and elevations to help tell the story of how the mansion is constructed and what solutions are being pursued; and renderings to convey particular aspects of the project, such as the effects that even a moderate earthquake could have on the mansion if current structural deficiencies go unaddressed.



Oregon State Capitol


For our work seismically strengthening and rehabilitating the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon, we are part of a large team of architects, engineers, and subconsultants. Historical documentation of this 1938 building is plentiful and thorough, so my role has been not to gather historical information, but to lead the interaction with the State Historic Preservation Office. As such, I need to keep track of all the moving pieces and keep the SHPO personnel up to date on the aspects of the project they need to review and ultimately approve. I don’t need to tell them about every last bolt, but the discussion is much more than a general overview. So I have to balance conciseness with the need to provide SHPO with the level of detail they require. At the same time, the communication goes the other way, too—I’m looking at the work we’re doing from the review body’s point of view and providing feedback to the design team. That way, we can anticipate what the SHPO personnel might say and proactively develop solutions that best meet their concerns. Thus, effective communication as a preservation planner can help streamline even a very complicated architectural and engineering project.



Francis Ermatinger House


Another current project in which communications is paramount involves the Francis Ermatinger House in Oregon City, Oregon. This National Register-listed house was built in the 1840s and is one of the oldest wood-frame dwellings in Oregon. It’s also notable as the purported location of the famous coin flip between Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy to decide on a name for the new settlement at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. (Portland won.)


ARG has worked the last several years to complete a comprehensive rehabilitation of the Ermatinger House. This rehabilitation is almost done, and Oregon City officials have engaged us to develop a preliminary strategic plan for the building. The focus of this plan is to identify necessary next steps in making the Ermatinger House a sustainably managed and financed house museum. As such, it includes recommendations regarding governance, fundraising, maintenance, and interpretation and programming. The complicated work of rehabilitating the Ermatinger House is complete; the challenge now is identifying how to engage the building’s many stakeholders and draw on them to ensure the ongoing maintenance and appreciation of this important resource.


Communication strategy is central to preservation planning. It’s not just about satisfying a client. It’s also about helping that client satisfy a number of constituencies and community groups while positioning themselves for future fundraising. A large portion of the public has a healthy interest in architecture and historic buildings. Because of that, we preservation planners have a strong platform. We have beautiful photos. We have beautiful buildings that people treasure and that they can experience in a tangible way. We can help architects make sure that the message of preserving buildings—and the associated complexities—reaches laypeople in terms that connect with their values and desires.


On a related note, I also feel that there’s a lot of potential to tap into the high level of environmental sensitivity here in Oregon and the general popularity of sustainability. Portland itself has taken the lead on many “green” issues, while historic preservation has been less at the forefront of City policy. I feel the two should be much more closely linked, as both sustainability and preservation rest on a core conservation ethic that’s all about using existing resources (be they natural or built) as carefully as possible. Connecting preservation and sustainability also underscores that historic buildings are important existing resources and that, in working to retain these buildings as vital elements of our built fabric, historic preservation is as much about the future as the past.


Photos courtesy of Architectural Resources Group.

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