My relationship to historic architecture could best be described as “it’s complicated.” When I first began working for my local historical society in high school, I saw a real future together. It’s true, I was applying to college at the time and flirting with programs in history or creative writing (my dream of becoming a veterinarian died with AP Bio), but it took only a few afternoons of re-examining the architectural treasures my hometown had to offer to know that Civil War history and I were through. The real-world challenges, the shapes, the textures, the angles…it seduced me, and I happily fell to its (usually Victorian) charms. I looked up the handful of schools that offered historic preservation at the undergraduate level and sent in my applications.
In the early days, we were blissful. Our life together in glamorous Newport was all painted shingles and curvy Italianate brackets. Even on the hard days, or when my program didn’t turn out to be what I expected (what? we’re surrounded by the famous Newport Mansions but have almost no association worked out with their preservation society?) my passion outweighed the work; memorizing roof shapes, studying the work of modern designers, and slogging through colonial cemeteries were welcome challenges. On the best days, it’d throw me a Frank Lloyd Wright, and I’d damn near burst with Prairie enthusiasm. Life was as structured, simple, and beautiful as the Classical orders.
But then things started getting…a little heavier. Our relationship became more about the tedium of chain-of-title than the magic of Gothic Revival. Nights once spent leisurely flipping through McAlester’s field guide were now spent in the drafting lab with a measured drawing, or in the mildewed basement of City Hall, cursing at a microfilm machine older than my mother. I started to get distracted…anthropology was fascinating, and even archaeology had an air of mystery I couldn’t deny. Fed up with dry architectural descriptions, I finally turned to museum work for comfort. It had the text appeal I was looking for–the creative spin of the script–and my ambition flirted with exhibit design or collections management.
I kept up the pretense for a little while, even attempting to distract my exhaustion through a summer archaeological field school and a semester in Russia, but by the end, the lust had diminished–archaeology had a white guilt complex and took itself too seriously, and collections management surrounded itself with people who sorted their M&Ms by color. Now all my energy was in East European Studies. It wasn’t the same, but it was certainly easier and tolerant of my changing interests.
Months later, post-graduation, I found myself here in Georgia, shut out of my original Fulbright host institution (a museum) because it was undergoing internal reforms and didn’t have time for an inquisitive American fresh out of undergrad; I needed a heritage-related project–ANY project. I exploited every connection I had (lord knows you’re not meeting anyone in Georgia unless her god-daughter’s cousin’s dentist’s neighbor introduces you first) and came up lucky finding work for ICOMOS Georgia.
Throughout the fall, I resisted the urge to feel fulfilled by the work I was doing. I am 21 and fickle–unwilling to commit to a career just yet, I denied my enjoyment, still convinced that studying whatever post-Soviet social and cultural phenomena struck my fancy was what I wanted to do. Then I met almost every other area studies grantee in the country–writing papers no one will ever read, studying languages they will never use, and (in the words of one friend) “writing four pages of anthropological mumbo-jumbo when all you want to say is ‘one man in Tatarstan doesn’t feel that he’s Muslim’.” As fascinating as concepts of identity, “the other,” and cultural memory are, I do not find them worth keeping up with the fluctuating, politically-correct language required by academia for me to express my thoughts about them.
And now here I am, applying to graduate programs in historic preservation and begging for a summer job that will satisfy as many needs–intellectually, socially, and physically–as my work on a heritage-led neighborhood revitalization program here in Old Tbilisi can. Though I maintain that studying preservation can be at times dull, the real life practice of evaluating historic structures and the communities that use them is rife with nuances that aren’t addressed in school–how to use (and not murder) online databases, how to explain to the public what a heritage designation means for their day-to-day life, or how to design an architectural survey when everyone has different opinions…surprisingly, instead of annoying me, these complexities legitimized the subject for me and gave me a sense of duty, drive, and sheer reality that was lacking in any of the other fields with which I’d had dalliances.
Moreover, the schedule of a cultural heritage management job is a dream. About half of my time can be spent out of the office, traipsing around Old Tbilisi and tiptoeing through courtyards after angry old babushkas would yell at me from the balcony on suspicion of investigating them for a fine or tax hike. It is as “dangerous” as any scholarly job can be, and yes, it makes me feel like Indiana Jones sometimes. The other half of my time is creative–writing, analyzing, presenting (seriously, taking photos and drawing site plans can be expressive, even if you stick to a prescribed methodology).
All historic preservation ever wanted from me was a little commitment. Hey, I’m not guaranteeing we’re going to be together forever, but I think I’m finally ready to sit down and talk registry…er, I mean, national and local monument registries.