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PEOPLE IN PRESERVATION

Interview with Theresa Guzman Stokes
March, 2023

Writer, mother, historian, community activist, editor, feminist, US military veteran, and storyteller, Theresa Guzman Stokes has dedicated her career to illuminating the complex and woven narratives of African Heritage, Latin American, and Jewish Diasporic histories.  Utilizing the tools of history, genealogy, and cultural preservation of the Guatemalan heritage, Stokes is fiercely committed to bringing to light the untold stories of the State of Rhode Island. In addition to her role at RIBHS, Theresa is the President of the 1696 Heritage Group, a historical consulting firm, and founder of the non-profit Historical Writers of America.  She also serves on Newport’s Planning Board, the Newport Historical Cemeteries Commission, and the board of Preserve RI.

Theresa Guzman Stokes

1. As someone who has been at the forefront of addressing equity and inclusion in Rhode Island’s history, what do you see as the biggest achievement in recent years? Hands down the greatest achievement has been the passing of the legislation mandating African heritage history in our schools. Without the knowledge of our history in our state, how can we see ourselves, not only as a people who contributed to the building and sustaining of our democracy but also as true, productive citizens? 2. Can you tell us a story you uncovered that surprised you, and your understanding of our local history? Many stories surprise me, simply because no one told them before. But one thing that has stood out to me recently is the story of political collaboration between African heritage and Irish heritage people in Newport. These two groups fiercely competed for jobs and recognition in other major cities in the late 19th century, but they worked together in Newport. 3. What are the most challenging preservation issues regarding places important to RIBHS? Recognition of their importance. Of the over 90,000 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, only 3 percent focus on the Black American experience. With so many issues of equity needing to be addressed, preservation of historic sites of color isn’t even considered. The community needs to be recognized and asked “what sites hold the community’s memories? Which are important to your community and should be preserved” If no one is asking, the community doesn’t know it can be done. ​4. In conjunction with the Preservation Society of Newport County, the RIBHS has a new exhibit that opened March 15th, “The Gilded Age in Color” that explores African heritage families’ influence on Newport, black culture and the Civil Rights Movement. What do you hope visitors will learn from the exhibit? Stories like the one I mentioned above. How people worked together to advance the community. The Gilded Age wasn’t just about the acquisition of wealth to the African heritage community; it was about opportunity, achievement, and the advancement of the race.

Interview with Barbara Zdravesky
February, 2024

Barbara Zdravesky is an historian and a preservationist, mostly by accident.  She grew up in New Mexico, then came to Rhode Island to finish her degrees in music and anthropology.  She was a longtime volunteer with the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Providence Preservation Society, but when she bought an old house in Pawtucket, she dove head first into learning the stories of the Blackstone Valley.

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Barbara Zdravesky

1. In 2021 the Preservation Society of Pawtucket changed its name and mission to the Heritage Alliance of Pawtucket to emphasize the cultural heritage of city residents in addition to preserving the city's historical architecture. Tell us more about that decision and the new programs and initiatives you have implemented.​ ​The changes we made reflect our desire to take a broader, more contextual approach to preservation work.  The Society’s mission statement was written in 1978, and it hadn’t ever changed.  By 2021, the membership and financial had essentially disappeared, and we were struggling just to exist, without a well-defined strategy for how to protect the city’s historical resources.  We examined which of our activities got the most response from the community, and we chose a new mission and a name that we think focuses on Pawtucket’s most valuable resources…it’s people and their stories.  We didn’t want to just become the Pawtucket Historical Society, because well, we didn’t want a name with the word Society in it.  Perhaps the new name Heritage Alliance doesn’t immediately identify what we do, but we like that it gives us a lot of leeway, in terms of how we achieve our mission. Our historic building plaque program is still popular, and the plaques still have the Preservation Society name on them, but we did away with the old scoring sheet that rated a building’s importance, mostly based on architectural details.  The new criteria include buildings that might look unimportant, but represent some aspect of the city’s history.  For example, we recently approved a plaque for a house that is fairly plain in design but it was built by a middle-class immigrant family who was able to move away from the city center and commute to their jobs by streetcar.  It tells a story about hardworking people who were able to improve their lives, and it is part of the story about how industry and technology changed the city.  The historic buildings are the structural ancestors of the city, and we value them very much, but they mean far less without the stories of the people who occupied them.  It isn’t enough to identify who designed a building, and what era or style it is, but for most people to agree that a building is worth preserving, there has to be a human connection.         2. The Preservation Society of Pawtucket sold the Joseph Spaulding House in 2019, after working with Preserve RI to secure a historic easement on the property to permanently protect it.  How did selling the property free up resources to pursue other initiatives? The Spaulding House is an 1828 house that was the lifelong home of Betty Johnson, a beloved and prolific history researcher in Pawtucket.  Betty was a founding member of the Preservation Society, and it is often assumed that she wanted the Society to inherit the house, which she and her husband meticulously restored.  How the Society came to own the house in 2012, in spite of Betty’s wishes, is a long story that we have publicly shared, but for the sake of answering your question it is most important to know that the house came with almost no funds for its maintenance, only a very small endowment.  At the time, the Society also owned the 1828 Baker-Hanley House, purchased in 1999 with the hopes that it would be a permanent headquarters and arts center.  That plan became untenable as membership support and participation fizzled out.  Maintaining two houses with practically no income was impossible.  We sold the Baker-Hanley House to the Samaritans, who were led by a past president of the Society, so we were sure the house would be in good hands, and it is.  The harder struggle was what to do with the Spaulding House.  We pursued several ways to earn income for its maintenance, even renting it out as an AirBnB, which brought in enough money to pay the bills, but we were risking damage and theft, and our board members had essentially become hotel staff and groundskeepers.  Meanwhile, the Society’s real mission was being ignored completely.  Most of the time the house was unoccupied, and we were absentee landlords, which was bad for the house and its neighborhood.  It was obvious that we had to sell it, so we started investigating how to attach a preservation easement.  We were really grateful to work with Preserve Rhode Island as the easement holder, and we knew we were doing right by Betty and her house.  Now, the Spaulding House is occupied and being cared for, and that’s preservation.  Selling the house was the only way we could guarantee the long-term existence of both it and the Society.  The proceeds of the sale were divided in half with the Pawtucket Library, which now owns Betty’s history research collection.  After we sold the house, all doors were opened for us, in terms of how to achieve our mission.  No longer facing bankruptcy, we were able to explore any and all ideas for how to promote preservation in Pawtucket. We don’t have to spend our time raising funds, but we get to spend it raising awareness about the unique and valuable history of Pawtucket. 3. What initiatives have been most successful in bringing more diverse voices into your organization?  What advice would you give to other historic non-profits that want to be more inclusive? It is to our great advantage that Pawtucket’s cultural heritage is so diverse, and there are innumerable stories to tell.  All we had to do was choose a name (for our organization) that reflected our desire to include cultural preservation in our mission.  I want to clarify that the city already has several cultural clubs that each celebrate the traditions of the groups they represent, and we aren’t trying to replace them.  We are careful to not declare that we are more capable of telling their stories, but we’re hoping to enhance what they do.  One initiative we’re experimenting with is our Neighborhood Heritage Series, where we highlight a different neighborhood each year.  We spent last year focusing on the Woodlawn neighborhood, and created a Woodlawn Bingo game where players had to find sites or architectural details that corresponded to squares on a Bingo card.  This year we’re looking at Darlington.  We led a trolley tour of several houses of worship in Darlington, including a brand new mosque, which sits right next to a 19th century Congregational meetinghouse.  The pair is a literal representation of Pawtucket’s past and present, and we were able to celebrate both by telling the stories of the two congregations and their uniquely beautiful buildings.  The day was a great success in many ways and we were very gratified to see so many people learning about each other and making connections for future collaborations.   4. Tell us more about the Preservation Reward Program—how has this helped encourage historic preservation in Pawtucket? Remember when I mentioned the small endowment attached to the Spaulding House?  The terms of the fund had previously required us to spend the annual interest on maintaining the house, but when the house was sold, we were allowed to use the interest as operating income.  We chose however to do something else with it.  If the Society hadn’t owned the Spaulding House, we wouldn’t have had that endowment income, so without the house, we decided to give the money away.  We created the Preservation Reward Program to highlight and reward preservation projects in the city of Pawtucket.  We give a total of $2000 each year; the amount is divided amongst no more than three winners.  The top criteria is that the project be viewable and accessible to the general public.  House exterior repairs qualify, but not interiors.  Also considered are digital and archival projects - last year we chose Run of the Mill as a recipient, for the film and photo documentation of the Conant Thread Mills.  Another project we really liked was the Slater Mill’s work of repairing historic textile samples and improving the storage methods.  This was important work for which we are grateful; we couldn’t give them the reward money because the textiles were not generally available for public viewing, but we were sure to give them credit and publicity.  The Reward Program hasn’t necessarily stimulated preservation in the city, but we think it has helped convey that preservation is not just about maintaining buildings.  At the very least, we just enjoy being in the rare position of being able to give away money, something we never thought would be possible.      5. While your mission has broadened, you are still involved in protecting historic structures. How has being a more inclusive organization helped in these efforts? Well, we’re still just a tiny organization, run by a group of nine volunteers.  Sometimes we do actually make the news headlines, but our impact on the community is nowhere near what groups like the Providence Preservation Society are doing.  Once upon a time, the Preservation Society of Pawtucket was using Providence as a benchmark for what a preservation society is supposed to be, and I agree that it’s a great model.  Trying to imitate that model though was only setting us up to feel like we were failing.  When we had an honest conversation about what we could realistically achieve, we agreed to give the Society a new role and identity.  I hope my Heritage Alliance colleagues will agree with me when I say that our work is not so much about what we’re supposed to be doing, in terms of how a preservation society typically operates, but it’s about what we enjoy doing and what matters to us as individuals and as a collective group of preservationists.  When we take that approach, what we do becomes a lot more meaningful and valuable.

Interview with Marisa Brown
November, 2023

Marisa Angell Brown is an architectural historian and educator who comes to PPS most recently from Rhode Island School of Design, where she served as Associate Director of the Center for Complexity. Prior to this, Marisa was Assistant Director at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, where she taught courses on preservation and heritage practice and led the Center’s academic and community programs and partnerships.

 

Marisa holds a PhD in the History of Art and Architecture from Yale University, an MA in History from the University of Chicago, and a BA from Princeton University. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of Architectural Education, Places Journal, Perspecta, Buildings and Landscapes, and the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. She teaches courses in public writing and social change at the women’s prison in Rhode Island and lectures in the art history and interior architecture departments at RISD.

Marisa Brown

1. As the new Executive Director of PPS, what are your priorities in your first year? Brent Runyon, the outgoing Executive Director of PPS, is a friend and colleague, and I am really lucky to come into the organization on his heels, as he and the PPS team have done a spectacular job over the last ten years.  My main priority is to continue to strengthen and develop our relationships with communities across the city, so we truly are an organization that serves all 25 neighborhoods equally.  I have a background in research, teaching, community collaboration, and design/the arts and I am excited to bring these approaches, relationships and commitments to this work.    2. What do you predict will be the future for several high-profile preservation projects in Providence, including the Superman Buidling and the Cranston Street Armory? What do you see as PPS’ role in helping find solutions to move these projects forward? Well, we are all hoping that the current plan to renovate the Superman Building will proceed without any hiccups – PPS has done a lot of advocacy work over the last eight years on this, and we are excited to imagine the apartments with period details that will emerge (and very happy that 20% of the units will be reserved for affordable housing).  So the Cranston Street Armory is next, right? My prediction is…a dynamic mix of multiple uses, created in phases, possibly even with different partners.  The design firm Utile did a fantastic study of the site in 2018 that came out of community input, and you can imagine the range of ideas people had for the space, suggesting everything from a circus school to a brewery.  We are a small city and it’s a massive building – I predict it will become a little bit of everything, geared toward neighborhood use: mixed-income housing, office space, recreational space, and flexible event space for arts performances, exhibitions and installations. In cases like these two where significant buildings or spaces that are valued by different communities are vacant or at risk of demolition, PPS plays an important civic role by building awareness of these places’ value, convening community members, policy makers and groups that care for them, and facilitating creative thinking about preservation and adaptive reuse.  We know that we are living during a time of decreasing and fragile civic engagement (locally and nationally – read Rhode Island Council for the Humanities’ 2022 Rhode Island Civic Health Index); within this landscape, PPS plays a really important role as a bridge between communities and policy or civic action. 3. PPS has made equity a priority in recent years.  What initiatives would you like to expand or begin to continue making progress on this issue? I love this question, thanks for asking it! I’m half-Korean and I grew up in the Middle East, so I don’t always feel like the typical preservationist in this country.  When I used to teach courses on preservation and heritage practice at Brown, I always urged students who thought of themselves as public historians, cultural activists, or humanities-focused community organizers to consider the field of preservation as a place to make change, whether that means bringing decolonizing theories and practices into preservation, prioritizing long-term and rooted community collaboration in the work, or finding ways to work with knowledge-keepers outside of the field to interpret valued places.  About a month into the position, I don’t think I’m ready to share specific initiatives, but I can share that I am eager for PPS to support community heritage and preservation projects across the city in new and creative ways, to promote adaptive reuse as a key way for us to have a chance of achieving our sustainability goals as a city, and to continue to reckon with the uneven benefits and burdens that have been the result of preservation scholarship, policy, and advocacy, such as gentrification and displacement.  I see preservation work as deeply connected to issues of justice, equity and civic engagement, and that’s what motivates me to do it. 4. PPS has also invested in jobs training for preservation trades – can you tell us about these programs and whether there are plans to expand them? These programs were launched in 2020 and have grown since then.  Created by Kelsey Mullen, Director of Education at PPS, they offer resources and training to DIY renovators and to those in the building trades who do the hands-on work of preservation.  A focus of many of these, as you can imagine, is historic window restoration, including a paid 6-week intensive that is run in partnership with Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island and Heritage Restoration.  We would dearly love to expand this program – Providence has about 35,000 historic structures, and anyone who lives or works in one of them knows how challenging it can be to keep them in working order.  The programs provide contractors and tradespeople with specialized skills that are in high demand in our local economy today and will become even more valuable if we are to begin to move toward a circular economy.  So yes, we would love to expand this – if you’d like to participate in or support these programs in any way, please get in touch!   5. Is there a favorite spot in Providence you like to visit? My favorite experience in Providence is discovering streets or parks that are new to me.  I’m a big walker and biker, and Providence is the perfect scale for both.  One weekend, as part of an organized urban hike, I walked 20 miles across the city over two days with a group of friends, covering everything from the North Burial Ground to Kettle Point to the historic mills and workers’ housing in Wanskuck. Providence is unusual that way.

Lorén Spears
Interview with Lorén Spears
October, 2023

Lorén Spears is Executive Director of the award winning Tomaquag Museum, currently in Exeter, RI. Established in 1958, the museum is dedicated to telling the story of the Indigenous peoples of southern New England, highlighting the federally recognized Narragansett Tribal Nation. It has a unique collection of thousands of cultural items, along with hundreds of thousands of pieces of archival materials. In 2024, they will break ground for a new museum campus on University of Rhode Island land in Kingston, RI.

 

A citizen of the Narragansett Tribal Nation, Lorén came to the Museum as an educator and an artist. She has a master’s in Education from the University of Rhode Island, is a contributor to many written publications, and serves on several boards including: RI 250 Commission, education chair; South County Tourism Council; and the Papitto Opportunity Connection.

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1. Many people are not familiar with the Tomaquag Museum. What makes this museum special?​ Tomaquag Museum is the only Native American lead museum in Rhode Island. The staff works to decolonize structures of museums, not only at Tomaquag but also by providing professional development for other museums and professional organizations. We are the only museum in Rhode Island to receive the Institute of Museum and Library Services National Medal presented to us in 2016 by First Lady Michelle Obama. 2. As an Indigenous educator and museum leader, what does an Indigenous perspective of historic preservation mean to you? Having an Indigenous perspective of historic preservation means having a holistic view of history, culture, and an understanding of who you are preserving this knowledge for. It means understanding that it is more than preserving historic cultural materials. It is the knowledge that they are “belongings” connected to the person who created it, used it, passed it on to the next generation, and the importance of these “belongings” within our culture today. 3. What places do you think are important to preserve as evidence of RI's cultural heritage? This is a difficult question to answer from an Indigenous perspective as all of the land now called Rhode Island is significant to the Narragansett Nation as well as neighboring Tribal Nations, however if I must select something, I believe it’s important to preserve the Salt Pond Site, the Great Swamp Memorial and the land surrounding it, the Royal Burial Ground, Coronation Rock, Queen’s Fort, King Philip’s Chair, and other significant sites. There are many historical, culturally significant sites within the landscape including drum rocks, rock shelters, council rocks, and other ceremonial landscapes that are often misunderstood for their true importance. 4. The Tomaquag Museum has a campaign for a new museum and research center. What do you want community members to know about that? We are excited to grow and continue to serve the community through our vast programming and this museum will enable us to do that more effectively and accessibly. It will include a museum gallery, contemporary art exhibition space, a museum store, café, artist in residency studio, and educational classrooms. It will also include the archives, collections, library, and research space. We hope to break ground in 2024 and you can learn more at https://www.campaignfortomaquag.org/. 5. How can historic preservation advocates help the Tomaquag Museum be successful in achieving its mission? They can help support the preservation and conservation of the more than 10,000 belongings in our collection. They can connect us to experts in the field to address specific conservation initiatives, for example caring for the more than 5,000-year-old wampum or the only known Narragansett birchbark canoe built in the 1840’s. They can share their expertise with our team and have collegial exchanges. They can support the new museum campaign.

Michael Abbott
Interview with Michael Abbott
September, 2023

Mike Abbott recently retired as a principal at Newport Collaborative Architects. For over 40 years, his leadership has been marked by an abiding interest in historic preservation and adaptive reuse. Mike has worked on many buildings listed in the National Historic Register and his projects have won multiple awards—including several Rhody Awards for Historic Preservation. Mike has also dedicated significant time to his community. He is a past president of AIA/RI, served as Chairman of both the Exeter Planning Board and Zoning Board. He also serves on the board of Preserve RI and is a commissioner on the state’s Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

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1. In your long career working in historic preservation in Rhode Island, what positive changes have you seen? The most positive change to preservation I’ve seen in Rhode Island, is that almost everyone now knows the term and what it means— its [perceived as a] value to the community. It is easier to start a project with everyone starting with that basic understanding in place. 2. What are the biggest concerns you see ahead for protecting and preserving historic landmarks across Rhode Island? My biggest concern going forward is that economics still win out sometimes. It might be cheaper and easier to knock down that abandoned church on the desirable corner lot and put up a pharmacy, than it is the restore and adaptively reuse it and put the pharmacy somewhere else. 3. Is there a particular project that stands out that you are most proud of? A particular favorite project that I have worked on is the Providence Performing Arts Center. We were lucky to get involved in the original expansion and restoration of the historic theater back in 1993, and continue with further ongoing restoration projects today, such as the restoration of the Terra Cotta facade last year.  I like that it is open to the public so many people are able to enjoy it.  About 300,000 each year! 4. What advice would you give to an owner of a historic property contemplating an adaptive reuse project or restoration? If I can give advice to homeowners embarking upon a restoration project, it might be “do no harm”!  Don’t try to make your project something that it’s not suited for. If you are a big fan of an open floor plan, don’t start with a 200-year-old colonial and remove all the interior walls. Instead, look for a loft in an old mill, or an old warehouse instead. 5. You've purchased a house in Italy and plan to spend some time there in retirement--tell us about your experience in rehabbing an historic place in Italy. My experience so far in renovating a 1,200-year-old property in Italy is that the permitting and approval processes are abstract and done through intermediaries. I like being able to discuss my plans directly with the inspectors, although with translation issues, I might end up in trouble!   And it is ALL restoration, hardly any changes whatsoever are permitted.  You don’t move 3-foot-thick walls very easily!

Susan Battle
Interview with Susan Battle
August, 2023

Linden Place is a Federal Style mansion located in Bristol.  It was built in 1810 for General George DeWolf, a merchant and ship owner, and designed by architect Russell Warren. Susan has worked for the museum for over 20 years and became the Executive Director in 2017. Susan holds a BA in Art History from URI as well as a Certificate in Non Profit Studies from Rhode Island College. 

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1. As a small house museum, which strategies have worked best for getting new and returning visitors?  Linden Place is a very small museum and a small organization. With just two office staff, outreach can be challenging, to say the least. We are continually seeking fresh and interesting ways to bring new faces to our site. Not everyone is as fascinated by the architecture or story of Linden Place as I am, but the beauty of the estate is its ability to host a wide variety of programs and events, from concerts and educational programming to film screenings, allowings us to reach audiences of all ages and backgrounds and keep them coming back. We are consistently considering our site and asking, “How can we use this space to make everyone feel welcome?”  Also, collaboration! An important strategy for any small organization is to collaborate with other like-minded organizations that share similar goals. Linden Place partners with Rogers Free Library, the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society, Roger Williams University, Research BIPOC History and many other groups to provide engaging events and programs that we would never be able to tackle individually.  Collaborations not only help to divide the work and costs going into a program, participating organizations get to connect with new audiences of fellow organizations. It is a win-win.  2. What is your most popular program? Why do you think that is? ​ For the past several years, Linden Place’s most popular programs are our concerts. Held every fall through spring, our concert series is quite varied and features local musicians from all genres. We love supporting local music and our audiences do, too. We host Celtic music, R&B, country, classical, jazz and more. Our East Bay audiences are music lovers that keep coming back. Our ballroom has amazing acoustics and we keep ticket prices reasonable. It is rewarding to see the ballroom packed with new faces on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon!  3. From a preservation/restoration perspective, what big projects have you recently completed or are planning?  Restoring and preserving a 2013 year-old estate is never dull! In 2022 we were thrilled to have the cupola of Linden Place’s 1906 ballroom fully restored. It is such a focal point from any view on the property. We just finished restoration of the Gothic conservatory, which was slowly falling off the building due to an improper foundation. Even better, this project included making our only first floor bathroom workable for our visitors. While these were highly visible projects, all of us in the historic preservation field know that more often than not, less ‘exciting” restoration projects take precedence. This summer we had to repair a sewer line. Not fun. This year, Linden Place is gearing up to finish roof and gutter restoration on our 1850’s barn and continue painting the south side of the mansion and wings. We have big plans for the restoration of our 1780’s summerhouse as well.  4. Linden Place has a complicated history, given the DeWolf family’s ties to the slave trade. How are you working to tell the full story of the house, and address concerns?    Linden Place’s history is a story of a family of immense wealth. This wealth was created by a brutal system of slavery over several generations.  Linden Place’s history is also the story of Bristol, a town that participated in that system because of the many economic benefits the slave trade created.  The task of the board, staff and volunteers at Linden Place is to share that history, to tell the stories of those enslaved, and to tell a full and inclusive story.  We also strive to share stories of strength and resiliency of African Americans and their many contributions to the growth of our country.  In 2020, Linden Place launched our re-examination of the history of the DeWolf and Colt families so that we can tell the house’s history in a more inclusive way. In doing this, we reached out to other institutions dealing with the same challenges and communities of color to get their guidance and input. In April, 2022, Linden Place launched our new tour, including an audio tour accessible to anyone, for free, with a computer or smartphone.   Linden Place collaborated with the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions (RISHM.org) to install a medallion recognizing the mansion’s connection to slavery. This culminated in a “Day of Recognition, Reconciliation and Healing” led by RISHM and featured dancers from Ghana, members of the Pokonoket Tribe, students from RWU, as well as members of the DeWolf family.  Each group staffed an “Ask Me A Question” table so that guests could learn more. The medallion is now on the front fence of Linden Place.  Linden Place hosts bi-monthly walking tours focused on the DeWolf family’s connection to the transatlantic slave trade. This program, now 10 years hold, continues to be one of our most popular programs, demonstrating how the public yearns to learn about this time in Rhode Island history. Currently, we are developing a tour for fifth grade students who study RI History and we hope to bring students to Linden Place, in person or virtually.  There is still much work to be done. For instance, we are searching for any information on the two enslaved people who were listed on the 1810 census, who are listed only as “one male slave” and “one female slave”. It is telling that these enslaved people’s names were not even recorded. Who were they? Where were they from?  5. What advice do you have for other historic organizations that face similar challenges?  My advice to other historic organizations is to take advantage of the amazing resources around you. Linden Place has made wonderful strides in preservation, marketing and communications and development by working with students, classes and interns from the wonderful universities here in Rhode Island. Also, take advantage of the access that being such a small state affords us. Reach out to other historic sites and organizations. There are so many knowledgeable professionals just a phone call or e-mail away. Having a circle of colleagues you can call about a research topic, preservation project or any issue, really, allows small organizations to support one another. This became so apparent to me during the pandemic. Here is Bristol, staff from four museums met weekly to discuss how we were handling the latest guidelines, Covid fund relief programs, preservation projects, etc. It was a lifesaver for Linden Place, and for me.

Joanna Doherty
Interview with Joanna Doherty 
June, 2023

Joanna Doherty was appointed Deputy Director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission last month. Joanna started at the RIHPHC as a Senior Architectural Historian in 2013, advancing to Principal Architectural Historian in 2015. In this role, she has guided the preparation of dozens of National Register of Historic Places nominations, resulting in nearly 600 resources being listed. Previously Joanna worked at the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation, and the Public Archaeology Laboratory. She earned a B.A. in the Growth and Structure of Cities from Bryn Mawr College and a M.S. in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. As Deputy Director Joanna will oversee the RIHPHC’s National Register, survey, and archaeology programs.

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1. You’ve spent much of your career here in Rhode Island. What do you think distinguishes our historic fabric and towns from other New England states? Rhode Island’s historic resources are similar to other New England states, but, like with everything, we are just a little different. For example, towns in Massachusetts often have a meetinghouse and town common at their center. You won’t find that in Rhode Island (except in places like Little Compton, which was once part of Massachusetts), because of our strong history of keeping church and state separate. There are mill villages throughout New England, but the earliest was in Rhode Island – which makes sense, since Pawtucket was the birthplace of the American industrial revolution. Slatersville in North Smithfield was established in 1807 and eventually included workers’ housing, a company store, a large textile mill and a waterpower system to run it – a model that was replicated throughout the region. 2. Of the dozens of nominations that you’ve prepared for the National Register, can you talk about a few that showcase the range of historic buildings found in Rhode Island? What makes them special? I really enjoy preparing National Register nominations, from start to finish, but I don’t get the chance to do so all that often. More typically, I collaborate with consultants on the process – editing draft nominations, sharing relevant research, and generally providing guidance. A wide range of resources are included in the National Register, and I’ve had the privilege of working on nominations for the First Baptist Church in Tiverton, the Samuel Clarke Farm in Richmond, several suburban residential subdivisions, and the University of Rhode Island, among others. Still, the National Register falls short of documenting all aspects of our history: it’s estimated that less than 8% of nominations nationally are associated with women, Latinos, African Americans or other minorities, and the proportion in Rhode Island is probably similar. 3. What has been your proudest achievement in your years at the Commission?​ I’m proud of my efforts to improve the National Register program’s diversity, but we’ve only begun – it’s going to take a long time to correct. I worked on the update of the College Hill Historic District National Register nomination, which now discusses the African American history of the neighborhood in much greater depth. We are in the second phase of a statewide survey of sites associated with the African American civil rights movement, work that has been supported by grants from the National Park Service. I was part of a small group made up of staff from the RIHPHC, Providence Public Library, and Providence Preservation Society and a community historian that developed a walking tour highlighting downtown Providence’s LGBTQ+ history. 4. What are you most excited about in your new role?  What opportunities do you see for Rhode Island to utilize historic places to benefit all in our community? I’m excited about the chance to participate in more of the RIHPHC’s programs and have a greater impact on shaping the direction of preservation in Rhode Island. We’ve got a remarkable collection of historic resources that provide a strong sense of place and contribute to the character of communities across the state. The historic rehabilitation tax credits represent a huge opportunity to redevelop underused resources, benefitting not just property owners and developers but entire communities. 5. What do you see as the biggest threat to historic places that we face in the next 5 years? It’s difficult to think of a greater threat to Rhode Island’s historic resources than climate change, sea level rise, and flooding. Many coastal communities are already seeing the impact of climate change and are exploring ways to mitigate that effect. We need to figure out how to make buildings and whole neighborhoods more resilient while maintaining their historic integrity, which will require collaboration among communities, state agencies and others who care about the historic fabric of Rhode Island.

Carrie Zaslow
Interview with Carrie Zaslow
May 2023

The Providence Revolving Fund was established in 1980, as an independent non-profit corporation, with the mission of preserving historic buildings and places of cultural significance by providing lending and services to promote equitable neighborhood revitalization.

 

Carrie Zaslow has been its Executive Director since 2018. Prior to that, she was the Program Officer at RI's LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation), leading several high-profile community development initiatives. Carrie began her career at the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, where she was the Fair Housing Education and Outreach Project Manager. She was later named Director of the Homeownership Connection, a division of the Housing Network of RI. Carrie has a Bachelor's from Northern Michigan University and a Master's from RISD. Carrie is the Vice Chair of the New England Foundation for the Arts and is a member of the Board of Directors for the Providence Foundation and the Providence Preservation Society. 

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1. The Revolving Fund recently announced they were awarded $1.8 million in federal funds to address affordable rental housing.  How will the funds be used? We are very proud to have been awarded funds through the CDFI Equitable Recovery Program.  We are using a two-pronged approach to address housing affordability and stability. We strive to stimulate equitable community revitalization that reflects neighborhood values and promotes access to housing and economic opportunity for all. The funds will allow us to provide a range of financial and technical assistance to owners of historic homes in and out of Historic Districts, who have been excluded from accessing credit because of systemic discrimination and historic redlining. The program is aimed at helping homeowners maintain and remain in their biggest asset.   Our long-term vision is for these same homeowners to build intergenerational wealth through home improvement and increased property values.  Additionally, we will be able to expand our lending for multifamily development projects that have a historic preservation component and prioritize a true mix of incomes.   2. How does the Revolving Fund intend to focus its investment?  What criteria are used in deciding which projects to prioritize? We currently operate three loan funds.  Our Neighborhood Loan Fund which provides loans for the repair of homes over 50 years old.  That program is available in Metro Providence (Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, East Providence).  We prioritize direct outreach in neighborhoods that have an aging housing stock and where homeowners have faced barriers to getting a home repair loan. The area’s predominantly older housing stock presents challenges for upkeep, leaving many homes neglected. Limited resources, pandemic job losses, and inflation resulted in many LMI homeowners barely keeping their homes. Although housing values soared during the pandemic, these owners have barriers to unlocking their home’s capital for necessary repairs. Traditional loan denial rates in Providence are 1.3x higher for Blacks and 1.7x higher for Hispanics than for white owners. Credit scores, debt-to-income ratio, and collateral are cited as the reasons for denial (NCRC 2021). In LMI neighborhoods, deferred repairs have resulted in both owner-occupied and rental units becoming substandard in quality, unhealthy, and potentially unsafe. If forced out it’s likely they will never be able to reenter the housing market.  The Opportunity Investment Fund drives investments to projects that include historic preservation with affordable housing, arts, workforce training, and/or economic development.  This is a statewide program; we look for projects that include resident led neighborhood transformation.  This includes the Millrace project in Woonsocket that combines the historic preservation of the National Register Mill building with an outdoor performance space, a community kitchen and affordable housing for a mix of incomes including extremely low income households; or Teatro ECAS, New England only Spanish Language theater company’s new home in the adaptive reuse of a historic building on Valley Street in Providence.    Additionally, we have a micro-business loan fund that provides loans of $500-$5,000 in Providence along commercial corridors.  This program began during the pandemic and has continued as a tool to preserve these Corridors that are the hearts of their neighborhoods. They are where people shop, where they work and where they meet their neighbors.   3. The Revolving Fund has had an extraordinary impact on Providence and its historic neighborhoods over the last 40 years.  Which project or program are you most proud of? I have a fundamental belief that everyone should be able to live in neighborhoods that are safe, that have performing schools, that have recreation and fresh food available, where residents can thrive, and that honors the history and culture of the neighborhood.  I am most proud of the role we play in Providence in addressing holistic community transformation.  We are able to provide affordable home repair loans that help address the wealth gap for people of color and thwart displacement, while we protect the historic and cultural architecture of Providence neighborhoods.  The work we do is hard, often decades in the making, but it is also immensely satisfying—especially when you speak with the neighborhood residents, and you meet the family that finally has repaired their historic home up to code, lead safe and they can finally take a deep breath.  4. What do you see as the biggest challenge and opportunity for historic preservation in Providence in the next five years? The biggest challenge facing historic preservation in the next five years…costs.  Plain and simple, the cost of materials continues to rise.  As preservationists, we will have to work to find creative solutions to helping homeowners and developers alike with finding ways to maintain their properties.  A recently released study on housing in Rhode Island sponsored by the Rhode Island Foundation, LISC and BCBS of RI; pointed to the age of Rhode Island’s housing stock and the potential loss of needed units of housing when properties are forced to defer maintenance.  This recognition is key to our field coming together with innovative solutions.  This could include everything from homeowner historic tax credits to a HistoricCorps for entering into the Historic Preservation Field.  We are in a moment where we can think big.

Brent Runyon
Interview with Brent Runyon
April, 2023

Brent Runyon has been the Executive Director of the Providence Preservation Society (PPS) for almost 10 years. He recently announced he will be departing later this year to pursue other opportunities. Brent has a masters degree in historic preservation from the University of Georgia where he focused on community planning and affordable housing issues.  He currently serves on the boards of the Providence Revolving Fund, the Mile of History Association and HousingWorks RI, and serves as a member of the State House Restoration Commission.

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1. Reflecting on the last 10 years, what is your proudest achievement? There have been so many amazing moments during my tenure at PPS, but there are a few things I'm most proud of. The first is our advocacy to prevent the loss of five historic buildings on Brown's campus. The result was that Brown moved a structure and built its new performing arts building on a different site. The second thing I'm really proud of is the city’s first new local historic district in 30 years, a ten-year undertaking! Finally, I am extremely gratified to see our new Building Works program blossom. The seeds for the program germinated back in 2018 and sprouted during the pandemic. As of 2023, we have secured a workshop at 50 Sims Avenue and an agreement with the City of Providence to use the Esek Hopkins House as a learning lab.​ 2. While you've helped save many buildings during your tenure, is there one building that Providence lost that stands out as "the one that got away"? The Alpheus C. Morse-designed Southwest Pavilion at RI Hospital, owned by Lifespan, was an incredibly beautiful vestige of the Victorian era hospital, but the city’s zoning codes were not on the public’s side. There was little that any public body could do to stop its demolition. The fact that it was nearly hidden from public view made it difficult to raise its profile. But the public rose to the challenge; more than 1200 people signed a petition and dozens wrote letters to the City Council, which itself issued a resolution urging its preservation. 3. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing historic preservation in Providence and in Rhode Island in the next 5 years? Irrelevancy. The bicentennial gave historic preservation a platform and a sense of importance to a country that had only too recently spent billions of dollars on urban renewal and highway building, fraying the fabric of our cities. With the upcoming 250th, there is a tremendous opportunity to situate historic preservation in a place of relevance. This time, though, the relevance needs to speak to the issues our constituents care about. Some of these are easy to see as related to our missions (i.e., housing) while others (i.e., racism) are less clear. But as the saying goes, if you aren’t part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. 4. PPS has been at the forefront of organizations trying to increase their inclusivity and equity.  What advice would you give to other historic and preservation organizations seeking to expand their outreach? First, everyone in the organization - staff and board - must understand their implicit biases. This understanding carries through everything we do, from committee meetings to advocacy positions. Organizations must be humble in their approach and understand that many in the community view historic preservation, writ large, as adversarial, or irrelevant. We need to cede power to people with different life experiences, including leadership positions on the board and staff. This work is really hard, but if we believe that preservation matters, then becoming more inclusive and pushing for equity is necessary for us to remain relevant. 5. What are the qualities most important for PPS's new Executive Director? In my opinion, PPS needs a strong nonprofit administrator who has a good understanding of historic preservation philosophy and practice. Beyond that, for PPS to continue the work we’ve done in the last decade, the new director must be committed to engaging the entire community and ensuring the organization is helpful in ways that are true to the mission.

Interview with Becca Bertrand
March, 2023

Becca graduated from Salve Regina University where she majored in Cultural and Historic Preservation. After earning a masters from the University of Delaware's Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and working for a variety of nonprofits in Rhode Island, she became the Executive Director of newportFILM and then the Executive Director of the New York Yacht Club Foundation for Historic Preservation before joining the Society in January 2023.  Becca has also been on the board of Preserve RI since 2019.

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1. What are you most excited about in your role as Executive Director of the Newport Historical Society? The Newport Historical Society is the proud steward of six historic properties ranging in age from 1697 to 1915 and tens of thousands of collection objects. The NHS is uniquely poised to interpret Newport's history with a national lens and I'm thrilled to bring new audiences to our collections, properties and library resources. There's also a tremendous responsibility leading an organization that has existed since 1854 - it's an honor to serve as Executive Director and I'm full of energy bringing a new generation of leadership to the NHS. 2. What achievement from your past work are you most proud of?​ I am most proud of the joy I find collaborating with other nonprofits. Aquidneck Island, and all of Rhode Island, are such a treasure trove of incredible nonprofit organizations. In my time at newportFILM, nothing brought me more pleasure than shining a spotlight on organizations that deserved their time in the sunshine. At the Newport Historical Society, I plan to bring our collections, properties and resources together with other organizations in unique and creative ways.  3. The Society has played an important role in advocating for historic preservation policies in Newport.  What role do you envision the Society playing moving forward? The Newport Historical Society has been integral in the history of Newport's historic preservation movement. I think our strongest role in preservation is through education and the rich resources in our collection. We have incredible opportunities to educate the public through our popular walking tour program. We provide Newport homeowners house histories and we have rich visual resources that document Newport's built environment in our photographic collection. I think these are the unsung heroes of Newport's preservation story. 4. How can the preservation community help you to be successful? I'd love the preservation community to access the resources of the Newport Historical Society more - learn about our collections on newporthistory.org, visit our Resource Center & Library, become a member and get involved!

Jeff Emidy
Interview with Jeff Emidy
February, 2023

At the start of 2023 Commission Chair Ruth S. Taylor announced that the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHPHC) has appointed Acting Executive Director Jeffrey D. Emidy to serve as Executive Director. The selection followed a nearly year-long search that evaluated 28 candidates from Rhode Island and nationwide.

 

Emidy has worked in historic preservation for more than 22 years. At the Commission, he advanced from National Register Assistant to Project Review Coordinator, to Deputy Director and Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer before being named Executive Director. He has served as interim executive director on two occasions.

1. What are you most excited about in your role as Executive Director of the HPHC? I am excited about new directions. Since our establishment in 1968, we, like much of the preservation field nationwide, have focused our attention on the oldest and most prominent; the early houses, biggest ethnic groups, most obvious historical themes, and most famous architects. We are at a time in Rhode Island where the appreciation for newer, smaller, and less-known has really grown, and at the HPHC, we want to explore these areas. It will require new initiatives and procedures that we are just beginning to really think about, and it will, hopefully, inspire us all and bring out a lot of new information and respect for things that have been ignored or unknown to us. 2. What achievement from your work at the HPHC are you most proud of? I am proud of the collective body of small accomplishments that I have been responsible for over the years. These have mostly been efforts to suggest modifications to project plans to better preserve historic resources, like camouflaging cell phone antennas, design changes for alterations to historic houses, and repairing historic bridges, rather than replacing them. I’m also proud of some work that I have played a part in, but which is not complete, including a state preservation Geographic Information System (GIS) and building and expanding our relationship with the R.I. Emergency Management Agency. Our team efforts have resulted in the biggest accomplishments that we’ve had in my years at the HPHC, though, and the ones that I value the most. 3. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing historic preservation in Rhode Island in the next 5 years? Climate change will affect historic properties, and adapting to address climate change is a significant challenge for preservation. People’s reactions to and planning for sea level rise, severe weather events, and hotter temperatures all have effects on historic properties and we’re at the early stages of figuring out how preservation can be a part of the initiatives, but the initiatives are well funded and moving faster right now. Maintaining public support for preservation is always an issue, particularly when other, seemingly conflicting issues draw more attention. The challenge for us in these situations is promoting the ability of preservation to coexist with these other concerns. There have been efforts at the national level over the past few years to intentionally reduce preservation’s reach through changes to the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Preservation Act’s Section 106 (to streamline preservation out of reviews of large, nationwide initiatives). These would have significant impacts on preservation in Rhode Island. We need to ensure that these efforts are squashed early on. 4. If you had a magic wand to fix one thing, what would you wish for? I would wish for more staff in the office to allow us to take on more initiatives. Preservation is about telling everyone’s history. Nationwide, preservation is working to acknowledge underrepresented communities, and we need to, as well. That means better understanding the histories and cultures of groups that have not been the subject of our focus over the years; reaching out to people in those communities, learning about them, and getting that information into the record, through additions to our town surveys, National Register nominations, and National Historic Landmark documents. In Rhode Island, this dovetails with growing our heritage program. There is a natural overlap there that we need to exploit to bring heritage into the preservation program in new ways that enhance both programs. We have a very good survey of historic properties that were constructed up to the 1930s, but since that work was conducted in the 1980s, we have not done a systematic survey or studied statewide contexts. Buildings from the early 1970s are now 50 years old. We need to develop a better understanding about which 20th century buildings should be considered historic and why. We need to expand our outreach to the cities and towns, through more historic district commission training, more interaction to find out where their preservation concerns lie, and building our network of allies. My predecessor initiated an effort to develop a relationship with URI to expand our terrestrial and underwater archaeology programs. Some interesting ideas have been discussed, but we need to put more effort into that relationship. There are more… we could come up with a lot if we had that magic wand. 5. How can the preservation community help you to be successful? I will only be successful if our office is successful. At its simplest, I am the director of a state regulatory agency. We administer programs and enforce regulations that have been set down in state and federal law. While we are also here to help, our mandates are not lobbying for preservation or organizing local efforts. We need the preservation community to coalesce and advocate for preservation from Burrillville to Little Compton and everywhere in between. We need local historical societies, heritage groups, and historic district commissions to be the on-the-ground groups promoting preservation in their towns, talking to their local officials and their neighbors, and helping those who are not familiar with the benefits of preservation to understand how important preservation is to the sense of place that we feel in Rhode Island that makes us love living here. Local efforts bubble upward, through the town officials to the General Assembly, to the Governor’s office, and to Congress, and they can all provide support for us if we reach them.

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