Alexandria Historic Preservation Commission (Podcast 59)
Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today we join NCPTT’s Jason Church as he speaks with Megan Lord, Director of the Alexandria Historic Preservation Commission. In this podcast, Megan talks about her work in Alexandria, Louisiana and her experiences since interning at NCPTT.
Church: So Megan, you were an intern here in 2005 in the Materials Research Program?
Lord: That’s right.
Church: What did you do when you were here?
Lord: Thanks for having me today. I’m glad to be here and that’s right. In 2005, I worked with you in Materials Conservation working on cemetery monument conservation training. So I did a lot of work in the Catholic Cemetery learning to reset monuments, mostly marble monuments that had broken, looking at learning to properly clean cemetery monuments, historic stone and putting together training methods to bring to church groups, people who are interested in taking care and properly maintaining their cemeteries.
Church: That’s right and you and I taught the first Cemetery Monument Conservation Basics Workshop in Anacoco, Louisiana, and that program has gone on now to teach two or three a year nationally that we do, and you and I were the first, that’s right. You helped do the curriculum for that program. So after you left here, what did you go on to do?
Lord: Well, I went back to SCAD, Savannah College of Art & Design for two more years. I finished my preservation degree there in Savannah and then the next summer and fall quarter, I spent at SCAD Lacoste in Lacoste, France, and so I studied there and got some hands-on preservation work. We restored a Lavoir there in sort of the valley where Lacoste is located. That was a great experience. Again, hands-on preservation work, masonry, restoring a stone Lavoir wash basin where they washed clothes around this farmhouse complex which is now, I have heard, one of the highest ranked most beautiful dorms in “House Beautiful”. It’s listed as one of the most beautiful dorms, so definitely wonderful facilities when I was there, not quite what they are now, but I actually worked on those facilities that they have now so I hope everyone appreciates that. Now, I had a great time at Lacoste doing hands-on preservation, really experiencing a historic small French Provence village and the lifestyle that goes along with it and traveling on our weekends and that sort of thing. So that was really an inspiring educational experience for me.
I came back to Savannah the next year and ended up getting my MA in Architectural History also from SCAD. So I was really able to take advantage of the preservation in architectural history programs there and you know, those are just two things that are really, the hands-on preservation work and then the social and architectural historical contexts really go hand-in-hand and I am able to use those things today.
Church: I know you’re from Alexandria (Louisiana)…
Church: …and I remember having conservations when you were here as an intern about how much you really loved your home town and wanted to come back and make a difference there and it’s interesting that you’ve literally traveled the world learning preservation, doing preservation and ultimately to do what you wanted, which was to come back, so what do you do in Alexandria?
Lord: Sure, I am the Director of the Alexandria Historic Preservation Commission so we’re a division of the Planning Department in the City of Alexandria. Our Historic Preservation Commission is a little unlike other preservation commissions in that we are not regulatory. So we do not have guidelines that residents of the historic district have to follow. That gives us a little freedom to do some other events and sort of PR and outreach for preservation and educational programming and that sort of thing, so that we can educate people and give them good technical preservation information about how to do the proper repairs on their home, how to keep their historic windows and insulate properly in the colder months, that sort of thing instead of making them do it, but we give them the information and hope that they make the right decisions on their own.
I’ve been there for four years now. We have seen a lot of interest, growing interest, from the community and from the historic district residents and even those outside, people wanting to move back into our historic districts. So we’re really happy with the momentum that seems to be gaining and we’ve had a lot of recent tax credit projects in our districts which are great because as everyone knows, when you do use state and federal preservation tax credits, they do require that you follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Preservation and so we don’t have to be seen as the bad guys enforcing those but we know that quality work and proper work will be done and our architectural history will be preserved there.
Church: You said historic districts, how many districts do you have?
Lord: We have three local historic districts; so we have our downtown area, we have the west end area, which at one time was its own small incorporated city before being annexed into Alexandria, and then we have the local garden district, which is probably the most well-known residential area, sort of a 1930’s suburb in our largest historic district and those are local districts. We have two National Register historic districts so a smaller portion of our local garden district is a National Register district and then we have a new National Register district that’s the Alexandria post war suburbs. National Historic Register district listed it in the summer of 2013 and so it is a post war district and we’re really excited and proud of this district. It is the very first mid-century modern district in Louisiana. It’s sort of a hidden treasure in Alexandria and we came together with some of the local preservationists and some people in the neighborhood and we were able to put together a successful nomination with the National Register and are really proud to be the very first mid-century district in Louisiana.
Church: So I know that was a really big project of yours, what other projects are you working on?
Lord: Sure, we currently are working with the Garden District Neighborhood Foundation for the local garden district group to put together our very first annual holiday tour of homes. So we’ll have four historic homes on tour December 13th and it’ll be an evening, they’ll be decorated for the holidays but we’re putting together the sort of historical tour version. So we’ve done research and worked with the homeowners on each of the houses and we’ll have a great tour that goes through and inside each of the homes. One of those homes is the Omar Bradley home, so when the Louisiana maneuvers occurred in 1942-1943 training for on-ground efforts in WWII, Omar Bradley, Eisenhower, they were all in Alexandria and sort of commanding this training and he lived in one of the houses. Another home on tour is Scott Thomas McDaniel home, which has been in the same family for 100 years and so it’s got a great family history. They’ve added on even a second story early in the 1920’s and so you really get to see sort of a Louisiana Planter’s cottage grow into this colonial mansion and the history that has gone along with that as far as it’s family history. There are some really neat details and kind of an evolution of architectural history too there. And then two other really interesting structures are; one is the Bottle House which is in someone’s backyard so a lot of people don’t know it’s there, but it is a home built entirely out of pharmaceutical and wine bottles from a pharmacy that’s located right on the corner. The owner of the pharmacy built the structure from the left over bottles. He built it in the backyard so it will be a night tour; it will be lit from the inside of those glass bottles and kind of glow. It’s really, really interesting the construction methods, the walls are entirely of glass bottles and all put together with bricks and railroad ties, so it’s really vernacular and local construction and it’s a really fun structure to visit. Then we’ll have the Walter Hill home on tour, which is just a beautiful Italian Villa in our garden district. The owners took on a seven year restoration doing most of the work themselves. It’s really beautiful, they did everything right and they took their time hand laid the tiles and the flooring themselves and a lot of care put into it so it really shows hands on preservation work done by the residents themselves, really bringing beauty back into a historic home. And we want to show people through these tours and other events that we do, that preservation isn’t out of reach. It’s not something that just happens in New Orleans or Savannah or Natchitoches but can happen in Alexandria too and you can do it yourself and it’s within your reach and it is well worth it and it makes a difference for our community. It establishes our sense of place in our districts. That’s something we don’t want to lose.
Church: Do you have any future projects that you want to mention to us?
Lord: Yes. One thing we did last year and we’re going to do again this year is our historic house fair. We do that in the spring and we got the idea from the Main Street program. We are not a Main Street community in Alexandria but we work with our State Historic Preservation Office and it’s an event that other Main Streets have done and we thought that sounds like a really great opportunity to get people in our historic districts out on the streets interacting with one another in a way for us to give them information about tax credits or preservation practices and connect them with local salvage companies and that sort of thing. Last year in the spring, we worked with homeowners on one block in our Garden District and we chose this block because it had recently had several homes on either end of the block restored using the tax credit programs. So they used tax credits so the restoration work was done the right way, not only did they receive a huge incentive by using the tax credits; we wanted to show off a really transformed block. You saw a block that had several rental properties, private residences that had been converted to duplexes and triplexes in some cases and absentee landlords. An investor who lived locally in the neighborhood and purchased those homes with the intent to restore them to single family dwellings and so did a great job of doing that and sort of bookended that block with other primary residences on the home, people who took great care of their property and valued their historic property. So it was a great way to show off preservation making a difference, revitalizing a neighborhood, an individual block really within a year’s time. So we took that, had some open houses, invited the community organizations to come out and had a little jazz band and created a great atmosphere for preservation, got people walking around the streets and had a good morning celebrating our neighborhood, our historic district and exchanging preservation ideas.
We have a great commission, we have a lot of people who are dedicated and have been for a long time to promoting preservation in Alexandria. So I really love my home town, never thought I would be back as soon as I did come back, but I have really enjoyed being able to work with people who are dedicated who know so much about the history of the town and a lot of that hasn’t been written down, so that’s one of the things that we’re working on is gathering that information. A lot of it is oral history, riding with some of the longtime residents and they know when a house has been altered or changed, they know the history of who lived there and so I’m collecting that information and writing it down and recording it for the next generations. And then we’re seeing younger generations move into our historic districts that have families that want their kids to grow up in the neighborhood with character and where they know and talk to their neighbors. So that’s really encouraging too and we’re seeing those younger people wanting to get involved.
I really enjoy working with people in our districts and I think that’s something I learned when I worked in New Orleans. After I finished grad school, we moved to New Orleans and I worked with the state with the grant program helping people restore their homes after Katrina. We often called it social work for historic houses because everyone has a story that goes along with their house, everyone had a Katrina story that was really relevant and you needed to hear before you could help them be ready to make those changes and those repairs to their home. So not only did those stories come after a disaster but they come anytime you have a significant event history with your house. I really enjoy hearing those stories and helping people to do the right thing, make the right repairs and continue telling those stories through the architecture of the home.
Church: Thank you so much Megan. We look forward to hearing more about all the work you’re doing in Alexandria. I will definitely be down for the house tour. I want to see the bottle house now that you told us about it.
Lord: Yes, it’s really cool.
Church: Thank you, we hope to hear some more from you and maybe some of those house stories as well.
Lord: Yes, I’d love to share.
Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast show notes at ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.