A discussion on the Urban Conservation Primer.
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 Stacey Urlacher as she speaks with Tom Russack, Masonry Preservation Instructor at the Abyssinian Development Corporation Workforce Development Youthbuild Program in Harlem, New York City, and Project Associate at Rand Engineering and Architecture. NCPTT awarded Mr. Russack a grant to compile a masonry conservation primer to introduce preservation trade, skills, and knowledge to inner city high school kids in Harlem, New York.
su: Thanks for being here today
TR: Well it’s my pleasure and an honor, thank you
su: You have written Masonry History Integrity: An Urban Conservation Primer, can you tell us more about this primer and the inspiration behind writing it?
TR: Well, I received a grant, and am very grateful for the opportunity to put my thoughts and experiences in teaching masonry conservation to inner city kids here in NY City into a book form. The inspiration is from the students, and the classes that I teach.
su: That sounds great, so it’s something that teaches kids at a younger high school age about conservation and hands on working. How is this primer organized and what kind of topics does it cover?
TR: Well, that’s a great question, because I have never written a book before, never written a textbook and that was part of the challenge. How do I get this huge amount of information palatable to a young mindset, and how do you make it interesting, and what aspects do you cover? That’s the challenge I have in class and that’s what I enjoy, is springing new ideas and new creations on them so that it’s not something disinteresting or stale. I want them to walk into class saying what are we going to do today, what is this?
So the book is filled with different activities from making homemade terra cotta clay, to making molds of hands, learning how to repoint mortar joints, and getting tools to carve stone. I think one of the basic needs we have today is to let kids explore what tools are. I mean, we give kids basketballs, baseballs; we send them off to gymnastic camps and swimming lessons, why don’t we give kids tools, and teach them how to fix things?
There are enough buildings out there that need restoration, let them go to work, and teach them how to do it correctly. The pride is in craftsmanship. When they are done, and in the process of doing this, let them look at what they have done, and feel that pride. That is one of the key goals to the book and the program.
su: Exactly, it really seemed when you read through it that it not only teaches these hands on skills, but it teaches history, a good work ethic, teamwork, and things like that that can really take you far after school.
So in creating this type of a resource for this age group, topic, and subject, what other kind of resources did you glean from and get inspiration from?
TR: Well, there is a wealth of information out there, and it is important and interesting. The students, they actually do appreciate finding out about buildings, and history. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the material isn’t as palatable to a younger audience, and I kind of had to reword it, and make it a little bit easier to understand and condense it in a way that they don’t get avalanched with so much information and dates.
Just give them a little snip-it to kind of say, wow that’s interesting, with the hope they will move on. The back has resources, websites mostly, because that is the most applicable and easiest to access. So they can not only revisit the things we discussed in class, but do some further research also.
su: That seems very important because this is such a good introduction to this subject. What is kind of the, next step after one learns about these different types of masonry, history, and skills like this in order to in hopes one day become a professional in the field?
TR: Very good question, the program I teach at here, in Harlem, is for inner city kids to get their high school equivalency, their GED, which is the main focus. This is a small portion of their understanding of some of the employment opportunities out there, some of the resources. It’s an investigation, it’s an experiment, it’s an exploration, and so if we get one out of ten who follows through and carries on in preservation or masonry then that’s ok, that’s a success.
We had one student accepted to the American College of Building Arts, we have had another student working for the Central Park Conservancy, we have had a couple of students working for a restoration masonry company, we have had one apprenticeship with Evergreene Architectural Arts, so these are success stories and we are incredibly proud of these students, even for those that haven’t gone on into careers or these studies.
I’m real excited when a student comes up to me and says Mr. Russack, here are some pictures I took with my phone of some plaster that I saw when I was in a theater the other day and it looked really interesting. So, if they can open their eyes, or look at brickwork and they say they tell their friends about the different bonds, an English bond, a Flemish bond, what a soldier course is. That’s the start of something, we are moving forward with something, it’s not just bricks and mortars, it’s their neighborhood, it’s something that somebody thought about, and put time and effort and energy into and they have stopped and noticed it.
su: It seems like it’s a great resource to help kids get excited about their surroundings, their context, and the built environment.
su: One of the chapters in the primer was titled “Here Today, Green Tomorrow.” What do these students learn about in the primer and what is the mason’s role in encouraging a green ethics and a sustainable environment?
TR: It talks about buildings of the future and, I’m really big on green roofs and having green roofs on buildings. There is an example here, city hall in Chicago, with a great picture that was in National Geographic. It shows the fact that you could utilize a building that was constructed in 1911, and yet, a hundred years later with a green roof, make it useful and beautiful and something for generations to enjoy.
So, you’ve got tools, you’ve got buildings, you’ve got practices. One of the projects I have the students think about is: So, you’ve got a job, you are a contractor here in NY, and the owner of the building wants you to bid. You get the contract if you are greener than your competition. How can you be practicing green technology and get this job? What are you going to do?
So we talk about recycling of materials, we talk about not polluting when you are cutting mortar joints, when you are cleaning what do you do with the water runoff? So you take practical ways of work, and make sure they understand that by doing these, you have a better chance of getting the job, and you are helping the environment, and you are helping yourself. And this is what the future of restoration and construction looks like.
su: Well this has been great. Thank you for talking to me today and I look forward to hearing about what comes of this primer and resources like this in the future.
TR: Well I appreciate that, but I’m not going to let you off easy here. I end each one of my classes with this statement.
Nobody leaves the room until they can tell me something they learned in class that they didn’t know before they walked through those doors. So before we sign off here, can you tell me something you picked up on that you found of keen interest, that you would like to share with me after you have looked through the book?
su: Well, I really appreciated and learned about the tools. Each chapter covers tools that you would use to lay bricks or anything like that. As someone who studies preservation and I’ve even taken masonry courses, I have never learned about the tools that go into creating a masonry structure, and I found that to be very interesting.
TR: That’s very heartwarming, and very encouraging, and I appreciate that. Because what I’m hearing you say is, now that you have read about that, you can’t wait to get your hands on these things, and hopefully by following the instructions you’ll learn how to use these tools.
That’s dear to me, in the final chapter; I even have a special section on the maintenance of tools. I work for an architecture and engineering firm here at NY and I am inspecting buildings and checking out work on a daily basis. One thing that I do is, when I’m going up on this scaffolding, I’ll check the guys tools, because if the worker or mechanic takes care of his tools, then he is going to take care of his work. It shows a pride. The tools are an extension of your body and that means a lot. I am very appreciative that you picked up on the tools.
I don’t have a great closing to end this podcast, accept to say that, if you just teach masonry, and you teach history, there is going to be something missing.
You have to reach inside the individual to let them find within themselves, that which is important to bring out the pride in that work. Whether it is from a heritage, which I delve into a lot of African American history and Spanish Latino history, so people can sense that pride. You have to put that into the mix, along with the history, and along with the skill training. So that you can look at something, be proud of it, and hopefully generations after will also be proud.
su: That is a very true statement, and thank you so much for all of this information and this discussion about the primer, it is a great resource.
TR: Thank you so much Stacey, it has been my pleasure.