Kevin 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 of Technology and Training. Today we join NCPTT Jason Church as he speaks with Molly Dickerson facility’s manager of the Melrose Plantation And Monica Rhodes, manager of the HOPE Crew Program for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In this episode, Jason is talking with them about the recent HOPE Crew project at Melrose Plantation.
Jason Church: In our last podcast, we spoke with Monica Rhodes about the HOPE Program. Today, we are here at Melrose Plantation where the HOPE Crew is finishing work on the African House. Molly, can you tell us a little bit about Melrose?
Molly Dickerson: Absolutely, well Melrose Plantation is owned and operated by the nonprofit Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches. They’ve been in operation since the 1940s, they gained Melrose in 1971 through a petition that they made to a land company that had recently purchased Melrose. At that point, they began restoration efforts on the plantation with the goal of operating it as a house museum. They were able to accomplish that goal but of course, their cyclical maintenance on all of our buildings and the need to undertake larger projects at times and African house was one of those projects.
I came on with APHN about two years ago and they were speaking with a local architectural engineer firm in regard to the needs of African house. Although this firm was incredibly experienced in new construction and modern construction, they didn’t have a lot of experience when it came to preservation. Certainly when it came to a building like African house, there is no other building like African house so there were some red flags, there were some recommendations that were incredibly inappropriate for our desire to restore African house appropriately. At that point, I contacted National Center for Preservation Technology and Training to see if they could put us in touch with somebody with experience in preservation engineering. It was Sarah Jackson that put us in contact with someone and was a lifesaver. I mean, she really helped us with that project immensely.
Simultaneously, we gained the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Stephanie Meeks, the president and CEO, visited Melrose. In addition, I submitted a nomination for African house as a National Treasure that was accepted and then, Monica was in the South, Monica Rhodes, was in the South looking for locations for a HOPE Crew project and it was Sarah, once again, that brought her to Melrose and when she explained the program, and we compared that with our needs African house, it just seemed like a perfect fit. We needed to do a restoration, we wanted to- it was a preservation restoration effort jointly. We wanted to reach out to people of great experience so part of the hope model is that they use a preservation trades expert and a preservation advisor.
In this instance, our preservation advisor was NCPTT and Sarah Jackson as well as Andy Ferrell. Then, our preservation trades expert was Alicia Spence and Gerald David. They had great experience in traditional timber framing, which is the construction of African house. It has a masonary base and then, the upper story is all hand-hewn cypress. They had a lot of experience with that so our relationship with all these parties brought us into a great partnership and we’re really happy with the results. Another great aspect of it, the model uses youth, young men and women who have some experience in construction or carpentry but want to learn more about preservation in particular.
The Texas Conservation Corps, they identified young men and women that were interested in learning more about hands-on preservation and particularly, timber framing. Our group, for the most part, was very enthusiastic and learned so much. To see them grow and experience over the eight weeks that the project went on was exciting and to know that we were passing on this traditional trade to the next generation was also a great thing that we didn’t initially intend for when it came to the restoration of African house so it was a wonderful byproduct.
African house, in particular, had so many hands that touched it that made it what it is from William Metoyer, our plantation founder, he had it built. He was actually born a slave and went from being a enslaved person to a land owner and patriarch in the Cane River, Isle Brevelle community that’s still rich today. Also, it was constructed by enslaved people so the Africans it, it tells their story. Melrose, from 1919 to 1940ish, was an artist’s retreat and it housed artists that came to visit so it tells their story as well. Also, it houses the African House Murals that were done by Clementine Hunter, interestingly she became the most famous artist to leave Melrose but she was not an invited guest. She was an employee of Melrose so all of those things make African house so special and the construction method, it shows the way they constructed things before we had modern conveniences that we have today in construction but it was built very sturdily. I mean, it stood for almost 200 years before we needed to intervene so even that alone kind of tells a rich story that we wanted to make sure to preserve by using those same building methods when we went to preserving it.
Jason Church: Thank you Molly for telling us about Melrose and APHN. Now Monica, would you tell us about your involvement here in Melrose?
Monica Rhodes: Sure, so they are working with a very experienced preservation professional, Alicia Spence who is also connected closely with the Timber Framers Guild. Alicia has worked on projects both in America and internationally so she is well known for the work and her work in the timber framing world. We are working- we have six corps members out there right now working alongside of Alicia with her guiding their work. They’re working on, right now they’re reframing or they’re doing some framing work around the structure. Their learning how to hew timbers, which is something that they probably wouldn’t have been … timber hewing is not something a lot of jobs call for but when you have those specialty skills and you can stand up and say, ‘well, I’ve done this before,’ makes all the difference.
They are learning those skills, their learning how to pit saw, they’re learning the process from beginning to end what it takes to really restore and rehabilitate a timber frame building. I think, it’s my hope that there really gaining something from being connected not only to a project and learning those skills but to the stories of these places. That is also what’s important about the hope crew program is gaining some real skills that in the next few years are going to be critical if we are going to be good stewards of our historic resources in America. We are going to need those trained professionals to be able to do that work.
Then, on the other side, it’s my goal that they connect closer to the history that’s in their own backyard. I mean, I’ve worked on projects where corps members have lived down the street and have never had a reason to come to the National Park Service and never come to that park. Had an idea what the story was about but if there is no reason to come there or if the park isn’t … there’s nothing for them to do or if there is no programming that really brings them into it, well, there is still that disconnect. There are now only getting the skills but they are getting to know a historic resource in their own backyard, like I said.
Then, the stories that are in these places are extremely important. I mean, you’re working on a- to think about the Africa house, these core members are working on a structure that was built in the 1800s. I don’t know what they think about when they go home and they lay their head down at night but at some point, it’s going to have to sink in like, ‘man, I’m working on something that was probably around’- was definitely around before their great-grandparents were even born. It was there, it was on this landscape and maybe it will sink in with them a few years from now or something along those lines but it’s not everyday that you get an opportunity to work on such a historic place, a historic building with such a rich story.
What they also don’t get is, I think with preservation, is really knowing the people who built these buildings and in the case of Africa house, this is slave labor that built these buildings and other types of labor, rehabilitated over the years. Now, they are part of that story so they can see how this place was constructed, how the bricks are laid, how the timber has come together. If that says- what I think it could also do kind of turn or change their minds around what slavery was about. It wasn’t about people out, you know, picking cotton. The people were constructing things, using building technology. You can look at African house and you can see its connection to African architectural style so it provides all of these types of things.
For a corps member who really wants to get into it, there are these layers. I mean, if they’re interested in gaining more experience about preservation planning, they can look at Melrose plantation and kind of see how these buildings are situated. How the APHN curates these buildings and once they’ve got that, they’ve got their interpretation or if they want to get more into timber framing, I mean, there’s countless examples around Louisiana where they could take the same skills and go out and be paid for the skills that they started here at Melrose. I think you’ve asked me this question but this program has so many implications and we are just getting started here so I’m very excited to be a part of it and just plant seeds in people’s minds
Just know, okay, working out and being a part of a project from seven until five every day and working with your hands is not your thing, then, are you interested in interpreting stories? Because that’s a part of preservation. If that’s not your thing, well, are you interested in the legal structure that supports our field? If you want to be an attorney in preservation law. There’s marketers specialize in marketing to preservation communities. There’s so many ways you can cut our field and this program just provides a little peek into everything that we do. If you want to wear a lab coat, you can be in the lab testing water and making paint.
There’s so many things that we try to introduce these corps members to if working with your hands or being out and hammering and pit sawing isn’t your thing, there are so many other ways you can be involved in preservation. We’re just trying to train and introduce a new generation to such a field that touches every single person in this country that we just haven’t done the best job at really selling and really marketing what we do nationally but we are everywhere. We touched a lot of corners and to get young people involved in that at 18, 19, 20, 21, it can be life-changing.
Jason Church: Thank you both for talking with us today and I hope to hear from each of you in the future.
Kevin Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast show notes at www.ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time. Goodbye, everybody.