July 9, 2024

Jim Turner and the Future of Preservation Trades

Ten years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation started HOPE Crew (Hands-On Preservation Experience), its hands-on, trades training initiative. Since 2014 the program has completed 175 projects, trained over 860 young people—including veterans—and engaged over 3,750 volunteers in historic trades. While the impact of the program is large, the challenges still remain.

One of the hallmarks of the program is HOPE Crew’s paid training projects where a trades professional expert trains participants on techniques like repointing, carpentry, and window restoration.

One of those experts is James (Jim) Turner the owner and operator of Turner Restoration, which has been preserving historic buildings since 1988. Over the last decade, Turner has partnered and led numerous HOPE Crew projects and engaged with the preservation movement through national initiatives such as the National Impact Agenda, the Preservation Priorities Task Force, National Trust Advisors, and serving on the Preservation Trades Network Board of Directors.

To mark the anniversary, Milan Jordan, HOPE Crew director, interviewed Turner about his experiences with the program and what he sees as the future of preservation trades.

Trades expert James (Jim) Turner leaning on a window frame in a blue shirt and jeans with the logo of Turner Restoration on it.

photo by: Tom McKenzie

Jim Turner of Turner Restoration.

Tell us about the first project you did in partnership with HOPE Crew?

The very first was in Birmingham, Alabama at the Bethel Baptist Parsonage (an important Civil Rights site). We worked on the steel windows there. Then we came in and did the pastor’s house across the street from the church and the steel windows on that. I remain in contact with the pastor to this day, we most recently talked about 3 or 4 months ago just to touch base. Through the project I fostered an ongoing relationship with him and many other partners I’ve met through the program.

Over the past 10 years, do you have a favorite project you’ve done with HOPE Crew?

To be honest, all of them are rewarding in a lot of ways. I’ve learned a lot from the participants, and I hope that I have imparted some things. The thing that I always want to impart most is the fact that opportunities don't always come on the path where you're looking. What is most important is being open to everything that comes, to explore every opportunity that you can get to work with your hands and to learn something new gives you an opportunity to move to a different level.

In these experiences it is always better with a smaller group. Only because it gives a sense that you were all working together and there were no outliers; no one standing around kind of, allowing other people to take up most of the work.

That’s one of the things we found even in various trainings: if we had a group of 12 people participating, there were always 20 percent of those people just standing in the background. Never really asking a question. Never really putting forth their whole selves. And if they did not invest in it, there was very little to come out because you had to put some money down, figuratively. You know, and I think that's the thing that a lot of young students don't understand.

HOPE Crew Preservation Practicum participants learn to restore windows at Tuskegee University

photo by: Molly Baker

Jim Turner was one of the experts at the HOPE Crew Preservation Practicum at Tuskegee University in 2019.

Do you think there's any way to get people to invest in the process and their learning experience?

I saw it once they took that first step to get involved and started believing in themselves. Trusting themselves. And not looking for approval. I’ve noticed a lot of people have been hiding most of their lives and standing in the background. Just doing what they had to do to get by. Yeah, I found that once I gave them that license to trust themselves or offered them the opportunity to trust themselves it was beneficial. They gave themselves approval, and they recognized what they created with their own hands.

Do you think the way HOPE Crew gives the participants a chance to learn about a site’s history ahead of time makes an impact on the project?

Absolutely, in their heads they can visualize the history and that helps the whole experience “cement”. For them, the 1960’s are so far removed. It's kind of like, “oh yeah, I heard about that. Oh yeah, social studies or something like that.” But once they began connecting those moments and the greater context of what happened at these sites was when the magic happened. Personally, the rewarding thing for me was just to see those moments of energy and of light.

What changes in the trades have you noticed over the past 10 years? What is one really big change you notice?

When you see the advent of AI. A lot of people talk about the progress and the advantages of AI. But there are going to be a lot of job losses. I think that what I find is a lot of Gen Xers and Millennials have an opportunity to build a closer relationship to community.

Looking at the trades as that opportunity also sparks and enhances community, and that desire for creation that we all have inside us, whether that is building a career or building a home. By understanding a bit of the trades, you can do that with minimal effort and or minimal financing, [and] I think there's [an] opening for people looking to find something that is real and wholesome for them.

Jim Turner in New Orleans in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina.

photo by: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Jim Turner in New Orleans c 2005 as part of the post Hurricane Katrina recovery project.

Students learn from preservation professionals during the HOPE Crew workshop at Tuskegee University

photo by: National Center for Preservation Technology and Training/Sarah Jackson

Jim Turner at the HOPE Crew Workshop at Tuskegee University in 2018.

What's one thing you would love to see happen in the next 10 years of the trades?

An explosion of redevelopment; affordable housing development. The tiny house movement combined with sustainability. Addressing our environmental concerns with adaptive reuse. Looking at buildings more as dwelling places as opposed to a store, an office building. Looking at buildings as affordable housing. We can rebuild communities through rebuilding buildings.

Is there anything that has been unique in your experience being an African American in the trades. What would you like the movement to consider as we aim to open trades up to a wider audience?

One of the things that I initially stumbled upon in New Orleans through working with the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans was a publication they have called Raised on the Trades. And the fact that that book identifies the survival and growth that African Americans had through working in the trades and how they built community, housing, an education, and a livelihood through using their hands. And that, I think, shows perseverance. It shows grit. It shows willingness and desire to survive and grow no matter the circumstances. It gives you a greater understanding of what the trades can do. I think I carried that book around for years, I have it upstairs. Every now and every now and then I think times that I would get discouraged I read a chapter of the book.

I want to acknowledge that you've engaged with the National Trust across so many different initiatives. Do you have a favorite way that you've engaged with the preservation movement through the National Trust or something that felt really unique to you or that you were really proud of that you got to do?

Well, there were many times and ways I engaged with the larger preservation movement, but there were many times that I didn't feel that I fit. With HOPE Crew, I felt I fit. I’m getting emotional now because we lost Sarah Jackson [Historic Preservation Specialist at US Federal Government and Former Preservation Network President] this year. And I think she was a beacon for the preservation network and Preservation Trades Network, the National Trust, the National Park Service.

Sarah really believed in making the trades accessible and something that was inclusive and something that was for everybody and I really appreciate how wherever she went she paved away for other people to come behind her and try to pull them up with her and it's such a model that I hope to carry on in her memory. Every day will be a “Show Up for Sarah” day for me.

HOPE Crew, through the first director, Monica Rhodes, and you and Molly have created community. It's created connections that I'll carry for the rest of my life. And I hope to be able to either influence or create a path that others can follow. I appreciate being a part of the organization. And as long as I'm here, you can always call on me.

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Milan Jordan is the director of HOPE Crew (Hands-On Preservation Experience).

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