May 5, 2022

People Saving Places: Seven Women Advocating and Working for Historic Trades

The Summer 2019 issue of Preservation magazine featured eight women engaged and working in the field of hands-on preservation—also sometimes referred to as historic or preservation trades. Each profile shared the stories and journeys of remarkable artisans and advocates, whose work is integral to the protection and preservation of historic spaces across the country.

In this story, we’re spotlighting seven more women who are advocating and working for preservation trades. Their experiences as women in this field are wide and varied; they are carpenters, painters, trainers, program managers, and long-time advocates for the value and importance of preservation trades. In a field normally dominated by men, they are also a part of the broader story the National Trust is trying to share through our program Where Women Made History.

Molly Baker (New Orleans, Louisiana)

Molly Baker attributes her career in historic preservation to a chance encounter. In her mid-20s she found herself in West Virginia working on her 1930s Craftsman style home exploring a career change, when she met a woman studying building preservation. This meeting changed everything. After jumping feet first into a building preservation trades program, Molly spent five years at a National Landmark site before becoming the manager of the HOPE (Hands-on Preservation Experience) Crew program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Today she is inspired by the partner projects between HOPE Crew and the National Trust’s Where Women Made History program. She says, “For the first time in our program’s history we have prioritized reserving several projects for an all-female/majority female leadership team and crew. Creating a job site where women feel welcomed, safe, and encouraged to grow in their trade skill is such an honor. I look forward to the day when this is not out of the ordinary, but rather an everyday sight in the construction field.”

A woman wearing a HOPE Crew t-shirt in what looks like a tropical environment looking forward at the camera.

photo by: Molly Baker

Molly Baker at one of HOPE Crew's project sites in Hawaii.

This focus meets one of the challenges Baker sees in the historic trades profession where, while most male trades practitioners are mostly welcoming, doing her job well means pushing against some ingrained perceptions by contractors and historic building owners that a male is better equipped to lead projects. Baker believes that “the more women are visible on the job site doing the same quality work as their male counterparts, the more we will curb this false impression.”

Emilie Evans (Arlington, Virginia)

When asked what drew her to historic trades, Emilie Evans says, “I have always been drawn to old ‘things.’ This may sound odd, but I believe buildings are alive. Their porousness absorbs the energy of the people who created, built, lived, played, and worked in them. They have stories to tell, and I’ve always loved listening to them.”

While her initial degrees from Columbia University were in Historic Preservation and Urban Planning, it was only after moving to Detroit in 2013 where she worked for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network that Evans realized just how essential skilled tradespeople were in city where the vast amount of older and historic buildings needed funding and experienced craftspeople to do the work.

In 2015 Evans, Amy Elliott Bragg, and Victoria Olivier started Brick + Beam Detroit , an organization centered on supporting property owners, bolstering their repair skills and knowledge, and coalescing a community around building rehab (not simply on fixing the buildings). The key is connecting building rehabbers and current/prospective property owners with skilled labor and local talent. Since its inception, Brick + Beam has directly impacted over 1,500 residents (their impact virtually is much larger.).

Image of three women standing next to a sign that says Brick + Beam

photo by: Brick + Beam

Victoria Olivier, Amy Elliott Bragg, and Emilie Evans, the three founders of Brick + Beam Detroit.

Today, Evans is inspired by the various educational opportunities that Brick + Beam has been able to offer. With their project manager Briana Grosicki, the organization offered an eight-part, hands-on wood window restoration series in Detroit last summer. They are currently launching a four-part series on “Racism in Property Ownership,” intended to share the history of policies that shaped homeownership inequities and the impact that has on Detroit communities today.

Evans believes that “trades training is imperative for the future of cities. New trades programs are needed, and existing curricula needs to be advanced to include knowledge related to older buildings. Women may have a small-but-growing role in traditional building trades, but they play an outsized role in problem-solving, and will help align the demand for trades with the demand for jobs that are right in front of us.”

Sharon Ferraro (Kalamazoo, Michigan)

In 2003 Sharon Ferraro co-founded the Old House Network in Michigan with Pat McCarthy when they saw a need and an opportunity to train homeowners on the fundamentals of old house rehabilitation. For nine years they ran two dozen workshops and six Old House Expos, until family obligations and changing board members led to putting OHN’s work on hold. Today, with Ferraro’s recent retirement after twenty years as the historic preservation coordinator for Kalamazoo, OHN is poised for a comeback.

Ferraro’s love for this work and historic buildings started as a child when her best friend's family bought an 1882 home and carriage barn, and later as a high school student when she experienced the Sand Hills Light Station, an untouched lighthouse complex on Lake Superior. Ferraro says, “I have always enjoyed working with my hands. In my family, my mom was the woodworker. Her dad only had daughters, so she was the one he taught everything to.”

In recent years, Ferraro become disheartened by the loss of trades related academic programs, as identifying experienced craftspeople was a constant challenge in her job with the City of Kalamazoo. Ferraro says that “finding the folks to become the tradespeople we need is the big challenge—and getting them into a training program that will allow them to get the required skills is equally difficult.”

A woman in a plaid shirt with glasses leaning back in a chair with her hands overhead.

photo by: William Dyer

Sharon Ferraro recently retired after a long-time career with the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

As she settles into retirement, however, Ferraro is hoping to build a preservation trades program at her local community college. While two previous attempts haven’t been successful (Covid-19 and social distancing for a hands-on workshop proved to be obstacles), Ferraro is hoping that the third time will be a charm.

Natalie Henshaw (Savannah, Georgia)

“Who doesn’t like playing with mud?” In describing her path to falling in love with masonry, Natalie Henshaw describes the enjoyment she has with working with her hands and seeing the physical process to brickwork. Like many, her journey to historic trades was indirect. After graduating in 2009, when the recession did not have a lot of job opportunities, Henshaw saw herself working in a casino, rarely seeing daylight, and not making the positive impact that she wanted to make. After applying and not getting a Youth Corp position restoring sod houses, she decided to get qualified and moved to Georgia to attend Savannah Technical College.

Recently, Henshaw has turned to teaching trades, particularly seeing how female students responded to a female teacher. While she loved masonry and the physical work, it had become difficult on her body, and so she opened her own business that specialized in historic window restoration where more business was available.

That experience and work led to her current job as the Director of The Campaign for Historic Trades, a workforce development program by Preservation Maryland in partnership with the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Training Center.

Part of this work is focused on addressing the lack of required qualifications to perform historic trades work. The Campaign is registering apprenticeships in the historic trades and drafting Professional Qualifications Standards based on National Park Service standards for history and archaeology, and is always looking to coordinate with prospective tradespeople, employers, and trainers.

Henshaw says, “It’s an exciting program. I’m really grateful for the opportunity and agency to help make systemic changes.”

A woman in a blue shirt leaning against a shelf looking forward.

photo by: Mae Bowley / Re:purpose Savannah

Natalie Henshaw at Re:purpose Savannah, an all-woman deconstruction crew.

Milan Jordan (Washington, D.C.)

As the current director of HOPE Crew at the National Trust, Milan Jordan’s career has been at the intersection of mission-driven work for the built and cultural environments. Jordan found herself drawn to this work during a graduate studio program with Jack Pyburn, a historic preservation architect who led her class through the research and documentation process of historic buildings at the Georgia Institute of Technology. With that knowledge she then saw first-hand the power of heritage, space, and place when she later went to work in a historic district in Atlanta, followed by serving as the director of workforce and emerging professionals at the American Institute of Architects. Jordan says, “The unique challenge of preservation trades training has been a fulfilling undertaking and builds upon much of my past studies and interests.”

One of the more recent HOPE Crew programs was a two-week long masonry training at the Estate Little Princess in St. Croix, United States Virgin Islands, for a small group of young Crucian people. This is necessary work as the islands are constantly faced by natural disasters and lack the skilled workforce to take care of local historically and culturally important sites. While HOPE Crew is a national program, Jordan emphasizes that “the heart of the initiative is to empower and train the local workforce in preservation trades skills so they can work on historically and culturally important sites in their own community.”

A group of people standing in front of a building with scaffolding in HOPE Crew gear.

photo by: Tristain Paiige

Milan Jordan (far right) in a group photo of the first majority-woman HOPE Crew Project at the Odd Fellows building in Astoria, Oregon. Back Row, L-R: Molly Baker, Aracely Alejo-Zambrano, Brittany Hobbs, Jeric Baker, Jacob McClary, Milan Jordan. Front Row L-R: Ariana Makau, Elizabeth "Liz" Blalock.

One of the key challenges Jordan sees for historic trades is “effectively communicating the value and social impact of the trades and hands-on preservation to an increasingly digitally-oriented generation.” To meet this challenge, Jordan serves on the Preservation Priorities Task Force —a partnership between the National Trust and the National Preservation Partners Network—focused on finding ways to draw in new trades professionals.

Ann Swigart (New Orleans, Louisiana)

In the late 1990s Ann Swigart was a modern dance teacher living in the San Francisco Bay Area. When circumstances required she find more sustainable work she took work with two painting companies to learn the basics. Shortly afterwards she went out on her own for the work flexibility and found that she had the knack—and the love—of painting and finishing work.

Swigart says, “In painting and finishing, I found that the intersection of physical movement and touch with the underlying aesthetic concerns of color, texture, and line—as well as the flow of one material into another—meshed seamlessly with the other creative endeavors in my life: dance and music.” Running her own trade business challenged her to discover the confidence and strength Swigart needed, not only to become successful as a craftsperson, but also in her personal life as a single mother of three. Upon the college graduation of her youngest child— and desiring to broaden her knowledge and career—Swigart moved to New Orleans to study for a master’s degree in Preservation Studies at Tulane University.

Image of a woman in painting overalls leaning on a chair looking forward.

photo by: Sandhya Hegde

Ann Swigart's work with painting and finishing to be the perfect combination of her life's work as a craftsperson and passions of music and dance.

Today, Swigart is inspired by a long-term project she is working on with Wayne White—a local master furniture refinisher in Baton Rouge, and owner of Ebony and Ivory Furniture Restoration. This project involves salvaging and restoring furniture from floods; researching the history of Black craftspeople in this rapidly gentrifying area as a way to remember and highlight their stories; creating a community center at White’s shop for neighbors to find fellowship; and creating a historic craft association in Baton Rouge.

As Swigart says, “We are really looking forward to the creative endeavor of restoring and redesigning these salvaged pieces in a variety of ways, from strict conservation to the use of contemporary techniques, materials, and colors to make all the pieces beautiful and serviceable into the future.”

While Swigart believes that the inclusion of women in preservation trades is moving in the right direction, she does see a challenge posed by the monetization of historic buildings and neighborhoods and its consequences. “If we truly want to include social justice and equity in our modern preservation practice,” she says, "I believe classic capitalism will need to be tempered by elements of social enterprise."

Mary Webb (Helena, Montana)

After college, Mary Webb spent a few years working for AmeriCorps, and through that experience she realized she wanted to work in a job that allowed her to work with her hands. She found carpentry while working for Habitat for Humanity on the construction site and connected the dots with preservation as she thought about the sustainability of older and historic buildings over generic buildings being built without character. Webb says, “There’s probably a lot of weird Google searches around 2011 that narrowed it all down to ‘historic preservation.’ Now I’m in a job—as the restoration director at Preserve Montana—that I get to create something almost every day, and it’s the perfect combination of architecture, design, sustainability, and most importantly, craftsmanship.”

Image of a woman working on the restoration of a wood window.

photo by: Clare Menahan

Mary Webb, who currently works for Preserve Montana, is passionate about connecting young adults with the hands-on aspects of preservation.

The challenges Webb sees in the profession today are a combination of issues related not only to gender discrimination in the profession, but also facing the prejudice that blue collar jobs are “less respectable than others.” She sees the trades as dying because of the perceived notion that you need to go to college to get a good job, and that trades are for those who are not “smart enough,” when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

To meet this challenge, Webb is passionate about finding ways to get kids and young adults—with an emphasis on girls—invested in trades and preservation. While this is in what she calls the pre-planning and “dreaming phase,” Webb says, “It is super valuable to put tools into kids’ hands at a young age. They might not grow up to be carpenters, but they’ll have some general skills, and hopefully the understanding that things can be fixed instead of replaced. Plus, wouldn’t it be pretty cool for a 10-year-old girl to go home to her parents with a bench or something that she made?”

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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