The Journeys and Experiences of Eight Women in Hands-On Preservation Careers
Here at Preservation magazine, we love researching and writing about places related to women’s history. But we’re equally interested in the major roles women currently play in maintaining and restoring historic places. That’s why we’re highlighting a group of outstanding women in hands-on preservation careers.
The eight professionals we’ve chosen (from a long list of worthy candidates) specialize in different areas of restoration—painting, window repair, timber framing, and stained glass, to name a few. They’re at varied points in their careers, and they hail from both urban and rural areas around the country. But they all blend art, science, and preservation know-how with a deep love for what they do—and they all have interesting and inspiring stories to tell.
The oldest glass pieces Ariana Makau has ever handled were circa-1144 roundels from the Basilica of Saint-Denis in France, as a graduate student in stained glass conservation. Since then, she has conserved historic windows at iconic places such as San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. In 2003, she founded Nzilani Glass Conservation, specializing in glass conservation, restoration, and assessment surveys.
I was about 6 years old when I got my first toolkit. It wasn’t pink, and it wasn’t plastic, but it was to scale. And it all worked. From a very young age, I learned what tools did and how to take care of them and how they could build beautiful things. I was always raised to think there weren’t barriers and that I could do whatever I wanted to do.
There was one project where, after a year and a half of meetings, I made a presentation to the board, and they said, “You have a lot of accomplishments, and you’ve done good work, but you look a little young.” I said, “Let’s not talk about what I look like. Let’s talk about what I can do.” I’m a professional. The clients with whom I work don’t seem to have an issue; it’s the quality of the work we present and not the body that it comes in.
Before starting Nzilani I worked at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I could have continued working in museums, but I love working on scaffolding and seeing a building change because of my contributions. I love the experience of putting in a bunch of windows, and then putting in the final panel, and it changes the sound of the whole building. In museums, you’re working on amazing pieces from the 14th or 15th centuries, but they’re out of their context. The relationship of the windows to the building is something that really resonates with me.
I go to my daughters’ classrooms and to community groups and talk about what I do. It’s about sustaining our cultural heritage, and sometimes that cultural heritage lives in a building’s windows. The more people who know about it, the better.
—as told to Lauren Walser
When people complain about how drafty old windows can be, Andrea Sevonty points out that weather-stripping can make them more energy-efficient than newer ones. It’s the kind of response you’d expect from a veteran window restorer. She formed Sevonty Restoration in 2010 and has since repaired historic windows at places like Detroit’s Palmer Park Log Cabin and the St. Lorenz Lutheran Church in Frankenmuth, Michigan.
I was a film student [in undergrad], and I happened to take an architectural history class as an elective. It was so impactful for me that I changed my major to public history with a concentration in historic preservation. Then I went to a one-day window workshop put on by the Kalamazoo Old House Network. It’s the first time I’d ever really worked with my hands and could see how parts of an old house could be fixed. As soon as I left, I immediately went home and tried to fix the windows of my house. I was telling everyone, “Did you know that the top parts of windows open?”
I moved back to Detroit in 2007 and I’ve been working in windows and stained glass since 2008. Through the preservation community, I was able to meet the people who became my mentors, Jim Turner and Tom Newton. We’ve worked on projects together, and I can call them for advice. It’s great knowing that somebody you trust will be there for you, and that they get a sense of enthusiasm and accomplishment from your work, too.
[The St. Lorenz Lutheran Church windows] have challenged me the most. They’re round windows and the panes form a quatrefoil shape within the frame. We work on a table that has a square edge on it, and we always work out of that same corner. But when you have anything with a radius, you work off a pattern that is nailed down by hand. You have to make sure that it hasn’t shifted because when you lift the window to put it in place, you might find it doesn’t fit.
—as told to Nicholas Som
Los Angeles and Miami
Versatility defines Cuban American conservator Rosa Lowinger and her company, RLA Conservation of Art + Architecture. She and her 22-person team can deploy their skills as adeptly on a cracked mosaic as they can on a historic building, fountain, or sculpture. With offices in Los Angeles and Miami, they’ve worked on projects throughout the country and in the Caribbean.
I am a materials conservator and I work on architecture, sculpture, and fine-art collections. We basically solve the nuts-and-bolts questions about the best ways to repair, maintain, and care for the materials of buildings and monuments. In a way, we function like healthcare professionals: We advocate for best practices so things don’t get damaged, and we have methodologies to diagnose what’s happening to them over time. And we have a team that can do the actual fixing. I employ a group of really talented young conservators whom I see as the future of our field.
If we’re brought in at the beginning, we can get the solutions done before people realize they need them. The Miami Marine Stadium [a National Treasure of the National Trust] is a good example. We’re the consulting conservators on that project and have been since 2009. The concrete Brutalist building is a gigantic sculpture. You have to practice at the level that you would with a fine work of art because there’s nowhere to hide. Your repairs have to be gorgeous. Had we not been hired early on by the architect of record, we wouldn’t have been able to demonstrate that it was possible to safely remove the graffiti without sandblasting the surface to smithereens.
The biggest challenge is trying to get a seat at the table. It’s a combination of being a woman and having a weird job, where what we do isn’t always understood. I’ll go to jobsites with some of my technicians, and the contractors and architects will talk to them instead of me. I don’t get upset about it because it doesn’t get me anywhere, but it is a challenge. If someone gives us the opportunity to demonstrate what we can do, we can win them over because we are so skilled.
One of the things we’ve made a big point of in our firm—that’s also really important for our field as a whole—is that diversity is so vital in this profession. The diversity of our firm gives us such a level of strength.
—as told to Meghan P. White
After graduating from college, Jessica MilNeil realized her heart lay in preservation carpentry. She trained at Boston’s North Bennet Street School and in 2008 joined Preservation Timber Framing (PTF), which specializes in the traditional repair of timber-framed steeples and barns in New England. Today, she creates assessment reports that steer PTF’s repair planning, while still maintaining her carpentry roots.
I did the preservation carpentry program at North Bennet Street School because I wanted to be a carpenter, and it seemed like the highest level of carpentry I could do. I don’t come at [timber frame preservation] from an aesthetic standpoint—I come at it from a functional standpoint. These old frames just work better and last longer.
I go up into barns and church towers, photograph them, draw the frame, and inspect what’s wrong with them. I try to figure out the story and chronology of how they were built, and what parts are historically significant. And then I write up a long report that shows what needs to be repaired first so I can explain that frame to a building committee.
Sometimes I am called to go to jobsites to do timber framing and trim. When I was on site 100 percent of the time (the first four years of my time with PTF), people would always assume I was the architect or the designer. They never thought I did the actual carpentry work. Back then, I felt like I was doing my work for feminism every day just by showing up, being at the jobsite, and doing that work. It’s changed now that I’ve entered an echelon where I am more confident in my skills and have the pedigree that makes [others] less doubtful.
Personally, the things that I feel are important to save are the pieces that tell the story of the craftsperson who built it. When I’m going around in the frame, looking at tool marks and the way it was constructed, it feels like I’m communing with the person who built the building 200 years ago.
—as told to Nicholas Som
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If you’ve walked the halls of some of the nation’s foremost buildings—George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Monticello, Drayton Hall (a National Trust Historic Site)—chances are you’ve also ambled past a hidden, miniscule chip in a wall. Conservator and paint analyst Susan Buck has left her mark—literally—almost everywhere she goes, and she goes to a lot of places.
I’m trained as an art conservator. I started off as a furniture conservator specializing in finishes and painted objects. At the nonprofit Historic New England, I began working with architectural materials, answering questions about clear finishes, stains, and paint. Today, about 70 percent of my work is architectural conservation, and 30 percent is furniture and objects.
I’m currently working with the World Monuments Fund on the Qianlong Garden at the Forbidden City in China. I’ve also been working on and off at the Nathaniel Russell House, Monticello, and Mount Vernon since the 1990s, and you keep thinking, “How much more is there to discover?” But we’re still discovering new information.
With my epifluorescence microscope, I can identify clear coatings, define paint generations through layers of dirt, determine periods of the building based on paint stratigraphies, and more—all from a paint chip that measures no more than a quarter of an inch. I’m trying to be as careful as possible. You can get a tremendous amount of info from a tiny sample.
It’s like a giant puzzle: How do all these pieces fit together? It’s so satisfying, especially where the physical evidence is the only thing that remains, to figure out the answers.
Projects can last anywhere from a month, like a job I just finished that involved a Georgian period room, or up to two years or more, like at the University of Virginia, an enormous project where I’ve been working on all 10 Pavilions and the Rotunda. Even though I’m a sole practitioner, I’m always working with professionals—architects, preservationists, conservators, curators, and architectural historians. The best projects have a team approach.
—as told to Meghan P. White
As a child, Diane Killeen spent a lot of time staring at the decorative murals in New Orleans’ Milton H. Latter Memorial Library. She didn’t get much reading done, but she couldn’t help it; they captivated her. Today, she painstakingly restores plaster, paint, gilding, faux marble, and faux wood graining to save her hometown’s most precious embellishments—including the library’s murals, which she refurbished last year.
I got a graduate certification through the City & Guilds of London’s decorative painting and restoration program. They had a fellowship with the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, where you would get your hands-on training on site. It was a year-long, intensive program, and we did our hands-on practicum at the Biltmore, where we did glazing finishes, gilding, and wood graining.
That’s when my passion for the historic side really flourished. I was intrigued by the chemistry of everything—what’s compatible, what isn’t—and all of these authentic ways of doing things.
I also liked the historic aspect because the artistic information is [already] there. You have to be talented enough to put it back the same way, but you don’t have any judgment call on that. It’s not like you can say, “Oh, that color doesn’t look right.” It is what it is. Its stencil and information may be buried under 10 layers of paint, but it’s there. It’s decided.
It’s very challenging, and you’re that much prouder of the project at the end when you’ve nailed it. You sometimes have to practice in the studio for a long time before you can get in there and make it. You’re talking about someone’s handiwork from a really long time ago.
The work is construction, for the most part. The very, very, very end is when it turns into the pretty stuff, but there’s so much behind the scenes you don’t see—the muscle part. It’s harder than you think to make things look delicate.
We’re just stewards in the time that we’re here. It’s important to remember we’re just a minute in time, whereas the structure will be here for a really, really long time. Hopefully. If we do our jobs right.
—as told to Emma Sarappo
Lindsay Jones’ role as a historic preservation contractor demands expertise in areas ranging from mosaic tile repair to bronze sculpture cleaning. But thanks to her comprehensive background, Jones is more than up to the task. She founded Blind Eye Restoration in 2016 and has recently begun giving lectures and leading workshops on masonry, plaster, and decorative paint.
I moved to Oregon for grad school and got a job in San Francisco afterward doing project management for a conservation firm, ARG Conservation Services. I worked on projects with one of their conservators, Johana Moreno, and I was good with my hands, so I essentially became an apprentice to her. We mostly worked on smaller projects, but they [included] everything from mosaics outside Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University to decorative painted plaster ceilings in Elks lodges and interior finishes at Coit Tower.
But I missed home, so I ended up getting a job for a developer back in Ohio. There I realized that [the region] really didn’t have many historic preservation contractors. I knew I needed to have more hands-on work again. I’ve kind of re-created that San Francisco experience.
I’m a materials geek. I get very interested in how old buildings are built differently from modern buildings. Having knowledge of both modern materials and traditional craftsmanship and being able to handle projects large and small are a big part of what I do. I’ve done restoration work that involves gilding, sculpture, plaster, wood—anything that’s not structural.
My favorite project that I’ve had for [Blind Eye] has been the St. Sebastian Parish mosaic in Akron, Ohio. A gigantic, colorful, abstract mosaic of the Last Supper was having some issues with tiles popping out, and the church didn’t know what the underlying issue was. It took a couple days to find out where the cracks were coming from, and then I spent a month up on this wall. There were whole pockets of loose tiles that I had to delicately put adhesion tape over and peel off the wall so I didn’t lose them. Then I repaired the substrate, put the tiles back up, and ordered a bunch of matching-colored tesserae tiles [to replace missing ones].
I want [my company] to stay small. I can travel more, I can do things on a lower budget, and I have connections across the country who can come help me if I need extra expertise in something I’m working on. The scale of the company does not equal the quality of the company. You can get a lot from small, local conservators.
—as told to Nicholas Som
Preservation carpenter Tracy Rines has found her niche restoring historic windows and building new storm windows on the side. Like Jessica MilNeil, she learned her trade at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. Rines is never short on work, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’ve always loved buildings. I grew up loving to play with Legos; I always had that intuition to build. I’d put together my sister’s furniture. My mom would say I’d be a good carpenter or engineer. As I got older I did more research into it and thought, “I wouldn’t mind doing this for the rest of my life.”
In 2007 I graduated from Roger Williams University with a degree in historic preservation and a minor in architecture and art history, but the recession made me reconsider entering the workforce at the time. Instead, I applied to the North Bennet Street School, where I learned the hands-on part of preservation. I had no hands-on experience up until that point.
I work full-time at Window Woman of New England [a historic window restoration company in Amesbury, Massachusetts, led by Alison Hardy], but I also have a side business, TLC Woodworking, where I build new wooden storm windows. At Window Woman I’m involved in the window restoration process from start to finish, from removing the windows from a client’s property—usually a house—to paint stripping to re-glazing, and finally reinstalling them. It’s a team effort and a labor-intensive process.
First, we remove the glass. Then we go through the de-leading process, scraping [the paint] down to a paintable surface. Sometimes the paint is stubborn; we try to remove as much as possible. Then, any wood repairs get done. We’ll then fit it for glass—we reuse the original panes—and we’ll re-glaze with a linseed oil product that sits for a few days, and then it’s ready for paint. We’ll bring them back to the site and install them.
Re-glazing is my favorite part; I get in the zone and I just glaze. It’s relaxing to me. It’s really gratifying to see the whole process, and to think, “Wow, I contributed to that project.”
I love working on windows that are not square or clear. Arch-tops and diamonds are my favorites. A lot of Victorian houses have Craftsman-style windows with a stained-glass upper sash and a clear lower sash. They’re just so pretty and colorful. A lot of churches have beautiful arch-top windows, so cutting a piece of glass for them is fun to do.
—as told to Meghan P. White