Women in Preservation: Nancy Schamu Reflects on Four Decades of Saving Places
This profile, written by Byrd Wood, originally appeared on Preservation Leadership Forum blog. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Preservationists often jokingly refer to some of the early pioneers in the preservation movement as "little old ladies in tennis shoes standing in front of bulldozers." But the movement changed dramatically in 1966 following the enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act, when a wave of young history graduates, eager to assume positions in the recently created state historic preservation offices, soon began to replace the feisty, determined volunteers of the early part of the century.
Nancy Schamu, who is retiring this month after 26 years with the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO), was one of them, and she strode confidently into the new preservation profession with all the energy and idealism of her 1960s generation. From the early days of rousing Section 106 battles over elevated highways to today’s advocacy efforts to protect the tax credits, Schamu has been more than willing to "raise her hand," as she puts it, to speak out clearly -- and often quite forcefully -- in favor of preservation.
Fresh out of graduate school at Virginia Tech with a degree in history, Schamu began working for the Maryland Historical Trust (the state historic preservation office) in 1969. She says, "When I graduated from college in 1968 everyone I knew was going to be a secretary or getting married. I couldn’t be a secretary because I didn’t know how to type. And I wasn’t getting married. So I decided to get a degree in library science. But then the chair of the history department at Hollins where I went to college mentioned the availability of a scholarship for a master’s program in history at Virginia Tech. So I got a master’s in history instead."
Her graduate advisor found out that the Maryland SHPO was looking for someone to do a statewide preservation plan. Schamu applied and got the job. She worked there until 1980, making her way up the ranks to the position of deputy SHPO.
She says that the 1970s were a heady time to be involved in preservation: “It was a great time to get involved in Section 106 because there were such huge projects going on in Maryland. I was still in my 20s and got to tell big, beefy highway engineers, ‘no you can’t build that road.’ In many meetings I was the only woman. Our really big success in Baltimore was to stop a proposed elevated highway that would have cut through a number of historic districts including Fells Point.”
She earned her stripes during those battles and was not shy stating her case. But, she says jokingly, “sometimes you just have to be in your 20s and dumb enough to speak out.”
Schamu has seen the preservation movement evolve over the years -- from a relatively unknown field to a more mainstream movement. "People don’t realize how huge the transformation is and how much preservation has become a part of our national culture. In the 1970s people thought the [National] Trust was a bank. Nobody knew what the National Register was. This is not to say that everyone loves preservation, but we have managed to become part of the American psyche."
To get to this point, however, Schamu experienced firsthand some of the triumphs and setbacks. When asked about the most exciting events in her career, Schamu lists stopping the construction of interstate highways from destroying historic resources in Maryland; getting the 1992 amendments to NHPA passed; rescuing the tax credits in 1986; working with the National Trust to get historic buildings included in the Americans with Disabilities Act; rewriting Section 106 regulations in the early 1980s and '90s, and fighting to maintain continued funding for the states through the Historic Preservation Fund.
When asked about the future of the preservation movement, Schamu says that she feels the preservation movement has settled down a bit. "I’ve said for awhile that preservation is sort of becalmed in a way. All the tension and torment of [the] '70s and '80s has been resolved. I don’t know what the next big challenge will be. The next generation will have to find out what the next big thing is."
And Schamu has some advice for the next generation. "I always said if you want to be a preservationist, just raise your hand and say 'I’m a preservationist.' When you are looking for a job you have two choices: job or location. If the job is important then you have to be willing to move around the country. But if location is important, you are more limited in your options. Volunteering is a good way to get started."