October 12, 2010

Architectural preservation program wins awards

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A community-oriented program from Southern Illinois University Carbondale is the 2010 winner of two statewide awards.

The Preservation Summer program is the recipient of the Project of the Year Award and the 2010 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Education. Both awards are from Landmarks Illinois, a state non-profit organization that tried to “preserve, protect and promote architectural and historic resources in Illinois through advocacy and education.”

Landmarks Illinois will present the awards during a special ceremony Oct. 23 at The Chicago Club in conjunction with the annual Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference (www.traditionalbuildingshow.com) Oct. 20-23 at Chicago Navy Pier. The award includes a handcrafted replica of Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange entrance and a portion of the trading room, which is also the Landmarks Illinois logo. Its demolition was a catalyst for the group’s foundation. There is also a small cash prize.

“Our annual awards program honors innovative preservation projects, dedicated organizations and uplifting success stories from across the state,” said the letter from James Peters, president of Landmarks Illinois, in announcing the award. He said that Preservation Summer was a winner chosen from a “very competitive pool of nominees.”

Preservation Summer is an ongoing, interdisciplinary SIUC program that has influenced other School of Architecture design studio activities. Urban Studio classes in 2006 through 2009 worked with Cairo citizens and community organizations to assess needs and set goals to revitalize the city in 2006. The classes are currently working with Roberto Barrios, assistant professor of anthropology, and the Greater Treme’ Consortium in New Orleans.

In the summer of 2007, history students worked on the Kornthal Church restoration project in conjunction with Paducah, Ky., preservation contractor Bill Black, cinema and photography Assistant Professor Antonio Martinez, SIUC Center for Archeological Investigation Researcher Mark Wagner and the not-for-profit Heritage Conservation Network (now Adventures in Preservation). The SIUC architecture and history students and faculty also continued their work in Cairo.

During ensuing years, architecture and history students and faculty have worked in Thebes, Grand Chain, Mound City, Union County, Massac County and Cairo, helping restore historic shotgun houses, documenting the historic structures and their history as well as the regional and town history and much more. Antoinette Lettiere, an architecture student from Oak Lawn, won a REACH award for independent research in 2009 for her work. She and Jim Schmidt, of Woodridge, also received an invitation to present their work “Savings ‘Shotguns’ in Cairo, IL - - Aiming for a Better Future” at the 2010 Council on Undergraduate Research “Posters on the Hill” conference in Washington, D.C.

The Landmarks Illinois award recognizes all of those efforts, said Robert Swenson, SIUC associate professor and architect. Swenson and Mary McGuire, former history professor, originally led with Michael Batinski, at that time chairman of the history department, moving into McGuire’s role for the 2008 Preservation Summer. After Batinski’s retirement, Rachel Malcolm Ensor continued the work for the history department with Swenson and the architecture school.

“I was thrilled to learn about the Landmark Illinois awards and I hope Preservation Summer continues. This program is a great example of what can happen when the University turns its attention to its own community for research and outreach, both excellent choices. The Landmark Illinois acknowledgement of the hard work by SIUC, students and people from the community is a wonderful affirmation that Preservation Summer should continue. This was Bob’s baby and he has nurtured it through some tough times like all good parents do,” said Ensor, Preservation Summer co-faculty for 2009 and 2010 and former history department lecturer.

Swenson said the award is an important recognition of the efforts put forth by many people. He said it’s also evidence of the commitment by the College of Applied Sciences and Arts and the School of Architecture to service-learning projects, not only in the southernmost Illinois region, but also in other areas of the Mississippi Delta region, from Cairo to New Orleans.

“What this means to me personally is that somebody out there thinks that this interdisplinary program and its work is important, particularly in light of the community service and community involvement. People from the community joined with our students and faculty in the work. Preservation Summer gives University students the opportunity to work with people of all ages- local teachers, historians and citizens who may not have a Ph.D. but who have much to teach them. It’s a marvelous opportunity to interact on a personal level with all kinds of people,” Swenson said.

Hands-on learning with a purpose is what Preservation Summer is all about, according to Swenson and Ensor. Participants have photographed and documented buildings, researched local history, undertaken the physically challenging restoration of historic shotgun houses and much more. Students and communities also learn that preserving and adaptively reusing building resources is an extremely efficient sustainable design strategy that can help rebuild local economics at the same time, Swenson said.

Although the history students worked on the shotgun house, their primary focus was on researching and documenting the cultural history of the community. Through these projects, Preservation Summer is accomplishing the worthy goal of “public history,” Ensor said, in that they are making the past useful to the public in a very real way.

The students sought to discover why the African American presence is predominant in the three southernmost counties of the state and to learn about the contributions they made in the region, Ensor said. She said that many people of color came to the area as contraband refugees from the South and went on to play very important roles in the development of Cairo.

“”The history is so rich. When we talk about architectural history, we also have to take into account the people that lived in the structure and surrounding area because without their experiences, it wouldn’t be history. The architecture is indeed important because of the space and the way individuals created the space based on the needs, philosophy and desires they had. Yes, buildings are important, but they become even more important when we understand why they were designed the way they were for the people that lived in them. Southern Illinois small town history is a microcosm of American cultural history,” Ensor said.

“Preservation Summer gave students the opportunity to touch the history instead of just reading or researching about it in library archives. Students worked as a research team and shared information much as they would if they were working for a professional cultural resource management firm that conducts historical research. They also learned how to perform title/deed searches and completed a search on the Sycamore Street shotgun house. All of their work culminated in a terrific exhibit displayed at the University Museum,” she added.

Some of the students continued their research through directed studies during the school year.

“They were hooked on local history and the lives of the people that built Cairo. They also learned the ins and outs of being an outsider and conducting research. This was a really important and valuable lesson. As a teacher, seeing students so filled with passion was an amazing reward,” Ensor said. Ensor also noted that Lana Gosnell, a history undergraduate student from Naperville, won a prestigious REACH award for her work documenting the history and happenings attached to various Cairo properties.

The Cairo exhibit and student research will eventually be part of the Cairo public school system’s local history program. Research on the project is continuing. Visit the http://www.cairo.siuc.edu website, still under construction, for more information about the historical aspects of the work. Ensor is also writing a book highlighting the African American contributions in Cairo.

Preservation Summer’s partners include the School of Architecture, the Department of History and Black American Studies from SIUC as well as Cairo Vision 20/20, the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, the Cairo Public Library and other community organizations and individuals.

The Landmarks Illinois awards ceremony is open to the public. It will be from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 23. Tickets are $40 for members or $50 for non-members and you can call 312/922-1742 for reservations.