Historic Preservation

Posted October 30, 2020
  • A panorama of socially distanced students at the Woodlands

  • Students during their first Zoom session of the 2020 Summer Institute lead by Kecia Fong

The Historic Preservation 2020 Cohort Started their Penn Careers from the Comforts of Home

Weitzman Design’s 2020 Historic Preservation Cohort began their Summer Institute experience from the unexpected comfort of home. While the thirteen students had entered a new and unprecedented learning environment, they were thrilled to be starting the program and their Penn careers. The two-week long Summer Institute, designed to give an overview of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania's history, was set to provide the students with a taste of the program and the biggest issues facing Preservation today.

After a summer that raised the profile of public monuments and saw Philadelphia's streets bear witness to historic protests, students were curious to see ways their education would fit the current moment. From the welcoming remarks by Frank Matero to the end, the overview to work being done in the Penn community left students energized. Highlights of the program included Paul Farber's presentation of the public art project Monument Lab, which frequently elevates marginalized voices through temporary, monumental art installations, as well as Amy Hillier and her virtual tour and advocacy work surrounding WEB DuBois' Philadelphia.

From sun-drenched living rooms, students were treated to a wide variety of perspectives and voices at the forefront of preservation both locally and globally. Many sessions provided in-depth overviews of the wide breadth of architectural resources available to Penn students. Archives, Libraries, and other specialized resources both within and outside of Penn were presented by various subject matter experts, including: Fisher Fine Arts librarian Patty Guardiola, head of Architectural Archives William Whitaker, as well as Bruce Laverty, Curator at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

Students were given history and background through lectures on the history of Philadelphia and Penn's campus from David Brownlee and David Hollenberg. Guests like Jed Levin, Archaeologist at Independence National Park, and Patrick Grossi from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, provided greater context for how Preservation work actually takes place in practice.

Although the online environment presented challenges for education, the digital medium also provided opportunities for different kinds of experiences. As Agatha Sloboda noted, “Although we couldn’t perform our walking tours physically on campus, perhaps the virtual Zoom format lent itself to an alternative richness in telling the landscape’s history. Where instead of imagining past iterations of a scene, we could pair Bill Whitaker’s and David Brownlee’s entertaining history-telling with thorough and thoughtful slideshows which illuminated historic changes we might have otherwise not recognized.”

Potential future paths for Penn historic preservation grads, and presentations demonstrating the breadth of potential opportunities demonstrated work Penn was doing locally through PennPraxis and presentations from Managing Director Julie Donofrio, as well as Molly Lester, and her work with the community preservation toolkit developed at PennPraxis. Students gained an understanding on the breadth of international opportunities and organizations such as ICOMOS from Gustavo Araoz.

Students were also given a taste of the hands-on skills they would need in upcoming classes. Photographer Joseph Elliot was able to provide virtual "hands-on" instruction, followed by a project that had students replicate historic photos taken near their homes. An overview and demonstration by Stewart Varner of how practices in the Digital Humanities are transforming the ways preservation stories are told gave students hands-on experience telling their own stories with 21st-century technology.

The two weeks flew by, and to celebrate the end of Summer Institute and the beginning of the semester, the final session was held at The Woodlands Cemetery, where students learned about the management of that historic site from its Director, Jessica Baumert. The past two weeks had helped the students get to know each other, as well as their new city. As Blair Horton remembers, "I enjoyed the hands-on approach of the Summer Institute, with sessions applying digital humanities tools with Stewart Varner or learning how to rephotograph with Joe Elliot. It was helpful to feel like I had tools that could refer back to throughout the semester ahead. The happy hour at the Woodlands was a great celebration at the end!"