June 5, 2023

Historic Preservation Students Blend Humanities and Sciences

Historic preservation major Audra Medve is an intern at Mount Vernon

When Audra Medve first visited Mount Vernon as a child, she was struck by the timelessness of George Washington’s home, so much so that she returned dozens of times. She never could have imagined she would be an intern at the estate decades later as a senior in the historic preservation program at the university named for Washington’s mother.

Medve enrolled at the University of Mary Washington after the Navy transferred her husband to the Washington, D.C. area in 2008.

“There are very few undergraduate degrees in historic preservation available in the United States, and when I decided to return to school I realized I lived within 30 miles of a truly wonderful program,” Medve said.

Medve’s internship is one of a dozen this spring through UMW’s historic preservation department, regarded as among the best in the nation. Each year, internships range from local preservation organizations like the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation and the Fredericksburg Area Museum, to organizations in Richmond and Washington, D.C., such as the Smithsonian Institution, and even National Park Service sites across the country.

“Given our program’s interdisciplinary basis, we see internships with organizations representing all of our fields: archaeology, architecture, museums and planning,” said Doug Sanford, professor and Prince B. Woodard chair of historic preservation.

On the first day of her internship at Mount Vernon, Medve expected to work on a door from a barn, or cellar, or maybe a back room of the first president’s estate. Much to her surprise, the manager of the project led her to one of the main doors of the mansion.

As an intern, Medve performs the duties of an assistant to the Restoration Manager Steven Mallory, with her main task to restore a door from the 1750s to its original color and condition. The process requires paint analysis of dozens of layers of centuries-old paint with the assistance of conservator and paint analysis expert Susan L. Buck.

“[Her project] is the perfect example of the blending of humanities and the sciences,” Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation Michael Spencer said.

Medve is able to apply coursework from seven or eight different historic preservation classes to her internship.

“You can’t help but be in awe of all the stuff you learn,” she said.

LeeAnne Brooks uses infrared thermography technology at Shelton House

For senior LeeAnne Brooks, her three internships have reinforced her decision to pursue a career in historic preservation.

“The hands-on experience is helping me to prepare for the job market,” Brooks said. “I love that the reality of historic preservation is even more exciting than the classroom experience led me to believe.”

This semester, Brooks is volunteering at Richmond National Battlefield Park’s Shelton House at Rural Plains Plantation in Hanover County, using infrared thermography (IRT) technology to find original features of the historic house. IRT is the measurement of surface temperature distribution through non-destructive methods, Spencer explained.

Barbara Yocum, senior architectural conservator with the National Park Service, said she is grateful for the work of UMW’s historic preservation interns at Shelton House.

“The infrared thermography study has provided valuable insights on the construction of the house that will be included in an upcoming historic structure report on the building,” said Yocum, noting that the more than 250-year-old house sustained shelling during the Civil War.

“This is a leading edge interpretation,” Spencer, who advises both Medve and Brooks, said.

Brooks explained that the process helps minimize the hidden costs associated with preservation work, allowing for a more accurate estimate of the restoration process.

“I love the hunt, the hidden stuff,” she said. “It’s like finding Waldo.”

As an adult student, Brooks’ main motivation is a career she loves. She’s well on her way with the historic preservation program.

“Here was an opportunity to work in history; to do something that I can be passionate about.  I’ve always loved historic buildings and sites, and here is a career in helping to protect some of this country’s most valuable resources – it is a natural fit,” she said.

The fieldwork projects like the ones at Rural Plains and Mount Vernon are a way for students to take lessons learned in the classroom to a new level.

“This highlights the caliber of students that are graduating,” Spencer said. “We are always thinking ‘how can we set our students on the right track?’”

# # #

By: Brynn Boyer

About Brynn Boyer

Brynn Boyer is assistant director of media and public relations and a 2010 graduate of UMW.