April 25, 2019

Michael Spencer: Courageous Conversations

Michael Spencer, associate professor and director for the Center for Historic Preservation

Michael Spencer, associate professor and director for the Center for Historic Preservation

If you step into Michael Spencer’s office in Combs, you’ll pass through a massive antique wooden doorframe. His mentor, Professor Emeritus Gary Stanton, salvaged it from Nottingham, an 18th-century plantation home that was recently destroyed.

Questions about what pieces of history should be saved and salvaged are what led Spencer ’03 to study at Mary Washington, one of only four institutions in the country with a bachelor’s degree in historic preservation. Now, as associate professor and department chair, Spencer and his fellow professors are opening doors to new conversations in the classroom about what is worthy of conservation and preservation in the 21st century.

“We’re moving beyond focusing on the history of a singular ethnic and gender group and broadening the spectrum in terms of what we should be looking at from a preservation standpoint,” said Spencer, who said the department frequently works with local African-American groups and Native American tribes to help address oversights of the past. “Now we are asking, ‘What story do we want to tell as a country?’”

The voices of preservationists like Spencer are becoming increasingly valuable as America – and our own historic city – navigates the debate over artifacts, relics and monuments from our nation’s past. From Confederate monuments in Charlottesville to the slave auction block in Fredericksburg, we have monumental decisions to make about what stays and what goes, and more importantly, why? It’s these questions that motivated Spencer to take part in Courageous Conversations, a new series of videos featuring UMW faculty exploring topics of diversity and inclusion.

 

 

Q: What drew you to the field of historic preservation in the first place?
A: I’ve always been interested in historic buildings, and most history programs are not building-centric. I found Mary Washington with my dad’s help – and the rest is history.

Q: How has the historic preservation department changed since you were a student?
A: We were doing ink on mylar drawings and had only just acquired AutoCAD, a computer-assisted drafting program. You had to sign up to use it on the computer in Trinkle’s basement. We still teach hard-line drawings, but now use new technologies such as 3-D modeling and virtual reality.

Q: Has preserving history always been a controversial topic, as it has been in the last few years, or is this a new phenomenon?
A: There will always be debates because every object and site is unique, so each brings different perspectives. It often becomes controversial when you talk about how to preserve things. As preservationists, we have seven aspects of integrity to help us decide if an object or site is significant, and location is one of them. If you move the block to the Fredericksburg Area Museum and have to pay to see it, is that conveying history in the way we want, or do we want it to be accessible to everyone? But there are also personal stories and conversations – feeling is another aspect of integrity we consider – and it might warrant a change in our preservation approach. As a department, we’ve participated in the discussions in Fredericksburg, but the community must delve into the actual preservation issues at hand, and we hope to be a part of that.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Confederate monuments at the center of the national controversy, particularly those in your hometown of Charlottesville?
A: Many of the monuments were put up at the 50th or 100th anniversary of the Civil War in honor of the Southern myth and “lost cause” and embody many of the racist beliefs of the time. Lee and Jackson didn’t have direct ties to Charlottesville. But some of the older memorials list names of the local dead and it’s harder to advocate for their removal. There are differences in how you approach and evaluate these monuments. But if you dig deep enough, you can always find out intent. Newspapers are always publishing editorials, and when you read them, you can really see what people wear on their sleeves.

Associate Professor Michael Spencer, who is chair of the Department of Historic Preservation, discovered the original door to the Mary Washington House using infrared thermography.

Associate Professor Michael Spencer, who is chair of the Department of Historic Preservation, discovered the original door to the Mary Washington House using infrared thermography.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your profession?
A: Seeing students with whom I’ve made a connection excel at UMW and beyond. I also find the “discovery” aspect of my job particularly rewarding. My wife was driving me around at 4 a.m., during one of the coldest days of the year, and we stopped at the Mary Washington House. I used infrared thermography tools, which show the way heat is transmitted through objects, and it led us to discover Mary Washington’s original front door.

Q: What is the most challenging?
A: Continually advocating for why historic preservation matters, here at UMW when it comes to securing resources, and within the community.

Q: What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
A: While I’m big on technology, I just got my first iPhone. Frankly, I hate using it, except when I’m taking pictures of my daughter.

UMW Receives Preservation Award for Amphitheatre Renovation

The recent restoration of the University of Mary Washington’s century-old amphitheatre has been recognized by the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc. (HFFI). The nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting historic downtown Fredericksburg honored UMW with the E. Boyd Graves Preservation Award of Excellence. HFFI recognized John Wiltenmuth, associate vice president for Facilities Services; Rob Johnston, assistant director […]

Alumna Donates to Create Historic Preservation Scholarship

University of Mary Washington alumna Kerri S. Barile has carved a career and built a business out of her passion for, and education in, historic preservation. As co-founder and president of Dovetail Cultural Resource Group, she now is giving back to her alma mater while blazing a trail for UMW students to follow in her footsteps.

Kerri Barile '94 is co-owner of Dovetail Cultural Resources Group.

Kerri Barile ’94 is co-owner of Dovetail Cultural Resources Group.

Dovetail, under the direction of Barile and her business partner, Michael Carmody, recently donated $26,000 to create an endowed scholarship for UMW historic preservation students. Pending approval by the UMW Board of Visitors, it will be named the Dovetail Cultural Resource Group Scholarship for Historic Preservation.

“Mary Washington has given so much to me personally – and now is providing our company with close connections to professors, students and alumni,” said Barile, who graduated from the University in 1994 with a degree in historic preservation. Read more.

Fredericksburg Firm Establishes Historic Preservation Scholarship

University of Mary Washington alumna Kerri S. Barile has carved a career and built a business out of her passion for, and education in, historic preservation. As co-founder and president of Dovetail Cultural Resource Group, she now is giving back to her alma mater while blazing a trail for UMW students to follow in her […]

UMW Awards Historic Preservation Book Prize

The University of Mary Washington’s Center for Historic Preservation has awarded the 2018 Book Prize to Caitlin DeSilvey for Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. The Center awards the prize each year to an author whose book has a positive impact on preservation in the United States. “Curated Decay is a beautifully written book that conceptualizes […]

UMW Announces 2014 Historic Preservation Book Prize

The University of Mary Washington Center for Historic Preservation has awarded the 2014 Historic Preservation Book Prize to “Old Buildings New Forms: New Directions in Architectural Transformations” by Françoise Astorg Bollack. The Center for Historic Preservation awarded the 2014 Historic Preservation Book Prize to "Old Buildings New Forms: New Directions in Architectural Transformations" by Françoise Astorg Bollack. “Bollack’s book is provocative for historic preservation in the United States and worldwide,” said Gary Stanton, chair of the jury and associate professor of historic preservation at UMW. “[The book] proposes ways of seeing, valuing and designing that not all readers will approve or appreciate. Yet the value of the discussion is not brought forward by a slow evolution of the language of rehabilitation and reuse, but by the articulation of contrasting active design concepts.” The center awards the Historic Preservation Book Prize annually to a book that a jury deems has made the most significant contribution to the intellectual vitality of historic preservation in America. Bollack is a registered architect with more than 30 years of experience in architectural design, historic preservation, adaptive reuse and interior design. Since 1981, she has been the principal of Françoise Bollack Architects in New York City. She is also an adjunct associate professor of architecture at Columbia University. This year, the jury for the $500 prize also included Douglas Sanford, Hofer Professor of Early American Culture and Historic Preservation at the University of Mary Washington; Andrew Dolkart of the historic preservation program at Columbia University; Malcolm Cairns, professor of landscape architecture at Ball State University; and Lucy Lawliss, National Park Service Superintendent of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Wilderness Battlefield Parks. To nominate a book for the 2015 prize, a book must be first available in the United States between Jan. 1, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2014.  Letters of nomination from any source and six copies of the nominated book must be postmarked by Feb. 15, 2015 and sent to Michael Spencer, chair of the Center for Historic Preservation at the University of Mary Washington, 1301 College Avenue, Combs 131, Fredericksburg, VA  22401-5300. For more information, contact the Center for Historic Preservation at (540) 654-1041.

UMW Announces 2013 Historic Preservation Book Prize

The University of Mary Washington Center for Historic Preservation has awarded the 2013 Historic Preservation Book Prize to “SynergiCity: Reinventing the Postindustrial City,” edited by Paul Hardin Kapp and Paul J. Armstrong. “In response to the gripping question of how to renew the postindustrial city, the authors of the essays in the book propose a fascinating viewpoint,” said Cristina Turdean, jury chair and assistant professor of historic preservation. “The book does a superb job in making the reader think in a holistic and practical way of the forces and factors that could and should play a role in the transformation of dormant industrial infrastructure and communities into vibrant urban centers.” The center awards the Historic Preservation Book Prize annually to a book that a jury deems has made the most significant contribution to the intellectual vitality of historic preservation in America. Kapp is an associate professor of historic preservation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is a licensed architect in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. He served as the historical architect and campus historic preservation manager at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for more than five years. Armstrong is an associate professor of design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he has taught for more than two decades. He has presented lectures across the country and is co-author of “The Skyscraper and the City: Design, Technology, and Innovation.” This year, the jury for the $500 prize also included Julia King, associate professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland; Kaitlin O’Shea, historic preservation specialist at the Vermont Agency of Transportation; Sarah Sanders ’13; Gary Stanton, associate professor of historic preservation at UMW; and Jason Vaughan, director of historic preservation and interpretation at the Baltimore National Heritage Area. Entries may come from any of the disciplines that relate to the theory or practice of historic preservation. To be eligible for the 2014 prize, a book must be published first in the United States between Jan. 1, 2013 and Dec. 31, 2013. Established in 1980, the Center for Historic Preservation is a research and public outreach organization affiliated with the UMW Department of Historic Preservation. The center sponsors lectures, seminars, workshops and conferences for students and faculty in the historic preservation department, and it offers programs for the public. For more information, contact Andrea Livi-Smith, assistant professor of historic preservation, at alsmith@umw.edu or (540) 654-1316.