How I Became an Historic Preservation Activist

It began with a newspaper article.

Although I have a master’s degree in Public History, I only worked professionally as an historic preservationist for a brief time, as the Main Street Program Manager for the City of Lancaster, Texas. When that program was defunded, I moved into another job in local government. Over the years, one job led to another, but never back to historic preservation. By 2009, my family and I lived in Berryville, the county seat of Clarke County. We had been in Berryville for five years, the longest time I had lived any one place (at that time) since I was 10 years old. For the first time in my life, I felt that I had a vested interest in my community.

In early 2009, I read an article in the local newspaper about Georgetown University’s plans to build a retreat center on top of the Blue Ridge. Georgetown University had purchased a parcel on the Clarke County side of the mountain’s ridge line with sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley. The property included a 1894 Gothic Revival farmhouse known as Hohenheim (“High Home” in German).

Hohenheim, in March 2009, before restoration

The area around Hohenheim, including Hohenheim, had been recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Bear’s Den Rural Historic District. The district is characterized by large, secluded homes built by wealthy Washingtonians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as summer retreats from the heat of the city.

Georgetown University submitted a special use permit application to build a “contemplative center” on the Hohenheim site for their overnight student retreat program. Georgetown’s plans, according to the newspaper article, included demolishing Hohenheim. The application had gone to a public hearing before the Planning Commission and several people spoke out in opposition to the demolition, including the chair of the Clarke County Historic Preservation Commission (CCHPC), but no action had been taken. I wasn’t worried. Surely, I thought, the Planning Commission will make saving the house a condition of approval for the special use. I was wrong.

A few weeks later, there was a second newspaper article. The Planning Commission had recommended approval of the application and staff had not opposed the demolition of the house. Reading the article, I was stunned. How could Clarke County allow a contributing structure in a brand new historic district to be demolished? Someone should do something, I thought! Then I realized that I was someone and I should do something. And so I did.

I reached out to other local historic preservationists, starting with the newly-formed local branch of Preservation Virginia, the statewide historic preservation advocacy non-profit and met its then-president, Bob Stieg. By the time the Clarke County Board of Supervisors held their public hearing on the Georgetown application, we were prepared and organized. And we saved the house.

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as speaking at that one meeting, but it started there. The Board of Supervisors took no action that night, giving us the opportunity to meet with representatives of Georgetown University to discuss alternatives to demolishing the house. Final approval of Georgetown’s application took another year and the university agreed to save the house.

After that first meeting, the chair of the CCHPC approached me and asked if I would be interested in serving on the commission. There was a vacancy.

A few months later, I was appointed to the commission and have served on it ever since. I am currently the chair. I also volunteered to be the secretary for the fledgling Northern Shenandoah Valley Branch of Preservation Virginia. When the branch was spun off from Preservation Virginia as an independent organization about 18 months later, I served as its vice president and then president.

In October 2013, Bob Stieg and I attended the dedication of Georgetown University’s Calcagnini Contemplative Center. The university moved the house in order to improve the view of the valley from the new dining hall, but it was beautifully restored.

Me, at Georgetown University’s Calganini Contemplative Center dedication in October 2013, with Hohenheim in the background, restored.

And it all began with a newspaper article.