Written by Priya Chhaya
Profiles in Preservation are designed to help the preservation community learn more about an individual's path to preservation, and to get a more intimate glimpse into what their day-to-day job is like (with a few questions thrown in about history and their favorite building). The Preservation Career Center recently talked to Katie McLaughlin Friddle, executive director for Preservation Oklahoma, Inc.
1. Describe your job. What do you do from day to day, and how do you view your role in the larger preservation field?
I am the executive director of Preservation Oklahoma, Inc., our statewide nonprofit. From day to day, I do a wide assortment of things, from meeting with state and local officials on preservation issues, to answering an assortment of inquiries about preservation (how do I get my building listed in the National Register? I have this old building, what do I do with it now?), to working on our different outreach programs such as our Endangered Places List, to mundane office stuff, from filing and copying to buying more paper towels!
2. How did you become interested in preservation? What did you study in college, and what brought you to this career?
I've loved history since I was very young, and always loved learning about history through the experience of a place—every family vacation or weekend road trip growing up was to a historic battlefield, or a house museum, or a drive along Route 66 through Oklahoma. In college at the University of Oklahoma, I majored in history, but also took courses in political science and architecture, and considered going to law school.
When I started to really consider what I would do after college, I stumbled upon historic preservation as an actual career field. The more I learned about the many facets of preservation, ranging from teaching people about their heritage to developing communities in a sustainable, responsible way, the more I realized it was a perfect fit for me.
I always wanted to live in New York City, and my early investigations into learning about preservation told me that it was great place to experience the field. I decided to pursue my master’s degree in historic preservation at Columbia University, where my focus was preservation planning. Following graduation, I went to work for the Boston Landmarks Commission, and eventually made my way back home to Oklahoma and over to the advocacy side of the table.
3. What is the strangest or coolest thing you’ve ever done as a preservationist, either personally or professionally?
One of the strangest things I've ever done (when on the staff of the Boston Landmarks Commission) was probably walking the streets of a historic neighborhood in Boston with a huge group of people and a giant wooden model of a traffic control box. New ones were being installed in the district and we were assessing the best locations for them. It was a necessary task but very silly-looking.
The coolest thing I've done was a recent "building hug," encircling buildings with a group of people in protest of a major demolition in downtown Oklahoma City.
4. What would you like to see changed or improved about the field?
It's very interesting to me to study the history of the development of the field, and the way that advocacy has grown from isolated fights for individual buildings of great significance, to trying to bring preservation to the table as a valid consideration in all policy from the local to national level. Preservation is no longer limited to the act of standing in front of the wrecking ball; it is an overarching mindset that can positively impact the way we treat our history, our communities, our resources, and our future development. I can see that mindset taking hold in some places, but there is still a lack of awareness, and sometimes resistance, to it in other places. I hope to continue to see this mindset grow and gain relevance across the country.
5. What advice can you give someone who wants to get involved in preservation?
Don't limit yourself too early to a specific area of the field. In school, I thought the idea of being a "lowly staffer" for a city seemed boring, but my years with a preservation commission gave me some of the best and most diverse experiences I could have imagined. There are so many avenues you can explore with preservation, you should keep your mind open to all the possibilities, and never turn down an opportunity to experience something even if it's not what you think you ultimately want to do—you just might change your mind.
6. Have you attended any training programs or professional development programs? How did they enhance your ability to do your job?
I was recently lucky enough to attend a training program specifically for new executive directors of statewide and local partners of the National Trust. While I was, I think, pretty well-informed about the Trust's activities and programs, this was a fantastic opportunity to gain a better understanding of those, and to learn from my colleagues' experiences in other states and cities.
I've also taken advantage of training through our statewide center for nonprofits—while not preservation-oriented, it has been a great help in understanding the challenges and issues facing nonprofit organizations.
7. What is your favorite building?
Most people will say this is really hard, but for me it's not—Grand Central Terminal, hands down. This is the building that I could not wait to see when I went to New York for the first time as a high-schooler, and I was not disappointed. This is the building that I read about when first exploring preservation, and was so moved by the battle to save it that I knew preservation was what I wanted to do with my life. This is the building I took every out-of-town visitor to when I lived in New York to give them that take-your-breath-away NYC experience (it never failed me), and the building that I go back to every time I visit. Last, but certainly not least, this is where my husband asked me to marry him.
8. Can you tell us about a random historical fact that has informed the work you do?
Many people know about the various “trails of tears,” the forced removal of tribes to Oklahoma at the time when it was Indian Territory. General knowledge of that history often seems to skip up to the statehood period and Rogers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!," with little understanding of what happened to those tribes along the way. In research in college and as part of my master's thesis, I learned a great deal about a time after removal when tribes had a high level of autonomy in Indian Territory, grew from a forced relocation with literally nothing to reestablish and continue their sophisticated governmental and social structures, and built some really incredible civic buildings—buildings that many tribes are now trying to preserve. This is such a fascinating and important part of Oklahoma's history that is not well known outside of the state, and sometimes not well known in Oklahoma, either. It's a hope of mine, in my work with POK, to help bring awareness to all areas of the state's history, and to all people's preservation goals.
Priya Chhaya is a program associate in the Center for Preservation Leadership at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She can be found on Twitter @PC_PresNation.