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). Our first profile is Erin Hanafin Berg who works as a field representative (through the Partners in the Field Program) with the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.
1. Describe your job. What do you do from day to day, and how do you view your role in the larger preservation field?
As the Partners in the Field Representative for the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, my job is to bring the outreach and education services of the Alliance and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to communities throughout Minnesota. I spearhead the Alliance’s annual 10 Most Endangered program, our primary advocacy and outreach tool. We use this list to identify 10 places in the state that face demolition, neglect, or organizational and funding challenges, and to bring about a positive, preservation-oriented solution. The winter and early spring months are busy with administering this program, and I spend the rest of the year working directly with the individuals and communities that are involved in the current and past 10 Most Endangered listed properties. In addition, I field random calls and e-mails from members of the public who are asking for technical assistance, grant funding, advocacy guidance, and the like. I staff our advocacy committee, a group of volunteers that work on public policy and outreach activities, and the easements committee, which manages our preservation facade easement program.
2. How did you become interested in preservation? What did you study in college, and what brought you to this career?
I have always had an interest in historic architecture. I grew up in St. Paul and attended elementary school in the Cathedral Hill area of the city. For many years, my daily bus ride was down Summit Avenue and I always admired the houses as I stared out the window. When I was in high school I learned that there was such a thing as an architectural historian and, in a typically teenage moment, I decided that is what I wanted to be. I went to St. Olaf College and participated in the Paracollege program, which allowed me to design my own major with individual tutorials and coursework in architectural history, criticism, and design. My senior project was a renovation plan for Ytterboe Hall, a National Register-eligible building on the St. Olaf campus that was demolished four years after I graduated. When it was time for me to apply to graduate school, I applied to some architectural history programs and a few historic preservation programs, not really knowing the difference. (I was attending a school in Norway at the time and, since this was pre-Internet, it was pretty hard to get good information that remotely.) My husband (fiancé at the time) was accepted to the University of Oregon architecture school, so that is where we decided to go. While at UO, I considered getting a Masters in architectural history, too, so I could teach, but when I realized I would have to become proficient in another language to earn an M.A., I dropped that idea. As it turns out, I do plenty of teaching on the job each and every day, and this position is the perfect fit for me.
3. What is the strangest or coolest thing you’ve ever done as a preservationist, either personally or professionally?
When I worked as a historian for Hess, Roise and Company, I did a documentation study of the Stillwater Prison hospital, which was going to be demolished. I wrote a detailed history of the building and had to accompany a photographer to take pictures of the building. I went to the prison twice and had to go within the prison grounds—through the security check—to record and evaluate the building and conduct research in the facilities manager’s office. I even passed by the inmates as they were coming back from work duty. The building had a fascinating history—built on a bluff within the prison, with elevated open porches on the south side of the building for the treatment of tuberculosis—and I get a kick out of telling people I’ve been to prison.
4. What would you like to see changed or improved about the field?
I would like to see more collaboration and true partnerships, especially among allied non profit organizations and local and state offices. It frustrates me that we are often at cross purposes, or that we don’t work more closely together to achieve common goals. I would also like to see the preservation field build its ethic from early childhood on up—much the way the environmental movement has done—by getting into the schools and engaging with young people.
5. What advice can you give someone who wants to get involved in preservation?
I encourage people who are interested in preservation to explore the true depth and variety of the field to find their niche. My graduate program, at the University of Oregon, was very hands-on, with real-world projects in building assessment and analysis, survey and inventory, and historical research. My first job out of graduate school was as a staff person to the Memphis Landmarks Commission, where I was immersed in preservation planning and regulation, as well as some outreach and advocacy activities. I worked as a private consultant for several years, where I learned the ropes of historic rehabilitation tax credits, honed my National Register and documentation skills, and was engrossed in research and analysis. These varied experiences have all contributed to my effectiveness in the field, although I still learn something new about historic preservation and community development each and every day.
6. Have you attended any training programs or professional development programs? How did they enhance your ability to do your job?
I regularly attend the National Preservation Conference and spring Partners meetings, which present massive amounts of information about programs, initiatives, and strategies that I can use (or adapt) in my field work. This past summer, I attended the Midwest Rural Assembly, a conference sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Although completely outside the field of historic preservation, I learned some valuable information about community development at this conference, and think that more education in this area would be of benefit to preservation practitioners.
7. What is your favorite building?
This is an impossible question—like choosing your favorite child!—so I’ll pick a couple from my recent field visits. Winona has incredible Prairie School architecture, including two magnificent bank buildings, the Merchants National Bank and the Winona Savings Bank. The small town of Dassel, in west central Minnesota, has rehabilitated a former ergot factory, called the Universal Laboratories Building, as the home of its local historical society. Its fourth-floor meeting room is one of my favorite places to speak.
8. Can you tell us about a random historical fact that has informed the work you do?
Minneapolis was a center for flour milling from the late 1870s until the 1930s, and was known for quite awhile as the flour milling capital of the world. The Minneapolis riverfront, in the area of Saint Anthony Falls (the Mississippi River only natural waterfall), retains a number of historic mills—and even archeological resources from demolished mills, headraces, and tailraces—that are truly unique. Even as a native of this area, I was not fully aware of the significance of the milling history until being reintroduced to the riverfront in 2005.
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.