Written by Priya Chhaya
Last year at the National Preservation Conference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation honored Susan Brandt-Hawley with the John H. Chafee Trustees Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Policy. Because of her experience and involvement in preservation law and policy, she makes an excellent candidate for the Profiles in Preservation series—where we ask individuals to elaborate on their day to day work and what led them to a career in preservation in the first place.
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 a lawyer in California. I have my own law practice in Sonoma County, but work around the state. My law practice is completely focused on historic preservation. I represent individuals and groups trying to prevent demolitions of resources—often those not yet listed in any historic register—and to make sure that protections of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) are enforced. CEQA is a citizen-enforced law, and there is a lot of work to do to make sure that public agencies do not grant demolition permits if adaptive use is feasible. I work at the administrative level, before city councils and planning commissions, and also do a lot of litigation at superior court and appellate levels. A number of my appellate cases, including at the California Supreme Court, are now precedent, and it feels great to know that their application protects historic resources statewide that I may not even hear about. California has a “private attorney general” law that requires legal work to be compensated by public agencies if a lawsuit against them successfully protects a historic resource, so I can provide legal services to preservation advocates at low cost if a case is worthy.
2. How did you become interested in preservation? What did you study in college, and what brought you to this career?
I have a BA in Philosophy and then went to law school at the University of California at Davis. I did not plan to be a historic preservation lawyer, but got involved in environmental cases early in my career as a general practitioner in Sonoma County. Although initially doing timber and gravel mining and other natural resource cases, I took on a case in 1988 that prevented the demolition of an aging bridge that had been rejected for listing on any historic register. The “Bridge Club” successfully saved the Guerneville Bridge (now listed), and it came to the attention of the statewide California Preservation Foundation. Executive director John Merritt asked me to be on the statewide board, which, as it turned out, introduced me to preservation advocates around California. I found preservation advocacy much more interesting and satisfying than my other legal work, and my practice increasingly focused on preservation cases. Looking back, although I had not thought of a preservation law practice (since I’d never heard of such a thing), I’ve always been very drawn to history and architecture. And since 1981, long before I did a preservation case, my law office has been in a 1905 brick house in Glen Ellen, so there is some symmetry to my career path.
3. What is the strangest or coolest thing you’ve ever done as a preservationist, either personally or professionally?
It's hard to think of one strangest or coolest thing... but in general the coolest thing about my preservation law practice is getting to know great (and often rather eccentric!) people and their treasured little local spots. I also get involved in large projects that are well-known, but I love that the state now seems to me to be a richly-varied tapestry of the largely unknown places that local preservationists—often people not involved statewide or beyond their community—get together to protect. Farms and gardens, bridges and signs, libraries and movie theaters, and small neighborhoods of aging homes ... it's definitely cool to be invited into a town I don't know and then to experience and work with locals to save its unique places.
4. What would you like to see changed or improved about the field?
I think preservation law is a great field; it’s challenging and worthwhile. I can’t think of a change or improvement, except that I look forward to seeing an increase in the broadened education of judges and elected officials regarding the value of historic resources to our communities.
5. What advice can you give someone who wants to get involved in preservation?
Just do it. Get involved in a local issue regarding a resource that interests you. Attend statewide and national conferences to meet those already involved. My preservation career started when I took on cases that interested me, without a lot of background in environmental law to start with.
6. Have you attended any training programs or professional development programs? How did they enhance your ability to do your job?
I learned a lot about preservation from my involvement on the board of the California Preservation Foundation and then on the National Trust’s Board of Advisors for nine years. Since my legal work is California-oriented, there are not really programs for me to attend. I do teach and present programs frequently.
7. What is your favorite building?
That’s a very hard question. I am particularly drawn to 1950s architecture, but have favorite buildings from many eras. One great thing about my practice is that through my cases, I have gotten to visit small beloved historic sites around California. I have also been to many great places through CPF and the Trust. But I guess the building I feel closest to is my law office … since I’ve spent most of the last 30 years there!
8. Can you tell us about a random historical fact that has informed the work you do?
California has an eclectic architectural heritage. Victorian, Craftsman, and Art Deco architecture flourished here and then each went out of style; their value was not seen for many decades after their heydays but is now well-accepted. Many mid 20th-century-modern resources are now emerging into popular focus but are still too new to seem valuable to many; it's a challenge to champion some of the more modest examples as worthy of preservation and adaptive use.
Looking for more information about working in preservation? Visit the Preservation Career Center. Make sure to check out the latest article in Professions in Preservation, which looks at what it takes to be a preservation lawyer; and the latest featured article, Ten Ways to Make Blogs Work for You.
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.