Interviews

[Interview] Merry Powell, Interior Designer: "Preservation is Contagious"

Posted on: October 22nd, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

 


Braehead's restored exterior.

How do you balance history and home? That's the question Merry Powell was asking when she signed on to help restore and redesign the Civil War-era Braehead mansion in Fredersickburg, Va. -- and the process she documented on her blog in a series called "Braehead Revisited."

In Powell's words:

Really, most of what we did to Braehead was undo bad stuff that had been done to the house over the years. We got down to the original fabric, and then figured out creative ways to put a modern family, with 4 children, into the house comfortably without sacrificing the house in the process. I think this is an important point as we all look for meaningful ways to actually use old structures. They can’t all be museum houses, but they can be saved and be useful, if enough care and thought is put into them.

We caught up with Powell to ask her more about Braehead and the team of people it took to turn this historic treasure back into a much-loved home.

Tell me about the history of Braehead. What makes this property significant?

Braehead mansion occupies a prominent place in the beautiful Fredericksburg, Va., Battlefield. The home was completed in 1859 by Scottish immigrant, John Howison, for his family of nine. During the Civil War, Braehead provided shelter to both Confederate and Union troops.

General Robert E. Lee reportedly established his headquarters and “took breakfast” at Braehead on the morning of Dec. 13, 1862, the date of the first battle of Fredericksburg. Lee tied his horse, Traveler, to a black walnut tree that still thrives on the property. (It has since been dubbed the “Traveler Tree.”)

In May 1864, Braehead was occupied by Union troops. A Howison family member wrote that the troops “killed the cows, ate the chickens, smashed the china, tore up dress goods, destroyed or stole the family Bible which had in it…three generations [and] threw the dining room chairs through the window glass.” The house was used as a hospital for Union soldiers who scribed graffiti into the woodwork and plaster.


The historic marker (left); the Traveler Tree (right).

What has led to its restoration?

For nearly 150 years, Braehead remained the property of the Howisons and their descendents. In 2006, Braehead went on the market for the first time in its history. Since there had never been any easements or protections of any kind placed on the property, the old house, then in a sad state of disrepair, was in danger of being lost forever.

The Central Virginia Battlefield Trust (CVBT) quickly stepped in and purchased the house and surrounding 18 acres. Based on the historical significance of the property, the CVBT promptly registered it and put into place easements to protect the property.

The CVBT then searched diligently for a proper buyer to rescue the house and restore it to its former glory. A perfect match was found in a Fredericksburg family who fell in love with Braehead and has now made it their home.

What was your mission during the interior restoration project?

Braehead was always intended to be a family home. My mission, and that of architect Sabina Weitzman, and preservationist/builder Jay Holloway, was to preserve Braehead’s 19th century past, while also protecting its future, by making it a comfortable home for a 21st century family. We all understood that working on this project was both a privilege and a responsibility.


Examples of Braehead's previous condition.

What was the house like when you first saw it?

It was pretty bad. Over 6,000 square feet of broken windows, rotting wood, mold and standing water were just a few of the challenges. In a previous attempt to turn Braehead into a bed & breakfast, two horrible kitchens had been added and a row of bathrooms was built in what had been a hallway. (You literally had to step over toilets to access the bedrooms.) A sewer pipe was exposed and ran down one of the walls. No heat, inadequate wiring and plumbing, and adhering to the strict building codes of the Department of Historical Resources were the biggest issues.

But amidst the decay and garbage was a treasure trove of period antiques, many original to Braehead. Furniture, art, books, even a Victorian wedding dress, were still inside the main dwelling and adjacent outbuildings. I was overjoyed to have so much to work with!

We inventoried as best we could to determine what we could use and what was too precious or too far gone. The owners generously offered many pieces to the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, but others were repaired and restored along with the house.


The foyer, or "Grand Hall," before renovation.

What surprised you during this project?

If there is anything I have learned about working on old houses, is that there is no end to the surprises! However, one thing I noticed on this job was how contagious preservation can become. The deeper we dug into the project and the more history that was unearthed, the more committed everyone was to getting it right.

As bad as Braehead had appeared when we started, we found that most of our job was not to “do”, but to “undo.” As the layers of past renovations were peeled away, the old house revealed itself. Everyone who worked on Braehead sensed that we were rescuing the house.

Do you have a background in preservation?

I do not have formal training in preservation. My passion for old houses grew from my background in antiques. My grandparents were antiques dealers in South Carolina. I spent my childhood learning about these treasures and how to care for them.

Eventually, I also went into the antiques business, which led to me purchasing a very large, very old house. From that point on, I was hooked. I’m still living in an old house now in Richmond, Va. It has been a constant educational experience for the last 25 years.


Braehead was full of antiques, including this pianoforte which is now in the restored music parlor.

What did you learn about preservation while working at Braehead?

The owners, architect, and builder for the Braehead project have experience, knowledge and education in the field of historic preservation. The goal was always to do what was best for the house. From them, I learned that preserving the history of an important structure, like Braehead, while accommodating modern day living, can be accomplished. It just takes lots of patience, dedication and resources.

How did you balance modern amenities and tastes against the history of the house?

In my earliest discussions with the owners, we decided that certain rooms -- the “formal rooms” as we called them -- would be designed in a style correct for the period of the house.

The grand hall, dining room, and music parlor would certainly be on tours for historical events and we used them to display some of the treasures found in Braehead. Almost all of the furnishings in these rooms were found in the house. The few pieces that I purchased were 19th century antiques.

The color schemes for these rooms were based on wallpaper fragments found in the house as well as hues that were popular for the time. The beautiful decorative painting on the millwork in these rooms was original to the house and was still in remarkably good shape. Careful cleaning was all that was needed.

I reupholstered the furniture in velvets and tapestry. The window treatments are made of silk. I designed period-style light fixtures, which were handmade by craftsmen in Richmond.


The home office now occupies the original kitchen with its large cooking fireplace.

The family uses these rooms less frequently, though they are not off-limits. The children take piano lessons on the restored pianoforte that was found in the house.

The private rooms of the home -- including the kitchen, family room, and office -- were designed with comfort and functionality in mind. There is sensitivity to the age and style of the house in these rooms, but this is where the family lives so they had to be tough.

The kitchen cabinets, as an example, had to be carefully designed to not encroach on the original mantel or windows. They were custom made by Mill Cabinet Shop, Bridgewater, Va. with a finish that, while certainly not 18th century-like, does relate to the house and the desire of the owner to have cabinets that were kid-proof. We also designed the soapstone backsplash to be boxed around the lower window trim so as to protect, but not damage the old wood.

What did you think when the restoration was complete?

Complete? Who said it was complete?! I don’t know if projects like Braehead are ever complete. But when I visit the house now and see children playing in the yard and toys in the hallway, I feel that John Howison would be pleased to see his beautiful house so full of happiness and love.

The family who now owns Braehead respects and cherishes the old house and considers its preservation a part of their legacy. I am honored and proud to have played a small part in not only saving such a wonderful house, but also making it into a home for a special family.


The renovated kitchen. The cabinets' handcarved detail is by Lee Stover, Mill Cabinet Shop.

What’s next for the property?

The exterior restoration of the structure is nearly complete. The owners have installed beautiful landscaping, with the Traveler Tree being the main feature. Braehead has suffered greatly throughout history, but this chapter of the story is a happy one. We hope that future generations will appreciate the care and hard work which brought Braehead back to life, and will continue to be good stewards for this very special old house.

If you would like to see Braehead firsthand, the house will be featured on the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation’s Candlelight Tour, Dec. 8 - 9, 2012. I will be decorating the formal rooms with greens native to Virginia, as well as thistle and decorative items, which pay homage to the Howison family’s Scottish roots. The kitchen and informal rooms will be decorated with items made by the current owners’ children. The dates of the tour fall on 150 years, almost to the day, since General Robert E. Lee visited Braehead, so it promises to be a very special event.

Merry Powell Interiors is a design firm based in Richmond, Va.  Powell does residential, commercial, and historical interiors. She may be reached through her website, www.merrypowell.com.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

[Interview] Mike Todd, Filmmaker: Documenting Joe Frazier’s Gym

Posted on: October 11th, 2012 by Julia Rocchi

 

UPDATE: The National Trust for Historic Preservation and its preservation partners hosted a film screening of the documentary, “Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears,” at Temple University in fall 2012 that received an overwhelming response from attendees. The film about Frazier’s life that spotlights the importance of saving his gym in Philadelphia resonated with students, faculty, local preservationists and community activists alike.

In an effort to reach a wider audience with the film and raise funds to support preservation of the gym, the National Trust entered into an agreement Kultur International Films LTD., Inc. recently, in which the National Trust receives a portion of the proceeds from sales of the documentary DVD.

The National Trust will receive 40 percent of the discounted sale price ($17.99), or $7.20, on any sale of the DVD. Visit Kultur to watch a clip of the film or purchase a DVD. Enter the unique code “JFNT” to support us in protecting an iconic historic site and receive a discount on purchase of the DVD.

After watching the film, share your stories and thoughts on our Saving Places website.

It’s an old-fashioned story: the local boxing gym that becomes a community hub and plays an important role in its neighborhood. Can such a place still exist in the 21st century? Documentary filmmaker Mike Todd believes it can -- and considers boxing legend Joe Frazier a prime example of how to make it work.

Todd’s latest film, Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears, delves into Frazier’s relationship with his Philadelphia community through the lens of his world-famous gym, which he ran for more than 40 years with his son Marvis. Todd says, “I was interested in what motivated Joe to keep it open. He had devoted his life to it and built up a lot of community goodwill. It was amazing to see him still sitting behind the desk.”

But as often happens with documentary filmmaking, the inspirational story Todd started to tell was soon overtaken by history. As the filmmakers worked to raise funding and interest for their project, the gym was facing its own financial difficulties. Then Frazier passed away in 2011, and the gym closed for good.

Todd remembers, “We could see this important, iconic place slipping away. We as filmmakers wanted to step in. We did outreach to see if someone could take over its administration to help out. Surely someone, somewhere, would step in. Marvis and Joe wanted to keep it going. But that didn’t work.”


Director Mike Todd (l.) jokes around with boxing legend Joe Frazier (r.) at the gym.

The good news is, hope is on the horizon for Joe Frazier’s Gym. Named a National Treasure this year, the National Trust is collaborating with Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and Temple University’s School of Architecture to designate the modest three-story building as both a local and national landmark. It’s also working to find a preservation-friendly buyer for the property.

On Tuesday, October 16, the National Trust is organizing a screening of the film in Philadelphia with a complementary panel discussion to follow (event details here). In advance of the event, we sat down with Todd to learn more about his filming experience and reflect on what the building -- and Joe Frazier himself -- meant to him.

What went through your mind when you first entered Joe Frazier’s gym?

On one hand, it felt like a really important, iconic place with historic photos everywhere. But on the other hand, it felt like a community center. Kids were running around. It was a safe place where people had respect for each other. Joe’s name was on the door, and people knew they could go there to have space and freedom from the pressures of North Philadelphia (even if they never became famous boxers). You see so many celebrities who associate themselves with charitable work only for public relations value, but Joe did it with no recognition and his own money.

Who did you encounter in the course of filming that had connections to the space?

Oh, there were so many stories. People went to train there. People were mentored there -- not just in boxing, but in other opportunities outside the gym (job training, for example). If you were prepared to work hard and were motivated, and wanted a way out of the circumstances you were given, the gym was there to help you.

One great example is Richard Slone. He’s an artist, originally from England. He wanted to be a boxer, and every week until he turned 16 he would call Marvis and Joe, because his dream was to train with them. Marvis always encouraged and supported him. So when he finally turned 16, Slone came to Philly to train. He had nothing when he arrived, and ended up living in the back of gym. He became like a son to Marvis and Joe, who looked after him for 10 years.

Meanwhile, Slone was sketching pictures there at the gym. Marvis said to him, “You may never be a boxer, but you can be an artist.” Now Slone is one of the most successful sports artists in America.


Joe Frazier and his son Marvis pose at the gym.

What would losing Joe Frazier’s Gym mean to the neighborhood? To the sports community? To the world?

When we were 2.5 years into filming, the gym closed. Renovations weren’t going to solve anything; it was just stalling time. Marvis was still trying to find a benefactor, but with no success. The gym was slipping through the cracks, much like Joe did. When he passed away, the world remembered who he was. It was so clear how iconic he’d been, but in later years was unrecognized. The work the gym did in the community wasn’t recognized either.

You have to look at Joe’s life in a 20th century U.S. context. Joe’s story says something about the United States and its history, but also speaks to an international audience as symbol of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. There’s meaning and investment in the gym -- it was a beacon of hope.

To lose the gym would be a lost opportunity for the city. He’s a truly remarkable figure. Anyone would be proud to say Joe Frazier lived and ran a gym in their city. You can still preserve the legacy of what it meant, and it’s a story that can still inspire people.

If the building can be preserved and help people remember who Joe Frazier was and what he did -- both as a sportsman and a person engaged in community issues where others had turned their backs -- even posthumous recognition would be amazing. We want Joe to get the recognition he deserves.

How can your film help the cause to save the building?

In May 2011, Joe came to the preview cut in New York City. It was great we got to see the film with him. I even did a Q&A session with him. At the end, the audience gave him a standing ovation. In retrospect, it was great he got to see the story our film tells and why he deserves our respect. (He liked it, too!)

Our film can help raise awareness of why what Joe did there is still relevant -- that his life and the history he represents are still relevant. In that respect, it would be a fantastic achievement to keep the gym open as a place that provides a space for the community, as well as a museum about Joe and the civil rights movement of that era. It is a place linked to the most dramatic years of his life; I think it would be a place people would visit.


Quenell Jones films Joe Frazier in action at the gym.

What’s your dream for the future of Joe Frazier’s Gym?

Seeing the gym included on the 11 Most Endangered list this year proved its importance. It captured the public’s imagination. Our film captured those final years, and we captured that history. I just feel there’s a lot more to run with this -- it’s not sunk in how meaningful this issue can be.

My dream is to see the gym as a place where Joe is remembered, to make it a tribute to Joe’s achievements and what he dedicated his life to. If it can still inspire people locally, nationally and even internationally, then it will truly celebrate Joe’s life and capture what the gym represented.

“Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears” is available from FilmBuff on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube Rentals, Cinemanow, Vudu, and XBOX. You can also contribute to the campaign to save Joe Frazier’s Gym at SavingPlaces.org.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

 


Front view of the church. The dated stone’s translation reads: “Evangelical Lutheran German and English Church A.D. 1863.”

In June 2009, a small story appeared in Brian Brehmer's church bulletin looking for interested people who wanted to work towards preserving and promoting their historic church -- the Salem Lutheran Landmark Church, the birthplace of the Wisconsin Synod.

Despite his lack of preservation background, Brian was inspired to help the place where he'd been a lifelong congregant, and so joined with other preservation-minded community members to form the Friends of the Landmark Church.

Now, three years later, the Friends group is continuing its work to repair the building and catalog the history of this local treasure. We caught up with Brian to learn what the church means to his community, and how these local preservationists are shaping the future for a historic place.

Describe your personal history with Landmark Church and the community. What does the church mean to you?

I have been a member of [Landmark Church] my entire life (40 years) and am the fifth generation of my family to be a member. I was baptized in the old church and had both my kindergarten and first-grade classes in the adjoining building. I live in the same city (Milwaukee) as my family has since 1858.

The church is important to me both as a reminder of my religious home, but also as a reminder of those people who lived and died before me. It also allows me the opportunity to give something back to those who gave something to me.

Tell me more about the historical significance of the Wisconsin Synod. What is it, why is it important to your community, and how is it tied to the church you’re working to save?

The Landmark Church, built of cream city brick in 1863, served as the home of Salem Lutheran Church's congregation from 1863-1977, before a new church was built to accommodate more members. It is important as it marks the birthplace of the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran church body (albeit across the street from where the original log cabin church stood).

This church, now a museum for the work of the Wisconsin Synod throughout the last 150 years, reminds not only us but the community as a whole about the importance and continuance of the mission started by a handful of families long ago, a mission we still continue to do. This church is also one of the oldest remaining buildings in the city of Milwaukee and has been recognized as such.


This original altarpiece and the other white chancel furnishings were donated in 1922 (the 75th anniversary of the congregation) by the Ladies Aid.

When you first saw the notice in the church bulletin about helping save the church, what went through your mind? What convinced you to pitch in and help save it?

When I first saw the notice, I saw it as an opportunity to use my education and my history with the church at the same time. I felt that since the Brehmers have been attending the church for 100+ years, I had an obligation to help preserve it and draw attention to the cause at hand. It was an opportunity for me to use my education and to give back in some way to the church that had served my family for so long.

I also could not see another historical building lost as so many have in the city of Milwaukee. Plus I wanted to learn about the history that I myself was not a part of, the history that existed before I was born.

How much preservation experience did you bring to the table at the outset? What have you learned over the course of working with the Friends?

Absolutely none, actually. While one of my degrees is in history (the roots of which were started by my 7th grade teacher at Salem, Mr. Bruce Bintz), and I have a lifelong love of archaeology and the study of the past, I had not been able to actually get my hands dirty in actual work, nor did I know just what went into saving a building and its artifacts.

I have learned that while not easy, working towards a common goal is actually fun and full of personal opportunities. I have also learned the importance of something as simple as a photo that lay in a drawer for years which was able to fill in gaps or answer questions.


This stained glass window depicts Jerusalem -- originally called Salem.

What’s your dream for the church?

My dream for the church is that it continues to serve as a reminder for those who are still living and for those who have not yet been born. I want it to continue to draw people to it and to remind them of the sacrifices that have been made on a private personal level as well as on a more communal level.

I'd also love to see the archives and the stories documented and presented in such a way that others can learn and grow from the work that we have done and will continue to do.

What’s your biggest piece of advice to people in other communities who want to save a place that matters to them?

The biggest piece of advice is to not give up. There will be both highs and lows, but all of them will be learning experiences and will pay off in the long run.

Also, be willing to constantly look for and accept help and input from others. Work is much easier if you have many workers than just a handful of dedicated ones. Plus, you never know what skills or abilities that one may bring to the table.

Lastly, I think that its important to have a clear-cut and constant goal. But don't carve it in stone, [and remember that] just because you have to adjust things doesn't mean you have failed yourselves or your mission.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

A Fresh Start for Pittsburgh's Bakery Square

Posted on: September 26th, 2012 by Julia Rocchi

 

Bakery Square in Pittsburgh, PA is having a sweet second act. Thanks to a preservation-minded redesign by firm Strada LLC, this former Nabisco factory has traded baked cookies for browser cookies and become the LEED-certified home for several technology tenants, including Google's regional office.

We chatted with John Martine, founding principal and lead design partner at Strada (not to mention a preservationist), about striking the balance between preserving a building's heritage and adapting it for modern use.

The exterior of Bakery Square as it appears today.

Tell me about Bakery Square’s history. What was the building’s former function?

It was built in 1917-1918 as a bakery factory for National Biscuit Company, later known as Nabisco. Crackers and cookies were made at this particular Nabisco plant until it closed in 1998. The building was then purchased by the Atlantic Baking Company in 2001, which continued to operate it as a bakery until 2004. The smell of baking cookies was a sweetly memorable landmark in the East End neighborhoods surrounding the factory for many years.

What is it now?

The building is now the major office building and anchor of a mixed-use complex of offices, retail, hotel and a parking garage known as Bakery Square.

What was your role in transforming Bakery Square into the office and retail hub that it is today?

Strada's primary role has been to transform most of the Nabisco building into office space for a variety of technology companies. Initially, Strada was commissioned by Google to design the two uppermost floors, six and seven (which is partially a mezzanine), into offices for their growing Pittsburgh staff. This effort was quickly followed by Phase 2, with additional designs for Google’s expansion on the fifth floor.

In addition, we are completing interior architecture for other technology tenants including University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Technology Development Center and Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute. The building is now 100% leased by technology companies.


The 6th floor of the Nabisco Building before construction.

What were the benefits (and drawbacks) to adapting the cookie factory into spaces for technology companies?

There were many benefits in adapting this factory space for contemporary office use. Users like Google are drawn to the open floor plans, natural light and materials, and aged character of historic structures -- they fell in love with the scratched and worn wood floors that show the patina of 90 years of industrial use.

There is abundant natural light because of the expansive fenestration already in place, which helped to achieve LEED for Interiors Gold certification. And unusually generous floor to ceiling heights allow for a greater feeling of openness and provide ample space for the necessary mechanical systems so they didn’t become a visual distraction. In summary, there were far greater benefits than drawbacks.


The same view of the 6th floor after completion. In the foreground is a cluster of workstations with steel and brick conference towers beyond.

What were the challenges you faced in preserving some of the building’s original features while making the space tech-friendly for its new tenants? How did you overcome any of these challenges?

For the most part, we stripped the building's interior spaces bare of equipment, exposing the bones of the industrial floor plates and the structure. The design team devised a strategy that took full advantage of the existing post-industrial space with its high ceilings, amazing natural light, and quirky features.

The existing 60’ wide x 200’ long x 30’ high open space, with its trussed ceiling, lent itself well to forming the foundation of a one-of-a-kind “wow” factor. The team placed several large architectural elements within the vast space to enhance the visual and spatial experience of it. Elements included a curved lecture hall with viewing gallery, several one- and two-story conference towers, a giant cargo net hammock, and a bamboo forest with 10’-high cascading water walls.


This open-circle seating area on the 5th floor, known as the Think Pit, provides an ideal space for collaboration or relaxation.

However, salvaging all of these elements created obvious challenges -- for example,  auspending a 20’ x 20’ cargo net hammock from an existing concrete truss spanning 60’, and reinforcing 5’-deep beams to support an exterior roof deck.

What will the building’s rebirth mean for the neighborhood and the city today?

The project has been a huge success for the developer with the attraction of immensely desirable tenants like Google, and the building is now fully leased. Bakery Square has also become an important anchor in the revitalization of the East Liberty section of the city that was historically the second largest commercial center in Pittsburgh, but suffered badly from the effects of urban renewal in the 1960’s. It -- and other projects like it throughout the city -- are a testament to the enduring economic, aesthetic, and social value of historic structures.


The flooring material of this 5th floor cafe is made using scraps left over from the furniture industry.

What’s the next chapter in Bakery Square’s story? Has it inspired other preservation or development stories nearby?

As luck would have it, a major development site has come available directly across the street from the Nabisco building in the form of a decommissioned middle school built in the 1970s. The developer of Bakery Square is in the process of acquiring this 13-acre site for the next phase of development, Bakery Square 2.0. Although this will be new construction, it will expand the mixed-use character of Bakery Square by adding residences, as well as new office buildings, to the project. Strada is the master planner and urban designer for this next phase.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

[Interview] Morgan Devlin, Preserve Rhode Island: Rhody Rules the Roost

Posted on: September 21st, 2012 by Julia Rocchi

 

Morgan Devlin's favorite new colleague is ... a rooster.

As marketing manager for the Historic Sites Coalition of Rhode Island, Preserve Rhode Island, Devlin is part of the team behind a colorful, cartoon rooster named Rhody the Rambler, the mascot for the coalition's Rhody Ramble program.


Rhody and a new friend participate in "Learning Colonial Games and Crafts" at Smith-Appleby House in Smithfield, RI.

This new effort, designed to connect families with historic places in Rhode Island, launched over the summer with a coalition of 21 historic sites ranging from working farms to waterfront mansions. The program focused on events for children 5-12 and their families, with activities ranging from concerts to treasure hunts to specialty kids tours. The core concept: create opportunities for families to have quality time together at Rhode Island’s unique places.

Devlin says of Rhody Ramble: "The scope of our project is local, but our goal is to create a program which can have a much broader impact on how historic sites interact with families. Our sites range from small, volunteer-run sites to those with a professional staff. We believe that the chance for wonderful encounters with historic places is possible, no matter the size of your budget."

We caught up with Devlin, a 10-year resident of Rhode Island, recently to see how the families, the sites, and the rooster are faring so far.

What’s your elevator pitch for Rhody Ramble?

The Rhody Ramble is a family adventure to explore Rhode Island’s unique and historic places. It is a great way for kids and parents to interact with local history, even for those who do not consider themselves history lovers. It includes a wide variety of events: concerts, scavenger hunts, festivals and hands-on activities. So there truly is something for everyone.

What burst of insight inspired you to create Rhody the Rambler?

Rhody was a natural ambassador for the program. He was born during a brainstorming session among the staff at Preserve Rhode Island. Once we thought of him, it was clear that he was a perfect representative for our historic sites, as he is a heritage breed Rhode Island Red Rooster.

We also wanted to make sure the graphics spoke to kids and immediately conveyed that this was a program for them. Animals have a universal appeal, so parents connect with him too! We were fortunate to work with talented local graphic designers who brought him to life. At one point, I had several possible Rhodys hanging on my office walls, but he quickly became the favorite.

We are all very fond of Rhody, including our partners who immediately embraced him. We even purchase a stuffed animal rooster to travel around the state to various events and photographed him participating in the activities, as you can see in the photos. Rhody helped us to share the fun nature of the program and the family-friendly side of the historic sites, which can sometimes be a challenge to convey.


Rhody enjoys some traditional RI johnnycakes at Windmill Wednesday at Prescott Farm in Middletown, RI.

How did the Rhody Ramble help existing historic sites show off different sides of themselves?

By bringing together 21 sites under the umbrella of the Rhody Ramble program, we were able to highlight the fact that family programming is an important part of many historic sites. Since people often do not associate historic places with kids’ activities, creating a summer passport filled with events for families was in itself revealing a different side of many places.

In some cases, it inspired the sites to create new programs for families. A couple examples were the Fly a Kite Day at Watson Farm, a property of Historic New England, and the Explore RI History tour at Smith’s Castle.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for other organizations who are interested in doing something similar in their communities?

Understand your audience. If you wish to draw families to your historic site, think about what will attract them. Review your current programming and see what may be appropriate for children. If you are creating a new event, understand that it doesn’t need to be complex. An outdoor concert, an open house with kids’ activities, a scavenger hunt or even a story hour could be simple ways to draw in family visitors.

Consider pricing that will make it easy for families to attend such as free admission for kids or a ‘per family’ rate. See if there is an opportunity to partner with other attractions for families nearby and create a half-day or full-day experience in your community.

Also, make sure to communicate with families through channels they use. We were fortunate to work with a local family blogger who featured several of our events. Look for the resources that are being used by families in your area. If you aren’t sure where to start, ask someone with kids for suggestions.


Rhody listens to the band at the Concert Under the Elms at the John Brown House in Providence, RI.

Why is it important to expose kids to history and preservation? How does a program like Rhody Ramble reinforce those lessons?

History is exciting. It is the story of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. I love historic places because they embody the lives of people who lived in our towns and cities before we did -- it is the closest we can come to meeting them!

The big misconception is that history is a bunch of dry, dull facts. However, a historic place can bring that history to life with activities like grinding corn, carrying a yoke and buckets, dressing up in costumes or playing traditional games like graces. By introducing children to their history in an engaging way, we can help to build future stewards of our historic places.

I believe the strength of a program like the Rhody Ramble is its ability to reach out to new audiences of families. Many historic sites are run with limited staff and volunteers. Their time is stretched between many different activities. The Rhody Ramble is focused on marketing the great work that they do every day.

If we can help to attract kids and parents to explore a place they have never visited, it may inspire them to return. It may help them to better relate the history they learn in school to their community. It opens the door for many great possibilities!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.