Interviews

 

Nikki Giovanni is a widely-read American poet, equality activist, professor of English at Virginia Tech, and the keynote speaker at this week's National Rosenwald Schools Conference. Built over the past 45 years, her collection of poetry is some of the most influential on issues of black American culture and experience.

We are excited for her to lend her voice to the issue of preserving the Rosenwald Schools -- the 4,977 mostly humble buildings paid for by businessman-turned-philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and built by community members throughout 15 states between 1912 and 1932, specifically to educate black children.


Left: A Mural of Giovanni's "Revolutionary Dreams" poem on 113th Street in Los Angeles.

I had the opportunity to ask Nikki Giovanni some questions leading up to her time at the conference. Take a look below, then tune in on Twitter on Saturday, June 16, at 10:30 a.m. CDT, where we'll live-tweet her plenary session from our @PresNationLive account.

What were your first feelings or takeaways after learning about the history of the Rosenwald Schools?

As a history major at Fisk University I was, of course, aware of the Rosenwald Schools and their marvelous history.  I remember thinking how wonderful that people reached out to help the newly freed folk who had the desire and the talent but were not given the tools.  I consider the Rosenwald schools right up there with the Carnegie Libraries:  something needed to help those who had been denied not just an education but a personhood to begin to emerge from the shadows.

What do you find most compelling about the schools?

The most compelling aspect is still the correct reason: a people without access to education cannot go forward.  The Sears/Roebuck family [Julius Rosenwald was the president of Sears until 1924] were terrific partners as many in the black community felt that Roebuck was a black American and was simply giving back to those who had helped him.

The Rosenwald Schools are important, but off the radar for many Americans. What actions do you think would better get them into the public eye?

A lot of black history is off radar, as is a lot of white history.  Why do we have classic films of gangsters but not union workers?  Why does every kid in America know Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Billy the Kid and any other robber and thief but not A. Phillip Randolph and the great story of the Pullman Porters? The only cure for ignorance and hatred is education and truth.  Words are as meaningful as places.

Who or what do you hope the Rosenwald Schools inspire?

I hope these schools remind us what our ancestors have endured to bring us this far.  It has been a good journey, but we still have a ways to go.

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.

 

You might be asking yourself, "What does a Chinese boat have to do with historic preservation in America?" It's a valid question. But at some point along the way, many of us came to America from someplace else, and this story is about the boat that brought San Francisco native Dione Chen's father here from Taiwan in 1955.

Truth be told, Dione Chen wasn't really even thinking in "preservation" terms when she started advocating to save the Free China, the Chinese "junk"-style boat that her late father sailed on in 1955 with a Chinese and American crew participating in a yacht race across the Pacific. She initially wanted to save the boat mostly because it reminded her of her dad, his interests, and his resourceful idea to participate in the race as a means to a more prosperous future in a new country -- and didn't want the story of his trip to be forgotten. Her resolve only deepened upon discovering that it was one of, if not the, last remaining junks of its kind in the world.


Toasting the Free China's future. From left: John Muir (from the National Park Service and an advisor to Chinese Junk Preservation), Paul Chow (Free China crew member), Calvin Mehlert (Free China crew member), Vera Chow, Iris Chen (widow of crew member Reno Chen), Dione Chen (daughter of crew member Reno Chen and founder of Chinese Junk Preservation), Nguyet Mehlert, and Byron Chung (son of the late crew member Marco Chung).

Dione's journey to save the junk began in September 2007 after visiting the yard where it was being stored -- and seeing its dwindling condition -- with her family after her father's death. In 2008, she launched a nonprofit, Chinese Junk Preservation, recruited advisory council members, and applied for financial support from the National Park Service, the National Trust, and the Chinese Historical Society of America.

After a couple of years trying to woo someone in San Francisco -- or even elsewhere in the United States -- to restore and display the junk, she reached out to entities in Taiwan, where the junk originated, and where a maritime museum in the city of Keelung finally offered assistance. On April 30, 2012, the junk was hoisted onto a massive cargo ship to Keelung, where it arrived yesterday.

I had the chance to talk with Dione about her story, her introduction to preservation, and her advice to people interested saving something or someplace that's important to them.

Have you always been fascinated with the history and future of the junk?

Growing up, I took the junk and its history for granted.  It was "old history." So, no, I can't honestly say I was "fascinated" by the junk. Proud of my dad's story and his pursuit of the "American dream" -- yes. But no, I never had dreams of saving it before my dad died.

I'm sure my dad was disappointed that I didn't ask him more about his life and the junk when he was alive. This is something I regret.  I've been asked what my dad would think about my efforts to save the junk.  I believe that he would have been surprised and proud.  Surprised because he was resigned that no one was interested enough in the junk to save it.  Proud that so many people want to see the Free China junk saved.

I suspect it's often the case that one doesn't fully realize what is "history" worth saving, because we're so busy living in the present.


The Free China on its original journey to the United States in 1955.

Would you consider yourself a preservationist? Why or why not?

I am not familiar with the term "preservationist" as a vocation/calling, so would not consider myself one.  If anything, I am an "accidental preservationist" -- I am well aware that I lack formal training or experience in preservation.

I realized that the junk -- something of historical importance -- should be saved, hopefully could be saved but was in fact destined for destruction. And I thought that I should and could do something to save it because no one else was going to do it.  In hindsight -- with the past 4 years of experience behind me -- I would say that I am someone who has come to realize the important role that each of us can play in preserving history.

Ideally, everyone would consider it their privilege and responsibility to preserve the places, stories, and things that are part of our individual and collective history. Each of has a role in determining what values, stories, and lessons are passed on to future generations. You don't have to be a "professional" historian or archaeologist to step up. ... Read More →

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.

 

I sat down with Dennis Hockman, the new Editor in Chief of Preservation -- the National Trust's quarterly magazine and one of our favorite membership benefits -- to chat about the magazine's new look. Since coming on, Dennis and his team have been working hard to reshape and redesign Preservation to better fit who you all are: people saving places, whether through general interest, advocacy, or hammer-and-nail construction. See what he had to say.

Where are you from, where do you live now, and what made the preservation cause resonate with you?

I've lived in lots of different places. I was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and have lived in the Midwest, the Mountain West, and Maryland. I’ve spent more time in Baltimore than anywhere else, where I live now in a historic center hall colonial -- a restoration work in progress.

As for preservation, I guess taking care of old things is something I’ve always thought was important. Having lived all over the country, what I appreciate most about each region is its uniqueness and personality, that combination of geography and when and why each area was originally developed -- during colonial times, westward expansion, etc.

I’ve also always liked stories. Old objects and buildings harbor the stories of how people used them and who lived or worked in them -- sometimes for generations. Those are the stories that have always intrigued me, and somehow I feel like a big part of that story is lost if we don’t preserve the physical manifestation.

I was also raised to be very practical. My grandparents were all products of the Great Depression, and my parents were raised to appreciate Yankee thrift, a value that passed along to me. I’ve never understood why people feel they constantly need new things when there are so many old things that are still perfectly useful.

How has taking the helm at Preservation magazine changed the way you see the places around you?

I’ve always been intrigued by historic places. My wife will attest that "I brake for historical markers." I am infinitely curious about the places around me -- the older the better.

Years ago, I was backcountry camping with friends in Montana and we stumbled upon an old fallen down miners cabin . On a furious pace to reach the campsite before sundown, my friends kept going, but I couldn’t help stopping to dig through the rubble to see if I could learn anything about the people that stayed there. How long ago? Were the abandoned mines close by? Were there other cabins? The rest of the trip is a haze, but those moments I spent in the cabin are still crystal clear.

If anything has changed since coming on board with Preservation, I guess I’ve started thinking not just about what a place was, but what it can be. ... Read More →

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.

Catching Up with Ron Tanner of Renovation "Love Story"

Posted on: April 10th, 2012 by Christine Driscoll

 

After reviewing From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story, I thought it would be fun to go to author Ron Tanner’s reading at One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia, as he began his book tour. But Google maps had given me the run around, and I was lost in a neighborhood instead. As I walked past bungalows in search of a book store, I saw a turquoise work van slow down to ask another pedestrian for directions. As it turned around on another street and slowed to look at house numbers, I guessed this was probably Ron himself and flagged him down.

“Are you Ron Tanner?” I asked, and before I even explained who I was he was opening the door to the van to let me in. Meeting Ron like this, it’s easy to see how he’s the kind of person who would jump feet first into an enormous restoration project, the subject of Animal House. The van was in the process of becoming more like an RV, and the interior -- where a sink is currently mid-installation -- gave me a good idea of how immersed in some kind of DIY project Ron is at all times.

Ron will be on tour in a variety of cities (with the aforementioned van), and while I can’t guarantee you can get a ride with him, I suggest you check out the event when he comes to you.

After the program, I chatted with Ron about the decision to go into full-on restoration, what makes a house a home, and general relationship advice (naturally). ... Read More →

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.

Interview: Talking Shop with Actor/Home Renovator Bronson Pinchot

Posted on: March 23rd, 2012 by Gwendolyn Purdom 1 Comment

 

Long before he started turning up as memorable Hollywood characters like Serge in Beverly Hills Cop, or Balki Bartokomous on the 80s sitcom Perfect Strangers, actor Bronson Pinchot was honing a very different kind of craft: historic restoration. As a child, Pinchot fixed up an old shed behind his 1920s house in South Pasadena, California.


Bronson Pinchot working to restore a bust inside one of his Hartford, Penn. projects. (Photo: DIY Network)

“I remember being eight and looking at worn surfaces and things that weren’t plumb and level and thinking how wonderful a secret they were and how it was a secret between them and me that they had survived and I was going to leave them the way they were,” Pinchot says.

This year Pinchot was cast in the role he says he was born to play in DIY Network’s The Bronson Pinchot Project, which follows the actor and his loyal team of craftsmen as they refurbish historic properties in rural Harford, Pennsylvania. The show’s first season wraps up March 31st.

We caught up with Pinchot while he was making one of his frequent trips to the salvage yard. ... Read More →

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.