Preservation begins at home

Sep 19, 2011

by Caitlin Corkins, Stewardship Manager, Historic New England

Summer in Vermont is fleeting, but I remember as a child the hazy, humid mid-summer days, late afternoon thunderstorms and mosquito-filled evenings that were long enough to wipe away all memories of the cold, snowy winters. During my childhood summers, my sisters and I made countless trips to the local swimming hole at Bartlett’s Falls and longer trips to Lake Dunmore and Button Bay to escape the heat. Then there were the days that were so unbearable, my parents would pile us into the minivan, crank up the air conditioning (our house had none), and take a drive to nowhere, exploring Vermont’s many winding country roads just to see where they led.

As we passed small villages, sprawling farms and back roads from the cool comfort of the car, my dad pointed out things of interest. There were overgrown stone walls, cellar holes and abandoned silos, signs of long abandoned subsistence hill farms now being reclaimed by forest, an old one-room schoolhouse with its trademark bank of windows facing south (now converted into a single-family home), a maple sugaring shack tucked at the edge of a wooded area, or a farm stand hugging the road with its “Open” window boarded over to accommodate its new use as a shed for the lawn mower and snow blower. We crossed covered bridges, passed quintessential white churches and admired stunning prospects of open fields, farmland, and mountains – the kinds of things that make Vermont special.

I didn’t appreciate the natural beauty around me as a child, and I certainly didn’t realize that I was unconsciously learning to pay attention to and observe the built environment. However, these summer drives inspired my curiosity about how the familiar countryside around me had changed over time. Even less traditionally-picturesque places, such as vacant mill buildings, closed roadside motels and empty pastures with second-growth brush, are interesting when you consider the story they tell.

It’s not surprising then that I came to love my native state and its landscape, both natural and man-made. Time away from my home state has perhaps reinforced my sentimentality, but also kindled awareness for what makes Vermont different from other places. When I enrolled in the University of Vermont’s Historic Preservation masters’ degree program, it was as if it had been designed just for me.

Now, as Stewardship Manager at Historic New England, I work to promote the preservation of our built heritage – in Vermont and around New England – using preservation easements, similar to those used to conserve land, but to protect buildings. My colleagues and I understand that to preserve our past, we must pay particular attention to what makes it unique, just as my dad did for us on our summer car trips, calling out points of interest in the passing landscape. You don’t need a degree to appreciate the value in preserving your home, your town, or your state. The next time you’re in your car, take a moment to observe the scenery around you. Ask questions about why it looks the way it does and consider how your corner of New England is different, and what you can do to appreciate and preserve its character and heritage.

Caitlin Corkins is a native of Bristol, Vermont. She will present Surveying the Recent Past: The Challenge of Creating and Defining Context as part of Looking Forward: Preservation in New England in the Twenty-First Century, the October 1 symposium at Roger Williams University.