Since the establishment of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1923, historic trades training has been the work of living history museums. Before that time, artisan techniques were passed down in workshop settings from master to apprentice. Just as the artisan workshops faded from prevalence over the course of the early 20th century, the living history museums have also seen their heyday pass. Museums with living history missions have undergone major transformations to retain audiences. By the time I apprenticed in the jointer shop at Colonial Williamsburg in 2011, the historic trades had diminished to a background role. They were overshadowed by the theatrical endeavors of recreating street scenes from the Revolutionary War and the focus on interdisciplinary means for connecting to visitors and students through technology.
In my attempts at gaining hands-on experience that would benefit the management of preservation projects, I had to cobble together programs such as the historic carpentry internship, training in modern technique offered by the unions, and classes at colleges that focused on material culture. Others in the field have attended non-accredited classes like the ones offered by East Field Village in upstate New York or the North Bennett Street School in Boston.
Living in the City of Newburgh has exposed me to another side of this story. In all of the historic downtowns throughout the Hudson Valley, there are carpenters, plumbers, and masons who try their best to adapt what they learned through modern training to repair and mimic the historic architecture that surrounds us. Local sites have been approached many times by contractors who are wondering if a historian would be willing to identify building elements, or to direct them to artisans who have the skills to replicate them. But without a culture of historic trades training built into modern education, an ill equipped, under informed contractor can do irreparable damage to historic structures.
Combine these problems with positive trends in artisan culture, the reclamation of Main Streets for small businesses, and the unfortunate state of important architectural landmarks, and we have a perfect storm in New York State. Our network of SUNY colleges is in the position to invest in our local communities through an alignment of training professionals and through area projects. Imagine being able to take a class about history of architecture while snapping HABS photos of the Calvert Vaux, designed Hoyt House, in Staatsburg. Or imagine being trained to build coffered ceiling tiles for the restoration of a designated World Monument like the Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh?
The academic community is discussing these opportunities for the SUNY system. This spring both SUNY Orange and SUNY Dutchess are holding meetings with the historians and architects and they are forming partnerships with historical societies in the region to hash out program possibilities.
Show your support and cross your fingers, a historic trades renaissance may be taking root here in the Hudson Valley.
"I wasn't made for the great light that devours; a dim lamp was all I had been given, and patience without end to shine it on the empty shadows."