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Patterns of the past: Discovering hidden history in architecture

Justus_Ramsey.jpgA journalism major in college, Laura Weber has spent decades in the writing and editing field. She got her start as a freelancer covering the Minneapolis arts community, continued writing articles and reviews as she worked for a variety of nonprofits, and is now serving as the director of communications for the U's College of Design.

In many respects, it was her vocation that opened the door to her avocation. Weber's writing on the arts segued into writing about history--which led to her graduate degree in history. It also piqued her interest about many of the buildings and structures in the arts district. Now, when she is not at work at the U, she is a writer and historian specializing in Minnesota vernacular architecture

Weber, a past president for the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, will lend her expertise to the July 20 Curiosity Camp, Chapels, Cottages, and Ivy-Covered Halls: Preserving Historic Gems.

"My interest in vernacular architecture grew out of my passion for history. Vernacular architecture is about studying and preserving those seemingly inconsequential structures that you may pass by every day without even noticing. It's about looking at a building and being able to tell the history of the people who lived in that place through the architecture," says Weber.

She continues, "It's not about looking at, say, a church, and saying 'oh, what type of arch or finial is this?' It's about looking at the church and the arches and the finials and saying, 'what does this tell us about who these people were, why they built this building, and what significance did it have?'"

Historical preservationists who work to save vernacular architecture, says Weber, can come from many different disciplines--not just a straight architectural background. "Vernacular architecture can be about history, or anthropology, or sociology, or art, or geography. It cuts across a lot of areas. It interests people from a wide variety of backgrounds."

Weber's master's degree is in history, and she later took courses in architectural history at the U. Her master's thesis on anti-Semitism and employment in Depression-era Minnesota (pdf) was published in Minnesota History; her later studies encouraged her work in historical preservation.

After approaching the State Historic Preservation Office at the Minnesota Historical Society and asking what she could do to further her interests, and to help, she ended up writing for Minnesota History again, this time an article about buildings in the state that had been on, and then removed, from the National Register of Historic Places (pdf).

"There are several reasons to get listed in the Register," Weber explains. "One, a property can have an association with significant people or events in history. Two, it can have architectural or engineering significance. Or, three, it can contain in itself important information about our history or prehistory."

Weber adds that the place must also have a quality preservationists call "integrity." "In other words, its physical features, location, and setting must be able to convey its historical significance."

There are a couple of very common misconceptions about the properties listed on the Register, she says. One is that to be listed, it has to be a grand, important building or a place where something well-known happened. In fact, the listing can be as simple as a tiny stone building hidden on a university campus or an abandoned mill or even a bridge or boat.

"The place is as important as the structure. It's all about the relationship between the buildings, the property, the people, and the past. To be on the Register means that in some way it is illuminating patterns of the past. You may not realize it, but there are hidden gems like that all over. Places that most people walk by every day, have never even heard of, but are historically significant."

The other misconception is the subject of that article--that being on the Register somehow protects the entrant, and keeps it safe. "But that just isn't true; which I think surprises a lot of people" says Weber. "A private property owner can do whatever they like with their building, and they can modify it so it loses the qualities that made it significant, or they can destroy it. Other properties are lost to forces of nature--fires, storms, and so on--and since only extant buildings are listed on the National Register, their listings are removed," she explains.

Weber's Curiosity Camp will touch on both of these ideas--visiting some of the hidden, little-known, architecturally significant places in the Twin Cities, as well as learning more about the historical preservation process and movement.

"I'm excited to share with people something I find so compelling. In a very real sense, this is my life. I've spent a long time studying places that have historic impact on my own life, but more than that... this is my passion. I do this research and writing on vacations, on leaves, on the weekends. Some people may see it as another job--but it's like that saying...when you're doing what you love, it's not work at all."

Laura Weber's Curiosity Camp, "Chapels, Cottages, and Ivy-Covered Halls: Preserving Historic Gems," is scheduled for July 20. Learn more about the course.

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