Honors US History Public History Projects


In Fall 2012, I taught an honors section of US History (through 1865) at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. For their major project, the students did a National History Day style poster presentation. They were able to choose any subject, so long as it dealt with US history before 1865. The posters were required to make an argument (take a stand on an issue), rather than simply being informative. I was very impressed with the variety and quality that the students were able to bring to the projects. With their permission, a few of the posters are shared below.

First Presbyterian Church of Murfreesboro

National Register, service

On March 14, 2012, I had the privilege of speaking at First Presbyterian Church of Murfreesboro, TN, at one of their bicentennial celebrations. The congregation has been worshipping in Murfreesboro for two hundred years, and their current building is 98 years old. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. In a talk titled “The National Register of Historic Places and First Presbyterian Church of Murfreesboro,” I described the National Register nomination process and criteria to assembled congregants. I explained how nomination writers demonstrate the significance and historical integrity of properties, and I reviewed the privileges and protections that nomination does (and does not) offer property owners.

Following a discussion of the National Register itself, I detailed the nomination of the First Presbyterian sanctuary building and pointed out the architectural features which demonstrate the integrity of the property’s nomination for architectural significance. Through asking questions of the audience, such as “What significant events have you witnessed in this building?” and “Which features of the interior would change the feeling of this place for you if they were altered or removed?”, I was able to highlight how seemingly small aspects are important to the feeling of a space. This began a discussion that reminded the audience that the significance of this place, both for the congregation and the city of Murfreesboro, is more than the building itself. Members of the congregation know more of the stories of their buildings and events than they realize. By telling each other stories and memories of special moments that have taken place in the church, congregants can help each other to appreciate their sacred space in new ways.

Kokoro Assisted Living

From Sacred to Secular: the Adaptive Reuse of America’s Religious Buildings

dissertation, h

Nearly as long as congregations have been building churches and other religious spaces they have been abandoning those structures for new ones, either larger or smaller.  This dissertation will explore the fate of those religious buildings that, instead of being destroyed, have found new life under a different purpose.  As very little historical inquiry into this topic has been completed, this dissertation will investigate the historical context of the adaptive reuse of religious buildings and some of the questions that communities considering such changes must address.  Religious buildings have been reused for commercial, institutional, and residential purposes.  One of the research aims of this dissertation is to discuss the cultural success of reuse projects.  For an adaptive reuse project to be a cultural success, it should connect in some way to the building’s heritage and interpret it. This can take many forms, as public historians and preservationists strive to meet the public where they are.  What are some quality ways that developers can honor the history of a building and the changing character of communities while still turning a profit? Is saving merely the facade of a structure a preservation victory?  Preservationists and town planners often disagree on the answer to this question and discussing adaptive reuse and cultural success will contribute to that ongoing conversation.  In addition, there are some tough questions that this dissertation will only begin to examine.  For example, how does a developer ensure that the community that has made a space sacred will continue to have access to it?  Is the adaptive reuse of sacred spaces fundamentally different from that of other types of structures?

Public historians must consider these questions as adaptive reuse becomes a more popular trend in order to provide effective stewardship of our collective historic resources.  Religious spaces have been adapted throughout American history without much comment by historians.  As this practice continues through calls for responsible, sustainable, “green,” use and reuse of resources as well as through historic preservation, it proves important that a line of inquiry be extended into the theory and practice of this process.  Additionally, the shape of religious congregations in the US is changing as older suburbs are abandoned by one group of people moving on to build elsewhere, leaving their homes and religious buildings to be used by others.

I will begin to address these questions by reviewing a few of the recent sources from planning and architecture departments on the general subject of adaptive reuse, as well as the handful that address religious buildings specifically.  While there is little historiographic dialogue on the subject, I intend to engage historians as well as contribute to the existing dialogue in other disciplines.  With particular regard to public history, I will discuss the various values of building reuse.  Architecture and planning literature covers discussions of both the design value and financial value of building reuse. Public history can add to those a discussion of the community and local cultural value that buildings can have.

I will examine particular structures for case studies.  I have chosen four case studies that span the regions of the United States: north, south, mid-west, and west because I argue that the reuse of religious buildings is quite a common phenomenon.  It does not appear that reuse types are particular to region, but I have also chosen buildings which represent the various types of reuse in their primary function: institutional, commercial, cultural, and residential.

The goal is to discuss various religious traditions and types of reuse in order to represent and highlight the range of possibilities that adaptive reuse opens up to developers and communities.  The northern case study is the King Urban Life Center and Charter School in Buffalo, New York. This is an institutional reuse of the former St. Mary of the Sorrows Catholic Church.  The southern case study is the commercial reuse of Elm Street Methodist Church as Tuck Hinton Architects, PLLC in Nashville, Tennessee.  The mid-west is represented by the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, a cultural reuse of the United Hebrew Congregation Synagogue. The western example comes from San Francisco, California, where a building that began as the Congregation Ohabai Shalome Synagogue became a Japanese Soto Zen Temple before being reused again as part of the Kokoro Assisted Living Community.

In each case study, I will document the current use and structure of the property, and complete archival research for the historic use and structural changes that have taken place.  This archival research will also include local newspapers and congregational records.  This will lend some insight into the opinions of the community in which a structure is situated and how each building is currently interpreted to the public.  Exploring these issues will help to begin the historiographical discussion of adaptive reuse and will influence public history theory by helping to provide context for current practices as we continue to help preserve the historical character of religious buildings.

GradHacker Post

dissertation, service

A few months ago, I needed some advice about how to handle a disagreement among members of my committee. I looked in several places, including the website gradhacker.org. GradHacker is a website run by graduate students on which grad students and former graduate students write articles of advice to their peers on various topics.

I put out a call on twitter to see if any sites had previously published advice about dealing with committee member disagreement. No one had any and it was suggested that I use my experiences to write one for GradHacker. Through working through the issue, getting advice from a seasoned academic, and finding the balance between providing a useful example and not releasing too many details, I was able to co-author this piece with Dr. Karen Kelsky of The Professor is In

Read it on GradHacker here


Church of the Holy Trinity, Episcopal, Nashville, TN

h, projects, residency

As a requirement for the PhD program in public history, I completed a professional residency. For the majority of the residency period, I worked with the Church of the Holy Trinity, Episcopal, in Nashville, TN through the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area. Holy Trinity is a National Register listed property and construction began on it in 1852. I worked closely with the priest-in-charge, Father Bill Dennler to organize the archives at Holy Trinity, to write a brief history of the congregation and building for their website, and to write a heritage needs assessment. The heritage needs assessment includes the history written for the website and information about the archives as well as an updated structural needs assessment which addressed the priorities for the physical restoration of the building. Dr. Steven Hoskins met with me several times to help me plan and execute the curation of the archives at Holy Trinity. Holy Trinity is a relatively small congregation and Dr. Hoskins was able to help me work out solutions that would serve their need for storage of the records at professional archival standards while still providing access to the records within our budget. Funding for archival materials was provided through partnership with the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area. In the end it was determined that a MS Excel database finding aid would serve the needs of the congregation better than an expensive and more complex system, such as Past Perfect. Father Dennler has only limited office help and the system needs to be something that the congregation can maintain, update, sustain, and use.

As with any project in which there is partnership, scheduling proved to be an issue in working with Holy Trinity, and this was a lesson in partnering with small organizations with already thin resources–which most cultural organizations are. In the future, I will be able to better manage my expectations as well as being able to be more clear about them with partners. We all hear that flexibility is a key to any consulting/contracting work, but working with the consequences that flexibility brings is something else entirely. A positive outcome of the delay in completion of the archival work is that more congregants have gotten on board with the project and donated their materials. Their investment in the project is invaluable for two practical reasons. The archive will be made richer for the items donated and the involvement of more people increases the chances that it will be well-cared for and maintained. Of course, this was also a contributing factor to the work taking longer to conclude, but proved worth the extension. Below is a copy of the heritage needs assessment that I wrote for the Church of the Holy Trinity. It includes the history as well as recommendations for the building and archives.

South Abydos Mastabas Project

archaeology, MTSU, projects, residency

As a part of the professional residency requirement of the public history program at MTSU, I worked with Dr. Dawn McCormack on the South Abydos Mastabas project, an archaeological excavation in Abydos, Egypt. I served as Excavation Supervisor and Lab Director for this project as a small team, including Dr. McCormack, myself, another graduate student, and three undergraduates (although they all matriculated during the time in Egypt), for five weeks.

Beginning in February 2011, we met several times throughout the semester and did readings to prepare us for the project. I led the discussion of archaeological excavation and recording methods for one meeting. Once we were in Egypt, my role transitioned to that of mentor to the other students. The first week or so of excavation one student who had never excavated before worked closely with me as I explained what we were doing and why before she worked on her own for the rest of the field season. In the field, I would check on the other students and they would come to me with questions when Dr. McCormack was otherwise engaged (or when they weren’t sure if their questions merited her attention). I assisted them with the recording of data and interpretation of evidence, mostly by asking them questions and helping them to recognize other possibilities. I also reminded them of archaeological and site specific protocol. The process was much the same in the lab. I helped us initially get set up and organized and I took responsibility for maintaining organization in the lab, but the students were self sufficient and I simply answered their questions or helped them out when they felt overloaded. This team worked together better than most that I have been privileged to excavate with and that made everything go much more smoothly. Everyone not only pulled their own weight but proved willing to help each other out when work moved slower in one area.

The work with the South Abydos Mastabas project was also a lesson in planning and patience. Excavations in Egypt are planned about a year in advance, so the commitment to the project was made before the official residency period. Dr. McCormack did planning and grant work during the fall semester and I met with her several times and she described that process. Other than doing grant writing first hand, being closely involved with a grant funded project from conception through post-project reporting is one of the best ways to get a better understanding of how that process works. In January, just as we were getting set to start meeting with the team, Egypt’s revolution began and the federal government issued a travel warning for the country. Again, flexibility was key as we made contingency plans in case we were unable to have the field season and we constantly checked the internet for news. The team continued meeting, reading background information, and planning for the trip. I spent time each day reading and watching the news on several outlets and as a result I did quite a bit of background reading on the creation of the current political climate in Egypt.

In the end, although the travel warning was not yet lifted by the government, word came from Egypt and Abydos specifically that things were settled enough for researchers to return to the area and the provost granted us permission to take the trip. We were delayed a bit from our intended leaving date, but in the end, each team member decided to accept the personal risk and make the journey to Egypt. Though I suppose things could have gone differently, the project proceeded without any major incidents and we all felt the new energy in the country.

It was an amazing time to be able to go to Egypt and to talk to the people there, although language and cultural barriers kept us from taking full advantage of the opportunity. We were able to see first-hand some of the physical effects of the January 25th revolution–the burned out government building near the Cairo Musuem at Tahrir square, the people selling souvenirs at Tahrir, the stickers and banners all over declaring individuals’ allegiance to the ideals of a new regime, and the removal of Mubarak’s name from public places.

With each project that I am able to be a part of, I learn more about new aspects of history and culture. Sometimes with the focus on attaining new skills and conducting personal research, people can neglect the simple benefit of learning.

I continue to enjoy working with other students and helping them to explore their interests thought archaeology. This team was an outstanding one and so my work as Excavation Supervisor and Lab Director went smoothly. One lesson in that is to take time and consideration when choosing your team; it can make all the difference in not only a pleasant experience versus a rough one, but in how much work gets accomplished. Dr. McCormack’s example and mentorship in this area was important. Dr. McCormack also encouraged the team members to get to know each other some before the project began. This is not always practically possible, but if it can work, knowing team member’s interests, strengths, and weaknesses proves invaluable to teamwork and delegation. Rather than spending time instructing and correcting the other students, we were able to have a more mentor-like relationship. The differences there are subtle but important as it seems to me that people learn better–or at least retain more–when that learning is done in partnership and experience rather than only talking at students.

Such a high caliber of student had the additional consequence that I was able to spend time exploring processes with which I had formerly only had peripheral involvement. Quite a bit of the time was taken with learning ceramics processing. I had done some of this before but in each context there are different types of ceramics and I had never moved past the first phase of this processing. Aside from the obvious benefit of being a new skill, this enabled me to take better notes in the field as the season progressed and I learned more about the site-specific types.

On the last archaeological project that I worked on, I learned that I enjoyed/had a talent for inking architectural plans. At Abydos, not only did I have the opportunity to do more of this work, but I was able to spend time inking objects as well. This skill is different and, for lack of a better term, more artistic than architectural inking because stippling must be used for shading and showing the details of objects. With the assistance of one of the more-artistically minded students, I was able to develop this skill that I had only dabbled in previously.

Team members have been interviewed for the MTSU Out of the Blue television program and are in the process of preparing presentations for public discussion of our work and experiences in Egypt.

Reflections on Archaeology, History, and Practice

academic writing, MTSU

The public history program at MTSU requires PhD students to write a self-reflective essay before beginning research on the dissertation. Parts of the essay relevant to the professional residency projects are on this website elsewhere. Here I am providing excerpts in which I discuss my approach to the theory and practice of history and archaeology.

Sacred and Secular: A Tale of Two Churches

conference papers, research

I presented “Sacred and Secular: A Tale of Two Churches” at the 7th Savannah Symposium: the Spirituality of Place in February 2011 and again at the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church Historical Society meeting in March 2011. Below is the abstract, followed by the full paper and the accompanying presentation.

Sacred and Secular: A Tale of Two Churches

Nearly as long as congregations have been constructing churches and other religious buildings, they have been abandoning those structures for new ones, either larger or smaller. This paper explores the fates of two religious buildings in Nashville, Tennessee. Located in the same South Nashville neighborhood, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and Elm Street Methodist Church, have both undergone changes in the last 150 or so years. In response to the changing demographics in the neighborhood, the people of Holy Trinity Episcopal have renewed their congregational mission throughout the years. Two blocks east, Elm Street Methodist, on the other hand, was sold first to a manufacturer and then to the current tenant, an architectural firm: Tuck Hinton Architects, PLLC. Through evaluating the structures themselves, archival materials, and local newspaper accounts, this paper explores two sacred spaces in the same neighborhood, asking why one space continued to host a congregation and why another has been adaptively reused. Do the current tenants of these spaces honor their sacred histories?  In what ways do they do so? Exploring these and other questions, this paper assists in understanding some of the key issues surrounding the adaptive reuse of religious buildings.