ECPN’s third interview from the ASG series is with Caroline Dickensheets, Assistant Conservator at RLA Art + Architecture Conservation in Miami, FL.
Dickensheets at Wupatki Pueblo (Image courtesy of Dickensheets)
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in the Atlanta area but have lived up and down the east coast for the past seven years. I am an Assistant Conservator at the firm RLA Art + Architecture Conservation in Miami, FL where specialize in the conservation of architecture and outdoor sculpture. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a M.S. in Historic Preservation in 2019 with a concentration in Architectural Conservation. Before beginning my graduate studies, I studied architecture and art history at Wellesley College.
How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
For the most part, I was unaware of the field of conservation until I started graduate school in Philadelphia. Unlike other conservation specializations, my graduate program was in historic preservation with concentrations that included preservation planning, design, public history of the built environment, and architectural conservation.
During my first semester, I took a course in conservation science in addition to working part time at the Center for Architectural Conservation (CAC). Through this course and the projects I was exposed to at work, I decided that I wanted to pursue a focus in architectural conservation.
Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue Architectural Conservation.
Historic preservation was not always prioritized in my hometown of Atlanta. As a result, I was not aware of the different careers related to the preservation of the built environment. This changed when I lived near Boston during my undergraduate studies. I found Boston to be a fantastic city, largely due to the preservation of its historic building stock. As a result, I started to seek out a career path that would coincide with this appreciation for older buildings.
Originally, I declared my undergraduate major as art history. Through my courses I developed an interest in architectural history which led me to add an architecture major. I quickly realized that I was less concerned with developing new designs, preferring to preserve what had already been built which led me to historic preservation.
In graduate school, I became interested in the technical means by which preservation interventions are conducted. As a specialization within the broader field of Historic Preservation, Architectural Conservation encompassed a wide range of skills that expanded upon what I had learned in undergrad. I appreciated how the specialization included more laboratory based classes that combined the study of traditional craft with scientific treatment methods. From a practical standpoint, I saw Architectural Conservation as a strategic career choice because it would provide me with opportunities to develop a multidisciplinary skill set.
What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
Although my formal conservation training began in graduate school, I would say my undergraduate degrees in Architecture and Art History had a great impact on my writing and visual analysis. Not to mention all the architectural vocabulary! Additionally, the architecture courses I was able to take at MIT developed my computer and technical skills which certainly benefited me when I entered graduate school. Programs I learned included RhinoⓇ, AutoCADⓇ, AutodeskⓇ 3DS Max, and AdobeⓇ Creative Suite in addition to shop skills such as laser cutting and 3D printing. Even if I do not use these programs regularly today, they were helpful in understanding the field of architecture and essential to honing in my ability to display information and ideas in an effective manner.
Outside of my undergraduate studies, I was able to intern at the Boston Preservation Alliance (BPA). BPA is a nonprofit organization that protects Boston’s architectural heritage through advocacy and education. This internship taught my two things: firstly, that advocacy and policy are the backbone of architectural preservation; second, that I was interested in a more hands on career that would get me out of the office and into the field.
While at Penn, I quickly decided that I wanted to enroll in courses related to the Architectural Conservation concentration. These courses were complemented by my job at the CAC, which later turned into a summer internship and a postgraduate research associate opportunity.
Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
Nearly all architectural conservation projects are team based. Contractors, art handlers, architects, property managers, electricians, are only the beginning of a list of people that we get to work with. As a result, communication and project management skills are essential. You must be comfortable and effective with giving instructions in addition to having a thorough understanding of the project overall. Organization and clarity are essential so that there are no misunderstandings before, during, or after the project.
Additionally, most of the pieces we work on cannot be moved or relocated (at least not with ease!). As a result we are constantly having to answer the question not of what type of conservation is necessary but how can we perform the appropriate treatment? This obstacle requires us to problem solve and come up with creative solutions, often on the spot.
What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
During my graduate studies I was heavily involved in the preservation of earthen architecture in the American West through the Vanishing Treasures Program of the National Park Service and the CAC at Penn. This included summers and site visits spent out west at sites such as Tumácacori National Historical Park, Mission San Xavier del Bac, and Wupatki National Monument. This time spent out west culminated with my thesis, “A Performance Evaluation of Amended Stabilization Mortars at Wupatki National Monument, Arizona” which I am in the process of getting published. My research examined the effects of the acrylic emulsion Rhoplex™ E-330 which has been used in setting and pointing mortars for the
conservation of archaeological sites at multiple southwest National Parks since the 1970s. I conducted a performance evaluation of the past and current stabilization mortars including analysis and characterization of the raw soils and amended mortars. I continued this research by assessing and evaluating the mortars’ performance and durability using test formulations. The tests I performed on the amended and unamended mortar formulations provided insight into their comparative performance in the field and suggested an optimal amended stabilization mortar for Wupatki Pueblo’s original masonry system and environment.
One of my current projects at work includes the mapping and surveying of over 2,700 grave markers at the City of Miami Cemetery. As the oldest cemetery in Miami-Dade County, the grave markers we survey are often the only physical site associated with some of modern Miami’s most notable citizens. Ironically, the efforts of these pioneer residents galvanized development in South Florida that left little room for the preservation of their earlier, more modest architecture. While we have little historic architecture dating to the days of Julia Tuttle (1848-1898) known as the “Mother of Miami”, we do have her burial plot marked at the City of Miami Cemetery. By preserving the final resting site of influential Miami citizens, we protect a physical connection between their past and our present.
In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
Unlike much of conservation, architectural conservation frequently does not take place in a museum. It takes place in people’s homes and communities. Although this specialization focuses on building materials and finishes, architectural conservators must become advocates for both the thoughtful and practical preservation of our built heritage. There is a need to support inclusivity, accessibility, and relevancy to local advocacy efforts and preservation education. As conservators, we serve as trusted advisors in the interpretation and proper recognition of the built environment.
Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
I have found architectural conservation to be an incredibly fulfilling career path. It seems that everyone who has entered this specialization brings with them experience from different areas of study and various career paths. This variety results in a melting pot of professionals that I have found to be incredibly welcoming and willing to share their knowledge. Be willing to reach out to them. When beginning the job search remember there are countless job positions that might not be identified as “architectural conservator” but tend to have similar responsibilities and duties. Don’t limit yourself to applying to jobs with solely this title.
On a practical level, make sure you enjoy being outside and are not afraid of heights!