ECPN Interview: Architecture with Lucy Midelfort

By Keara Teeter posted 07-14-2020 15:36


The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a diverse series of
Specialty Group Interviews to promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training. The first installment of this series began with East Asian Art in 2016. Installments continued with AIC's Electronic Media Group (EMG) in 2017, Wooden Artifact Group (WAG) in 2018, Libraries and Archives in 2019, and Photographic Materials Group (PMG) in 2020. 

Now we are interviewing conservation professionals from AIC's Architecture Specialty Group (ASG). We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths. We hope this information will inspire emerging conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.

ECPN’s second interview from the ASG series is with Lucy Midelfort, Architectural Conservator at Monticello.

Midelfort on the West Lawn of Monticello (Photo credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation)

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. 
I’m the Architectural Conservator at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m actually from Charlottesville, so without really intending to, I have found myself back in my hometown. It’s a multifaceted job where I do some hands-on conservation work and treatment testing, some management of day-to-day maintenance, larger conservation/restoration projects that involve contractors, and some research to ensure we are interpreting the site as accurately as possible. 

How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
Conservation is actually a second career for me. I was always interested in historic architecture and almost pursued an undergraduate architecture degree, but decided I didn’t feel ready to commit to the field at the age of 18. Instead, I studied environmental policy and anthropology. I ended up working in environmental campaign organizing and later in digital marketing for progressive nonprofits. It was a good career, but I realized I really needed a hands-on component in my work. I started doing pottery on the side, and it was truly the best part of my week. I soon realized that I wanted to transition to a career with a focus on materials, and started looking into what kinds of jobs are out there for people who want to work on historic buildings. Once I learned that architectural conservation is in fact a field, I quickly applied to graduate school. Architectural Conservation is not offered as a specialty for most of the traditional conservation programs; most programs are embedded within a Historic Preservation masters degree, and I chose between The University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas at Austin for my studies. I know now that either would have been a good choice! It was quite a leap leaving my prior career.

Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue architectural conservation?
I never considered another conservation specialty. I knew I wanted to work on large structures. I suppose I could have considered objects conservation, but because I came to understand the field through the lens of architecture, my understanding of other specializations came later. In hindsight, I think architectural conservation was also a good choice for someone coming to conservation in my late 20s, simply because there was less of an emphasis on required pre-program internships which would have delayed my start in other specializations.

What has been your training pathway?  Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
I applied to the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Science in Historic Preservation program with limited experience. I had a bit of an art background (pottery, drawing) which was enough to put together a limited portfolio, but no real conservation experience. The two-year program requires specialization in one of four tracks: preservation planning, architectural conservation, site management, or preservation design. This program is very different from other conservation programs, where all your classmates are also training to be conservators.

The program is quite interdisciplinary, with about half of one’s coursework being focused on your specialization, and half being required courses for all preservation students. While I was studying, I had a variety of internships/short-term conservation jobs, e.g.: 

  1. Gravestone and architectural finishes conservation for The Woodlands, a historic house and cemetery in Philadelphia
  2. Masonry conservation at the Minoan archaeological site Mochlos in Crete
  3. Conservation treatment of exterior wood cladding at a Louis Kahn house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey 

The program also included a month of hands-on conservation fieldwork in Colorado, in addition to coursework that included classes focused on each of the major types of building materials: masonry, wood, metals, and finishes.

Before beginning work at Monticello, I did some research on preventing salt deterioration in historic masonry at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) in Natchitoches, Louisiana, which is a part of the National Park Service. 

Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
Architectural conservation is different from other conservation fields because you can’t generally control climate conditions. So a strong understanding of how treatments will perform in a wide variety of climate conditions is important (but you will learn a lot of this in school!). How to manage moisture is often the name of the game.

Architecture is also different from other disciplines because we deal with objects that are so large! That means that we don’t always do the actual conservation treatments ourselves. Contractors are often involved, so the work conservators do is often determining the best treatment and then ensuring that other people do the work well. It’s also a plus to be comfortable on scaffolding. 😊

What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
I generally have a wide range of projects going on. One current project is determining the best way to remove lead dioxide staining that has appeared on Monticello’s lead roof apron, and prevent it from returning. We are also undertaking the conservation and restoration of much of the composition ornament on the friezes and entablatures at Monticello. As part of that project, I have been experimenting with making my own compo, which is a putty-like material made of chalk, rosin, linseed oil, and hide glue which can be pressed into molds to create decorative ornament. I also spend a lot of time thinking about vapor permeability, and how to ensure moisture that gets into a building material has a way to get out.

In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
In my opinion, epoxies have been overused at many historic sites as a method to fill areas of loss in wood due to rot and prevent moisture intrusion. While in-kind dutchman repairs are known to be a better solution, more work needs to be done to develop best practices where that type of repair cannot be done.

On a broader scale, climate change is an ongoing huge threat to a large number of historic buildings, and not just those on the coasts. I see a future specialization emerging!

Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
While there is less required pre-program experience in my specialization, you will be at an advantage in your program and afterward if you take the time to get some extra pre-program experience under your belt. Also, don’t downplay the need to brush up on chemistry before starting any program!