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.
The fifth and final ECPN interview from the ASG series is with Sarah Holder, Preservation Specialist at PROSOCO.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi! I’m Sarah Holder. Growing up in a Navy family meant that I lived in a variety of coastal areas, but my family eventually rooted in metro Atlanta. I now live in Lawrence, KS, with my husband, daughter, and our two dogs. As an undergraduate, I studied History and Art History at Georgia State University. I then went on to obtain my Master of Science in Historic Preservation from The University of Texas at Austin.
How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
As a child, my family often vacationed in destinations of historical significance. We would spend our days as heritage tourists— visiting museums, touring historic sites, and joining historic district walking tours. On a particularly memorable vacation in the 1990s to Charleston, SC, we toured Drayton Hall. For those who are unfamiliar, this National Trust historic site has been stabilized in place rather than restored to a particular time. During our tour, we saw that the wood floorboards had been removed to undertake repairs. The tour guide described the ongoing work and told us about the process of identifying paint colors through paint analysis. Even at my young age, I was utterly fascinated by the investigative work that needed to be completed to determine what was compatible and appropriate for those historic materials.
Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue architectural conservation?
My passion has always been centered in the world of architecture. The architecture specialty is somewhat different from the other conservation specialties; in addition to being monumental in size and scale, most architecture is immovable, is exposed to the environment, has internal loads, and is subject to continual use. These structures are often found with layers of repair campaigns and many years of deferred maintenance. These conditions require careful investigation and collaboration with other professionals prior to undertaking any work. This is what attracted me to architectural conservation: it is interdisciplinary and collaborative.
What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
I received my Master of Science in Historic Preservation from the University of Texas at Austin and have a specialization in architectural conservation. This program is situated in the UT School of Architecture and places emphasis on the more technical aspects of historic preservation. I supplemented my studies through a graduate research assistantship, where a classmate and I worked on an architectural finishes analysis of the Cass Gilbert designed Battle Hall on UT’s campus. Additionally, I held a materials conservation internship with the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Throughout grad school, I participated in a variety of hands-on workshops and volunteer efforts. One of my favorite volunteer programs was the Landmarks Preservation Guild with UT Landmarks. This organization utilized volunteers to learn and apply basic conservation skills to works of art on campus. We had training from an Objects Conservator (an AIC Professional Associate) and conducted bimonthly conditions assessments. During undergrad, I also worked in the archives at the Atlanta History Center. It was here that I helped hone my research skills and helped assemble finding aids for recently donated materials.
Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
Architectural conservators are part architectural historians, part scientists, part artists, and part detectives. I find that this discipline involves almost constant collaboration, and the conservator must be willing to train others to execute the work.
What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
I work as the Historic Preservation and Technical Training Specialist for PROSOCO, a national manufacturer of construction products—masonry: cleaners, consolidation treatments, and water repellents; air & water barriers; masonry anchors; concrete flooring materials. My day-to-day work involves providing technical assistance for projects on existing and historic masonry structures. Some days I may be working with a team of masonry contractors, preservation architects, and engineers on a large-scale project. Others, I am assisting a homeowner in making appropriate choices for their home. At the end of the day, I specialize in one area in architectural conservation, but am helping people be faithful stewards of their historic structures.
In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
The world of architecture is getting more and more focused on green initiatives and sustainable design. We must pay attention to those movements and find ways to sustainably reuse our existing built environment to meet today’s standards and to preserve these important, historic places. This includes better research on means, materials, and methods.
Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
Most architectural conservation work must be carried out in situ and the role of the conservator [in most cases] is within specifications, quality control, or project management rather than solely carrying out the work with their own hands. I would recommend that in addition to developing their hands-on conservation skills, that an emerging conservator hone their skills as an organizer and communicator. You can have all the training in the world, but if you do not know how to communicate and relay this information to others on your team, it will short circuit your success. That said, a lead conservator or project manager may have the opportunity to carry out their own testing for these projects. It is equally important to develop an understanding of a variety of architectural materials and finishes in order to undertake this work.