It was 1997. I was only in my mid-20’s but I had known I wanted to work with old buildings for a decade. After years of traveling around, taking a variety of college courses, and waiting on a lot of tables, I had found a school where I could make that happen. Belmont College wasn’t too expensive, it offered lots of hands-on courses, as well as an academic foundation in Historic Preservation.

I was almost finished with my degree in only 4 quarters, and the program chair had recommended me for an internship with the National Park Service. (Not that I actually knew what the National Park Service was back then.) I just had to be interviewed by the Historic Preservation Training Center’s (HPTC) Superintendent. The timing worked that I could attend the International Preservation Trades Workshop (IPTW) as part of my interview. I had no idea what I was in for.

My memories of that day are like a dream–snapshots and vignettes of scenes I’d never thought I’d experience:

  • I watched two men with a huge saw and a log bridging two sets of scaffold, one on top, the other on the ground, demonstrate how pit-sawing works.
  • I hung out in a really cold barn as a Scottish man builds a stone arch without the need for mortar. As he works he takes a jab at his American helper “Even a monkey could lay a brick wall. It takes REAL skill to dry-lay a stone wall.”
  • I joined a crowd of men sitting on bleachers watching demonstrations of epoxy, asking questions about failure rate and debating the merits of epoxy over.
  • I saw a room filled with computers connected to this thing called the internet that was going to be the way we all found jobs and learned about EVERYTHING.
  • I watched one of the hosts from “This Old House” take heated questions and comments from the crowd. They didn’t like that kind of preservation in these parts.
  • I met my new Superintendent at the historic Weinberg theater, finding out what my future would hold, then watched him on the stage as he proclaimed in the 1997 Frederick Charter:

“It being resolved and moved by the consent and affirmation of the participants of IPTW 97 that a charter of purpose be established in support of the Preservation Trades Network (PTN).”

I was blown away. I had no idea there were so many people who were interested in and passionate about saving old buildings. There were other building geeks like me! I found my tribe in the Preservation Trades Network and in HPTC!

Venn Diagram of 3 circles showing the relationship of Intelligence, Social Ineptitude and Obsession.
What is a Geek? We reside in the intersection of Intelligence and Obsession. But lack the Social Ineptitude of Dorks, Nerds and Dweebs.

The Preservation Trades Network

The Preservation Trades Network (PTN) evolved out of the Association for Preservation Technology (APT), a membership organization that promotes best practices for conserving and preserving historic structures. The APT is great and has chapters around the country that offer tours and workshops. The membership tends to be more academic, with a lot of engineers, architects, and conservators–the white collar side of saving old structures.

In 1995 at the APT’s annual conference, a group of contractors, educators and preservation specialists held a round-table discussion. The topic: the role of trades people and contractors wasn’t adequately recognized or acknowledged in the preservation industry. This task force met throughout 1996 and organized the 1997 International Preservation Trades Workshop (IPTW) to bring together a wide variety of trades people to share their skills through “hands on” demonstrations. This was going to be totally different than the academic conferences of years past.

Since 1997, the PTN has evolved but it continues to be a way for the people who put trowel or hammer to a building, to meet, swap tall tales, and learn how the “other guy” does it. Their mission:

“To empower the traditional building trades through network, good works, community, fellowship and education.”

PTN administers the Christopher P. Robinson International Preservation Trades Exchange Scholarship. It was named in honor of HPTC’s former superintendent, Chris Robinson, and blends his love of traditional trades and travel. The scholarship offers up to $2500 for tuition and travel for craftspeople and trades workers to participate in international cross-cultural exchanges. This scholarship is a partnership between Chris’ family, HPTC and PTN. Special workshops and events keep the scholarship funded.


The International Preservation Trades Workshop

Hands holding a swinging axe that is about to strike a wood beam.
Photo Credit: NPS/HPTC. Hewing a log.

PTN’s signature event is the International Preservation Trades Workshop (IPTW). Three days are dedicated to sharing skills and knowledge of all of the trades employed in the conservation of the built environment. Since 1997, practitioners of traditional trades from more than a dozen countries have come together to share their knowledge and demonstrate their skills. Demonstrators have included:

  • Stone and brick masons
  • Timber framers
  • Carpenters
  • Painters
  • Roofers
  • Plasterers
  • Metal workers

Every IPTW draws a diverse audience of tradespeople, preservationists, students and home owners, and offers unique learning opportunities for people of all ages, skill levels and interests. And along the way quite a few white collar preservationists have joined them. No one understands a structure better than people who touch it every day.

PTN’s Askin Achievement Award is named for HPTC’s founder, Jim Askins. In the 1970’s he realized that there weren’t enough people to repair the damage from Hurricane Agnes at the C&O Canal National Historic Site, so he started a training program. Today HPTC continues to share traditional trade skills with NPS employees, our partners, and the general public.

HPTC and WASO Learning and Development support the event by paying registration fees for NPS employees, encouraging our craftspeople to demonstrate, and occasionally by hosting it.


NPS Relationships with Preservation Trades

On the highest level, the National Park Service is the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places and administers the federal preservation tax credit program. Without those credits, many people couldn’t afford the time and skills required of Traditional Trades Workers.

The National Park Service directly preserves thousands of historic buildings, structures and features, many of which were constructed using techniques that are no longer commonly taught to tradespeople. The NPS has many programs that “empower the traditional building trades” as well as educate property owners, government officials, and of course, the Building Geeks like me:

Two hands setting a brick into a bed of mortar for a demonstration wall. One hand steadies the brick, the other holds a trowel and taps the brick with the trowel handle.
Photo Credit NPS/HPTC: Practicing laying brick.

What do you Geek out on? Have you found your tribe within the NPS or are there other groups that satisfy the need to belong? Share in the comments. Or maybe search the Groups in the Commons to see if your Geeks are already meeting there.

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  2. Sarah,
    This is great work. I was not at that IPTW, many afterwards for sure and the comment about “even a monkey can lay bricks” has been a good laugh and bone of contention for many years afterwards. Thanks

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