April 16, 2018
Adventures in Preservation with Judith Broeker
As the winter comes to a close, you may find yourself dreaming of some relaxation time. Sure there’s the beach or camping, but have you ever considered a trip where you can help repair 500 year old stone towers in Eastern Europe? If your answer to that question is yes!, this is the podcast for you. Judith Broeker, the co-founder of Adventures in Preservation, facilitates volunteer trips across the globe, connecting preservation craftspeople and experts with individuals who are ready and willing to lend a hand, and travel too! Judith and Nick discuss how these trips are funded, how projects are chosen, and the ways that these trips can assist historic communities, on this week’s PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] As spring approaches, you may find yourself dreaming of some relaxation time. Sure there’s the beach or camping, but have you ever considered a trip where you can help repair 500-year-old stone towers in Eastern Europe? If your answer to that question is yes, this is the podcast for you. Judith Broker, the co-founder of Adventures in Preservation, facilitates volunteer trips across the globe connecting preservation craftspeople and experts with individuals who are ready and willing to lend a hand and travel, too! Judith and I discuss how these trips are funded, how projects are chosen, and the ways that these trips can assist historic communities on this week’s PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Judith Broeker, who is the co-founder of Adventures in Preservation. She is most interested in materials conservation with both research and hands-on experience gained at historic structures throughout the United States as well as abroad. Ms Broeker holds a Master’s degree in history with an emphasis in historic preservation. She completed an internship at the National Parks Service and has worked in the private sector as well as with the Colorado Historical Society. For her, nothing is better than exploring a historic site with a camera in hand. She received specialized training at historic sites such as the Native American Acoma Pueblo, at the historic city of Kula in Turkey, and in her old guest ranch in the Rocky Mountains as well as other locations. Combining travel with hands-on training and adobe conservation, lime plaster technology, and masonry, and wood conservation was the source of her idea for Adventures in Preservation’s hands-on, volunteer vacations. And we are so excited to have Judith with us today on PreserveCast. Thanks for joining us today.
[Judith Broeker] Yes. Thank you for having me.
[NR] So you’ve got a really cool background. We talk to a lot of people who work in buildings. We don’t talk a lot of people who work in materials conservation, so maybe at some point, we can talk a little bit about that. But what was Judith’s path to preservation? How did you end up co-founding Adventures in Preservation? What got you excited about it? I mean, obviously, you have an academic background as well. What launched you into pursuing all of this?
[JB] Well, it was actually a little bit random. But I’ve always liked old houses. You know, when you drive through the countryside and all that. And in the mid-’80s, just as I was saying, randomly, I got this flyer in the mail. It might have been from the National Trust, I don’t remember. And it had an article on the somewhat new field of historic preservation. And it started talking about it and I thought, “Oh my gosh. That’s exactly what I love.” So it was just one of those moments when the lightbulb goes off. And then I tried a few – like you mentioned – a few internships just to make sure I really loved it before I went back to school, which wasn’t something I was eager to do.
[JB] But I loved everything I did and went on from there.
[NR] And so you went back to school, you said. So what had you originally had done?
[JB] I have a degree in Asian Studies and I’m not very good at languages, so that wasn’t too practical, although I loved everything I learned. And then I went back to school and I got a Master’s in Public Health, which was much more practical. But I must admit, I didn’t like it that well. So I worked in that field for ten years and then got this flyer in the mail and it was the big “Aha!”
[NR] Well, I guess that’s a reminder for people listening who run organizations that direct mail still matters, right? I mean, look at – you’re a shining example of that. A whole career because of a flyer.
[JB] I know. I don’t know if that still works with social media but back in the day, it was good [laughter].
[NR] So tell us all about Adventures in Preservation. What does AIP do? What is a volunteer vacation? How did you come up with this idea, and then, what is it?
[JB] Right. So while I’m getting my degree and starting with little jobs that came and went and that sort of thing, I worked at the Boulder Book Store – which is an excellent independent bookstore – and they had the travel section, which was my favorite place to work, and I was working in a new section that was all about volunteer vacations. And I just, again, thought “This is just too perfect to be able to travel, see places, and get your hands on historic buildings if I could figure out how to make that all come together.” So that’s why our organization is based on the concept of volunteer vacations. So we set up a website and immediately we thought we would have to go look for projects, but we have a page that says “Nominate a project.” And immediately we started getting these requests from all over the world, from communities or individuals, that had these great historic buildings that they didn’t want to lose. For the last sixteen years that’s how we get our projects, and then if it’s a feasible idea we go ahead and work with a local partner, set it up, and put it on our website, and then people can register. So with a volunteer vacation, everyone who registers pays their own way, basically.
[JB] – and a little bit extra to help pay the expert. I think this is maybe getting out of this topic a bit, but we always have an expert on-site, teaching and overseeing what we’re doing. An expert in whatever topic we’re covering at that site.
[NR] Well, that kind of leads me I guess to the next question – so that’s a good segue there – which is what kind of projects are you doing and maybe is one of the things and then maybe we can talk about who volunteers on this? As you mentioned, who’s directing their work, there’s an expert involved. But what kind of projects have you tackled and how many have you done?
[JB] Well, we have done at this point – we’ve been going since 2002 – maybe we’re in the mid-30 projects.
[JB] And I would say because of the level of funding that we are or aren’t able to get, our projects tend to be smaller buildings. But also because Jamie Donahoe and myself – she’s the other co-founder – both love just the small, vernacular buildings that change everywhere you go depending on materials, and history, and location of wherever you’re going. We don’t always take the project from beginning to end. We will see where the project is, maybe agree to complete the next few steps, and if we had more funding we would definitely take it to the finish. But unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.
[NR] So how does the funding – speaking of funding, how does that work? How are most of these structured?
[JB] When we take on a project, our agreement usually is that, I mean, the site manager or owner pays for the materials and then Adventures in Preservation is responsible for paying the fee of the expert, who is actually the only person paid. We’re an all-volunteer organization so when we get a request for a project there are several criteria, but one important criteria is what work needs to be done, and will that be interesting to any people who register, and is it a good learning experience? For instance, one of the projects in the United States that really was such a good idea – I wasn’t aware there were such projects – was in the smallish town of Mesilla, New Mexico, in southern New Mexico. And the town itself had set up a rotating sort of work plan. The whole town is adobe, built in the late 1800s. So people are living in adobe houses, and nobody knows how to take care of them when there’s problems. And so a lot of Portland cement was being used, and then the adobe disintegrates, and all that.
[NR] So, Judith, just for people who are listening who may not be familiar with it. What is adobe? What kind of characteristics of it are there? What are we talking about? What kind of material?
[JB] Well, adobe is basically made of particular soils and mixed with water, and it has to have a certain percentage of clay and some communities will add straw. Some will add horse hair or different animal hairs to bind it together. So it’s a little different in each place. And, basically, you mix the mud and put in whatever additives you want to put in, and then they have forms that look like a giant, brick-shaped form, and you push it in there, make sure you get all the air out, and then pull off the form and it dries in the sun. So it’s a very sturdy material. However, it needs to be covered with lime plaster, which has to be maintained annually, and that’s where – currently that doesn’t work well, because people don’t want to do that work or they don’t know how. So the town allowed people to apply if they needed help fixing up their house, making repairs, or getting it back to its original condition. And then they would… You were prioritized, so whoever was top of the list, they would have both the homeowners and then other people further down the list who owned homes come, along with groups like Adventures in Preservation. We would all work together, learn the skills, and the little bit of funding that came from the city paid for materials. So the homeowner learned the skills, we learned the skills, and the people next on the list were also being trained. It was a really interesting concept for how to save your historic buildings.
[NR] Yeah. And so it sounds like you can tackle a wide variety of different projects, but a lot of them are, it sounds like – with adobe, fixing adobe, is there a lot of painting? Or do you get into much of the structural work?
[JB] Only if it’s a small structure. And that’s, again, a funding issue.
[JB] If we could get some… It wouldn’t require that much, but when you work in the huge… Well, we work in Eastern Europe in some amazing cities that have three story stone structures, and it requires structural engineers.
[JB] Hopefully they can take care of some of that first before we get there. But if they can’t, sadly, we often have to turn down that project.
[NR] And how long do most of these projects last? What’s a typical Adventure timeline? How long would someone be overseas or in New Mexico or wherever with you?
[JB] Well, we set them up, generally, for a two week stretch, and people can sign up for one week or two weeks. And most of the people who come – even though we market internationally – most of the people who attend are Americans because they kind of have that volunteering spirit, which a lot of countries aren’t – that’s not part of their culture. And we’re all busy people, and so usually people feel they can’t come for more than one week. But more and more people are staying for two. We get people from Australia who would come for two months if we could run it that long. We get some Canadians, and then we do get a few people from Asia, and scatterings of people from Europe when the project is close to them. Yeah, it’s a very interesting mix of people, and you can be anywhere as long as you’re eighteen or older. It’s open to everyone who wants to learn the skill. You get trained on-site, and the work gets done, and it gets done well. We’ve never had any complaints so…
[NR] Well, why don’t we take a quick break right here, and then maybe when we come back we can talk a little bit more about the people who actually do this volunteer work, how you find them, how you recruit them –
[NR] – and talk a little bit more about the work ahead for Adventures in Preservation. And we’ll do that right here on PreserveCast.
[Stephen Israel] Ah. Do you feel that? The cool breeze drifting past. The green grass tickling your feet. As you may be able to tell by the pollen in the air and the nasal congestion in my voice, spring has sprung here in Maryland and that can only mean one thing. Proclaimed by the governor and organized by the Archaeological Society of Maryland, April is Maryland Archaeology Month, and this year their focus is on some of the most thrilling archaeology of all, underwater archaeology. Archaeologists across the state have contributed to and edited Charting the Past: 30 Years of Exploring Maryland’s Submerged History, as a series of academic essays on the topic of archaeology under the waves, discussing shipwrecks and more from the last 12,000 years, along with research findings from sites along the Chesapeake Bay. A free PDF download is available online and will be linked to the show notes for this episode. But the collection of essays isn’t the only thing going on for Maryland Archaeology Month. Another component of the month is bringing the public, students, families, and colleagues all together to events, to learn more and share about archaeology. One event still upcoming is Discovering Archaeology Day at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum on April 21st. There will be interactive learning and fun, including an archaeological dig for kids, archaeological site and lab tours, exhibits, games, and crafts. The whole theme of the month is almost enough to make you want to grab a snorkel and try diving for buried treasure right away. But before you do that, you may want to check out one of our old episodes with Dr. Susan Langley, the state underwater archaeologist. That reminds me. You’ve got to get back to PreserveCast.
PreserveCast isn’t just for Monday’s anymore. Find all of our episodes at PreserveCast.org anytime. And we’re on social media to continue the conversation @PreserveCast. If you have a question or want to suggest a topic, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined by Judith Broeker, who is the co-founder of Adventures in Preservation. Before we took our break we learned about what Adventures in Preservation is, and the types of projects that they’ve tackled, and how long the projects last, how they bring an expert out and the volunteers do this work. You mentioned that your volunteers come from all across the globe with a good chunk of them coming from the United States. How do you get people involved? Is it all social media? Is it word of mouth? And then I guess maybe as a follow-up to that, how much does it cost to go on most of these trips?
[JB] Okay. So we have never had a huge marketing budget and fortunately for us, the social media era started right about the same time we founded the organization. Our website and now Facebook, and sometimes we’re on Twitter and some of that, is mostly how we reach people. And it’s quite a variety of people. I would say the biggest groups are maybe students in Master’s programs and young professionals is a large percentage, and then at the other end is Baby Boomers and people who like to travel but actually do something when they travel and have the income to do that. So it’s quite a variety.
[NR] And what does it cost to go on one of these? Do you have one that’s kind of about to go out and maybe you can give us an idea of what it would take to get on one of these if people are interested?
[JB] Right. In the U.S., we have a project in Fairfield, Virginia, which combines archaeology with preservation and they are an excellent organization and they keep the costs as low as possible. So there it’s $900ish if you have a double room lodging and then it can go up if you want a single room and that sort of thing.
[NR] And what does that cover? What does that $900 get you?
[JB] That covers your lodging, your meals, we take field trips or excursions, and it covers that. It covers training, materials, I think that’s it.
[NR] That’s a lot! $900 for an entire week?
[JB] Yes [laughter].
[JB] I mean, because of that, not a lot of money as you might imagine comes back to the organization because we want as many people to come as possible and the higher the price is the fewer people that can come. So for us, that’s the big challenge. How do you keep the projects available to as many people as possible and still run your organization? And I must say we haven’t quite come up with the right answer [laughter] since we’re all volunteer but anyway.
[NR] Well, that sounds like a heck of a deal. I imagine a lot of people listening might be surprised by that. I’ve been familiar with Adventures in Preservation, never really looked at what it would cost, but that’s – I mean, obviously you said that that’s for a United States trip. What would it, if you were in the Ukraine or something like that what do those trips generally run you?
[JB] I would say just as a general rule – and sometimes this is in the U.S. as well – it runs about $1,500 a week or a little less. And we have worked quite a bit in Eastern Europe because due to rules and regulations it’s just easier to set up projects. And then it’s been a little less expensive because costs are less there. But when we work in Europe, everyone has to pay their own airfare as well.
[NR] Right, right.
[JB] Yes, you get yourself there and pay for a week. So that’s why we would so like to find corporate sponsors or some kind of funding so that our projects are available to more people who can afford to pay the airfare and the weekly fee so –
[NR] So do you have any success stories of volunteers who have gone on, sort of like yourself, spurred by this experience to become professional preservationists or work in the trades or do you have examples of that?
[JB] Right. Well, we’ve had several young women, especially, who haven’t had the opportunity to really get on a work site and try it out and get their hands dirty, and they’re interested. So they come to our projects and everybody is in there just doing the work, nobody stands back, that’s part of the deal, and you really learn. And, yes, there have been at least three or four that have then said to us, “This was great. I learned that I could do it. I don’t have to stand back. I can get in and help.” And they’ve gone on to careers in preservation or something similar. And recently we’ve also had students using our projects as internships. Especially several interior design students who will come and help restore the building, but they’re also looking at how the interiors could be designed and used after it’s completed, and then they use that for credit and good experience. We’ve been pleased that we could offer that as well.
[NR] You’ve talked about the Adobe project. You’ve talked about the Fairfield project. I know it’s probably hard to pick a favorite of one of these. But is there one that might surprise people or might be interesting in terms of the location or the complexity or just a great story? Do you have one that you really love to talk about?
[JB] Well, my personal favorite, I love going to Eastern Europe, and I think it’s because it’s new and different and it always makes it exciting when you get to go to a new location.
And we have worked several times in the City of Gjirokastër, Albania, which normally who would go to Albania? Although now it is getting to be more of a tourist destination. But as a group, you go and you feel safe, you’re with everybody else, but this city was a wealthy administrative center for the Ottomans when they ruled that area for about 600 years. And so it has these just amazing huge stone… they’re called tower houses, they were all decoratively painted and wood carving and all this sort of thing. And when the Communist government collapsed in about 1990, the communists actually, as bad as they were, had a program of maintenance. When that ended, and it hasn’t been that long, nobody has been able to deal with these buildings. So in however many years that is. Thirty?
[NR] Yeah, it’s been a few.
[JB] Do my math. There were about 600 of these tower houses. Now they’re down to about 400. Once there’s a hole in the roof, within a year, which shocked me, these huge stone buildings can just collapse. I had no idea it could happen that quickly. So the thing about the project that is important to me is that really the economy struggles greatly in Albania, as you might imagine, and the only way the city will survive is to build a good program of heritage tourism, and if they lose their historic buildings, it won’t happen. Historic preservation for them is like their only lifeline. And so we really, really like working there but, again, in American dollars I was told it would take as little as like [$]80,000, which is a chunk but it’s still quite minimal to restore these whole, huge buildings. We could save it and put it back in use so.
[NR] Not a lot of money but still definitely a climb and a pretty cool story. If people want to learn more about that or find more information about Adventures in Preservation, where would you send them?
[JB] I think our website is the best. We have pages describing all of our past projects. We’re working on a new website, which should be coming up in the next few months but meanwhile, the old site works well. So, it’s just AdventuresInPreservation.org.
[NR] So, for people listening from across the country who maybe work for a small organization that would like to partner up with Adventures in Preservation, how do they do that? And do you have any advice for them about what the kind of projects you’re looking for, about how you apply? All that good stuff. I think there’s some people probably listening who would love to know more.
[JB] Okay. Well, like I said, we have a page on our website with a form to fill out, which gives the basics of any project that you would like to have us consider and we try to pick projects that wouldn’t happen otherwise. So, something that “if you don’t help us, this building will not be touched” is sort of what we go for and we need a strong local partner because since we can’t be travelling back and forth to the site, we need someone to help us set up the lodging and the meals and we also – it doesn’t always happen – but if there’s someone locally who can do a condition assessment on the building and say, “This is the prioritized work plan. We need one, two, three, four, five, six done in this order.” If it’s possible for that owner or organization to do that then that makes it much easier for us to know where to step in and help.
[NR] Yeah, and I think those are good things for people who are listening who might be interested in doing this to know if they can check some of those boxes, perhaps, they’re more likely to gain your attention and perhaps become one of these projects in the future.
[JB] And I would say that we can only take on three projects a year or something like that.
[NR] So, it’s pretty competitive.
[JB] Yes, it is competitive. And we are very happy to help people use our model in their community if they think that that’s possible to get local volunteers to come and do pretty much what we do only without us and our structure and us bringing all the volunteers. So, it is a good model but it’s a little harder than it might sound or everyone would be doing it, I guess, but we’re happy to help if we can’t take it on.
[NR] So, what’s next for Adventures in Preservation? Anything? I mean, you said you’ve got a new website coming, obviously projects coming in the future here. Any exciting things on the horizon that you want people to know about?
[JB] Well, if anybody wants to sign up for our trip in Armenia, it starts in mid-May. So we’re getting close to the deadline for signing up but if you ever wanted to do a little traveling further afield, it’s a fantastic place to go. It’s a beautiful city and in great need of help from the international community.
[NR] Oh, I think that’s a great next project and maybe we can have you back in the future to talk about that. It’s been really fun talking with you and, obviously, you said the best place to find all of your information is at the Adventures in Preservation website. Before we say goodbye, we’re going to ask you the most difficult question which we ask of everyone –
[NR] – which is your personal favorite historic building or place.
[JB] Oh, I knew that was coming. Well, I have to say I don’t have one because every time I go to a new place, I get excited about the buildings –
[NR] Now, Judith, just a head’s up here. We’ve done – I don’t know I’m looking at the producer over here, Stephen. We’ve done 60… How many episodes here now? 60-odd episodes –
[JB] And everyone has answered that?
[NR] Everyone has answered that. So you don’t want to be that outlier, do you?
[JB] I might break the mold.
[NR] Well, you’ve got to give us one or your most recent favorite one.
[JB] Here’s a for instance. So, recently I went to a local private farm out in the plains of Colorado and on this property was this amazing old adobe house, quite large. It had been very fancy in its day but no one was maintaining it so it’s going to fall down and collapse. But they let us go through, took photos and in the kitchen was this turquoise enamel covered stove from 1900 or whatever that came on the train from Saint Louis. And the house will just collapse around this stove, which will last forever. I get so excited about that. You can see how they built it. You can see the process and you can see the history and how the people lived there and sadly, it will be gone but I get excited about almost every building [laughter].
[NR] Well, that works. I guess we’ll leave it with nearly derelict Coloradan plains farmhouse.
[JB] Yes. Yes.
[NR] Okay. Well, it’s been a pleasure to have you on. Thank you for joining us and thanks for all the good work that you’re doing out there. We look forward to hearing more.
[JB] As many people as we can get to be involved, we would love.
[NR] All right. Thanks again for joining us.
[JB] Thank you.
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This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service, and in partnership with the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
Our website is made possible by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. This week’s episode was produced and engineered by me, Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band, Pretty Gritty. And most importantly, thank you for listening and preserving!