April 30, 2018
Preservationists come in all shapes and sizes, but have you ever heard of a preservationist cut-out doll? Today’s guest, Sarah Marsom, is a jack-of-all-trades in terms of historic preservation. She’s a consultant, a co-founder of the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists, and to top it all off she created the Tiny Activist Project, which raises funds through the sale of dolls that celebrate inspirational figures in preservation like Jane Jacobs. Sarah and I cover all these programs and more. Stick around for a little while on this week’s PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] Preservationists come in all shapes and sizes. But have you ever heard of a preservationist cut-out? Today’s guest, Sarah Marsom, is a jack-of-all-trades in terms of historic preservation. She’s a consultant. She’s a co-founder of the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists. And to top it all off, she created the Tiny Activist Project, which raises funds through the sale of cut-out dolls that celebrate inspirational figures in preservation like Jane Jacobs. Sarah and I cover all these programs and much more. Stick around for a little while 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. Today we are joined by Sarah Marsom who is a heritage resource consultant based in Columbus, Ohio. Through the creation of Young Ohio Preservationists in 2014, Sarah helped start a state-wide initiative to embolden young adults to protect the past. With other leaders from young preservationist groups around the region, Sarah co-founded the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists in 2016 to create free educational opportunities for emerging community leaders in the region. Her efforts to create opportunities for emerging preservation professionals and highlight hidden histories led to the development of the Tiny Activist Project. This project spreads awareness for influential women of the past through hand-sewn dolls in the image of Jane Jacobs, with a new doll and partnership with Latinos in Heritage Conservation coming in 2018. And it also includes workshops that fuse art and history. Every tiny Jane doll sold contributes to an emerging conservation professional’s conference scholarship. We are so pleased to have you here today to talk about all the great things that you’re doing in the Rust Belt and beyond. Sarah, thanks for joining us.
[Sarah Marsom] Thank you so much for having me!
[NR] So how does one become a heritage research consultant? What was your path to preservation? How did you get into this line of work?
[SM] I like to joke it was a bit unconventional. I started out with my undergrad degree in Parks and Rec Management because I’m very passionate about the National Park System and smaller community parks. But I realized quickly that I didn’t want to have people complaining about their blisters or other ailments while leading them on hikes because that’s my sacred space. So I did a wonderful internship at Riordan Mansion State Historic Park in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is a gorgeous 1904 Arts and Crafts home designed by Charles Whittlesey, and it was during the recession. And I got to really see how a community can rally around a heritage resource and preserve the history for perpetuity because at that time, the Arizona State Parks were wanting to close many of the sites because of the budget cuts. So it was a real experience that helped me understand the importance of the past because this home was, for example, the family helped found the observatory where Pluto was discovered. They had a profound impact on the area.
After that, I took a year off because nobody wants to hire somebody with a parks and rec degree during the recession. And I was a nanny, but I got to also work at Old Salem Museum & Gardens in North Carolina, which is one of the first historic districts in the country. And that, again, just helped me understand the broader context of how preservation is in our daily lives, and I realized that I should probably get a Master’s in this so that I could hone in. And I really enjoyed getting that from Eastern Michigan University. I graduated from there in 2013, and I’ve been kind of on a bit of a preservation adventure since then.
[NR] And so you work as a consultant. What kind of projects are you doing in your professional side? And obviously, we’ll talk about some of your passion projects, too. But on the professional side, how do you define and what is a heritage research consultant? What kind of projects are you working on?
[SM] Right now, I am working on a few different things. I’m working up in Toledo to get an old automotive manufacturing facility on both the local and the National Register so that we can then pursue historic tax credits. It’s a unexpected project because I thought it was just going to be automotive parts, and then I found out that for about a decade from the ’20s into the ’30s, it was actually an odd fellows hall as well. So that’s been a lot of fun for me, and then I’m working with a conservationist who is helping restore a beautiful mid-century church in Akron and she’s asked me to come help with metal cleaning. So I do a little bit of everything, whether it’s hands-on work because I’m sick of staring at books or research because I want to find those hidden histories. And I also like to work with architects to research the history of neighborhoods to help them develop their contemporary in-fill that’s sensitive with the area.
[NR] And you’re based in Columbus. I don’t know if we mentioned this or if you mentioned it, but are you originally from that area or did you choose Columbus?
[SM] I chose Columbus. When I was wrapping up my graduate degree, I was offered a position with the German Village Society, which is a wonderful neighborhood non-profit here for a historic district that has had architectural review since 1960. So it was a real treat to get to come down here and get to know the area, and I’ve just fallen in severe like with Columbus. I’m still learning to love it because it’s the largest city I’ve ever lived in, but it has great opportunities for preservation with its expected growth of over 500,000 over the next fifty years. I’m really passionate about working with the city and the non-profits to understand how they can use our vacant structures and our historic structures to be a part of that continued development.
[NR] So we’ve talked a little bit about the work that you do, and how you got into this, and your educational training, and the projects that you take on as a consultant, but you also have these really exciting other projects that you’re working on on the side. And I don’t even know if side is a good description since they take, obviously, a lot of time and a lot of dedication. What led you to found the Young Ohio Preservationists? What is that group? What do they do? How many people are in it now? Tell us a little bit about that because I think people around the country are really enthused, and we’ve interviewed some other young preservationists groups around the nation already, and it’s always interesting to hear how it comes together and how that worked out.
[SM] When I first moved down here Heritage Ohio, the state-wide nonprofit for preservation, had put out an open call for focus groups to see if there was any interest in a young preservationist movement. And I attended, and then I sat, and I waited and waited for an e-mail, and I didn’t get one, so I requested Heritage Ohio to let me run with the idea. And luckily, they agreed to and it’s been a wonderful partnership since then to have the Young Ohio Preservationists be an arm of the organization.
From my perspective, I feel that there’s a void when you attend the conferences or even when you just go on a historic house museum tour. There’s a severe disconnect. You’ll see the younger demographics, the third-graders who are there on their annual field trip, and then, typically, you’ll see retirees and sometimes you’ll see family. But you don’t quite see those 20s and 30s people quite as much in attendance at historic sites. So I’m very passionate about heritage interpretation and I’m hoping to grow my consulting more in that way. But I saw the opportunity for me to help develop this to see why people in this younger age range aren’t attending because I personally love a historic house museum tour, but I understand that doesn’t resonate with everyone. So it’s been a great opportunity to expand the preservation audience because preservationist, that’s not a professional title. It’s someone who appreciates older structures, or heritage, or even recipes.
That’s kind of why I created it, to figure out how we could broaden the audience. And my passion for being involved in the Young Ohio Preservationists movement has continued in seeing that we need to empower younger individuals to have a voice at neighborhood commission meetings or other more legislative opportunities for preservation. Like this past weekend, we partnered with a local letterpress to create preservation-themed postcards. One of them said, “Torn down for what?” And then we worked with the audience on how to properly develop messaging to reach out to a legislator for an issue that matters with you. So a bit of a fun “craftivism” spin and not your traditional advocacy workshop that’s been done in the past.
[NR] Yeah. That’s pretty exciting, and obviously, always looking for ways to get people engaged in advocacy. So I think that those are things that could be replicated elsewhere. And so how many people are a part of the network at this point? What kind of numbers do you have?
[SM] It’s kind of hard to say because we don’t have a formalized membership. That’s something different for the majority of the young preservationists groups from around the country. Most of us don’t have formal memberships. We have a very engaged audience. We recently posted about a proposed demolition in Columbus, and it had a reach of over 30,000 people. So we work very hard to get our messaging out there and to engage as wide a group as possible. And it’s not just young preservationists who are a part of us or people who are “young.” It’s just that we only have people who are 40 or under on our board and in leadership positions. We invite all people to attend and be a part of us.
[NR] Well, I think that that answers the question that Heritage Ohio posed at the beginning of this conversation where you said they wanted to know if young people were interested. And, obviously, the numbers and facts bare that out. Why don’t we take a quick break right here? And then when we come back, we can talk a little bit about the Rust Belt Coalition and sort of how that works and connects in with the Young Ohio Preservationists and then also talk about the Tiny Activist Project, and Jane Jacobs, and what’s on the horizon both for that project and for Sarah Marsom. And we’ll do that right here on PreserveCast.
[Stephen Israel] You likely know that the national anthem was written in Maryland by Francis Scott Key during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. What you may not know is that the actual Star Spangled Banner itself, the very flag that served as Key’s inspiration for his initial poem, was sewn in a small brick house in Baltimore City and that building still stands!
The Flag House dates back to 1793 and was the home and place of business of Mary Young Pickersgill. The business started in 1807 when Mary, and her mother, Rebecca, and Mary’s daughter, Caroline moved into the house to reestablish the flag-making business that Rebecca Young started in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War. It is in this house that Mary, with her family and assistants, sowed the massive 42′ by 30′ American flag that flew over Fort McHenry on the night of September 14th, 1814. For its preservation, the house was purchased by the City of Baltimore in 1927 and is now operated as the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, a historic site and museum. Recently, the Flag House was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and has engaged Encore Sustainable Designs to repair and replace exterior features of the historic Pickersgill house.
And that’s not all that’s happening at the Pickersgill house. Preservation Maryland will host our annual Best of Maryland Preservation Awards event on Thursday, May 17th, 2018 at the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore City. Come celebrate with us and explore the Flag House with people that love history as much as you do. You can go to www.PreservationMaryland.org/programs/awards for tickets and more details. Anyway, that’s enough yarn spinning from me. You’ve got to get back to Sarah and Nick on PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Sarah Marsom who is a heritage resource consultant based in Columbus, Ohio. Before we took our break, we were talking about all things preservation in Columbus in Ohio, the work that she’s been doing both professionally and also engaged with the Young Ohio Preservationists. And so we heard about the creation of that group, but what is the Rust Belt Coalition? And I also should say, I guess, maybe going into this that Rust Belt used to sort of be this derogatory term, but it sort of seems like you’ve embraced it as your own. What’s the coalition? What is that doing? How can people learn more about that?
[SM] The Rust Belt Coalition was formed in early 2016. I was talking to the leader of Preserve Greater Indy, which is that young preservationists’ group over in Indiana, and we both agreed that it’s difficult for a younger person to understand how to start a grassroots movement and manage a board, and do Robert’s Rules and all those fun components of managing a group. But we realized that all of us were acting separately as young preservationists with our own groups and not communicating or sharing our ideas or providing support. So we created the Rust Belt Coalition initially with Indianapolis, the Buffalo Young Preservationists, and the Young Preservationist’s Association of Pittsburgh and we hosted a regional gathering in April of 2016 in Pittsburgh. And this was our way of getting all of these young leaders in a centralized area so that we could highlight what the people in Pittsburgh were up too to preserve. So we had this wonderful weekend of getting to know each other and expanding our preservation toolkits.
And this is incredibly valuable because on many of these young preservationist boards, not everybody is a preservation professional. Some of them might be a librarian, an engineer, a teacher. We have a whole gambit of people compared to a more traditional preservation board, which would have your architecture preservationist, something more along those lines. So it’s a free opportunity and they’re hosted on the weekend and these Rust Belt takeovers are the core of what the Rust Belt Coalition do.
When we were in Pittsburgh, we toured the city steps and learned about the ways to preserve infrastructure. We visited Buffalo and we visited the old grain silos and have seen how art have transformed them, and now there’s urban kayaking through the area. Or this past weekend in April, we came to Columbus and we toured an old 1800’s fort that’s been converted into a public school that’s an arts campus. So we look at all these different tactics of preservation, and then we use them as educational opportunities. And we’ve been hosting three a year since 2016, and they’ve been a really great way to help strengthen the groups through coordinating a large event, but also to help us support each other and understand how we can be the best board members and leaders possible. We get about 100 people or so in attendance at each of these.
[NR] What’s the next one that’s on the schedule if people are interested in that?
[SM] If they are interested, it is in Indianapolis, hosted by Preserve Greater Indy, and it is hosted in September 28th through [the] 30th.
[NR] Cool. And where can you find more information on that? Is it –
[SM] You can go to RustBeltCoalitionofYoungPreservationists.com. We also have a Facebook group, and if you’d like to specifically follow that event, follow Preserve Greater Indy online, and there’s a Facebook event.
[NR] Fantastic. Well, it sounds like it’s a good opportunity, a great way for people to come together. How do you define Rust Belt? Do you have a certain area? Are you sort of a little bit liberal in how you define that? I mean, I’m thinking here in Baltimore we have some rusty places. Not sure we’re part of the Rust Belt, but –
[SM] We base it on the maps that exist of what the Rust Belt are. So that would be New York, Western Pennsylvania, Northern West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and then even extending some of them [to] include Saint Louis and Wisconsin and some more of the Western regions. There’s a variety of rustiness to the city. We have visited old steel manufacturing plants, and Columbus is a bit less rusty even though we had the largest in the nation steel pressing plant that closed a few years ago. But it’s all about, more or less, just showcasing the region whether it’s in a smaller community – we’ve gone to Wheeling, West Virginia – or something that’s bigger, like Rochester. So we are rapidly growing as a regional group, and we want to actively help communities in different cities throughout the region to help them create their own groups to empower their area.
[NR] It’s really a great opportunity, and if people are interested, even if they don’t live in the Rust Belt, great opportunity to go and learn more from your peers. Speaking of learning, the Tiny Activist Project. We have to talk about this. I feel like this is something that you’d have to be living under a large preservation rock not to have seen this at some point or to have seen a tiny Jane Jacobs pop up, particularly on social media. If someone listening does live under the proverbial preservation rock, why don’t you describe what the Tiny Activist Project is, who Jane Jacobs was, and what this aimed to do, and how it’s all come together?
[SM] The Tiny Activists Project started out as a crafting experiment. Before the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in Houston in 2016, I thought it would be fun to have a character go around the conference for social media. Instead of it being me and my experiences, I decided that everybody would love to know what Jane Jacobs thought of Houston and their lack of zoning. So I hand-sewed a Jane Jacobs doll, and at the conference I had a number of people people asked me if I was selling them. And I go, “No. This took me a very long time. I don’t think I could price it to where I’d make money off of it.” Luckily, I was able to partner with a wonderful illustrator based in San Francisco, Shannon May, who’s been a lifelong friend. And she helped me create the design for what would be Tiny Jane Jacobs.
[NR] And why don’t you tell us who Jane Jacobs was because some people listening may not know.
[SM] Yeah. Jane Jacobs was a preservation pioneer. Preservation in America was founded with Ann Pamela Cunningham doing Mount Vernon, but the modern historic preservation movement really was catapulted onto the front page of newspapers because of Jane Jacobs. She was an Architectural Forum critic who was living in Greenwich Village in the mid 1900s. When Robert Moses, the city planner at that time, decided he wanted to partake in urban renewal and demolish areas of the city to make way for new and bigger and better roads, Jane Jacobs fought against it. He wanted to demolish Washington Square Park and parts of Greenwich Village. And since Jane Jacobs lived there and had developed firm philosophies on community development and architecture through her work as a architectural critic, she fought against it. She rallied the neighborhood against the city, and they were successful ensuring that this area was not demolished. She became a real icon especially with the publishing of her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she was an advocate for not only older construction but also sensitive contemporary infill that represents the full spectrum of time and history and ensuring that these areas are walkable and mixed-use and the aspect of preservation that we consider sustainable today.
[NR] So fantastic explanation of who Jane Jacobs was. It’s almost like you’ve been asked that before [laughter].
[SM] I have been. I will say I was very shocked when I attended the New York Preservation Conference last year and I had to explain who she was. I was like, “She should be a patron saint of New York. What are you doing?”
[NR] So you put together – I mean kind of back to what we were talking about before- you’ve put together these flat dolls that people put together and then people are buying them. But what’s the project accomplishing? Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that and who can take advantage of it and how to learn more?
[SM] The Tiny Jane Jacobs dolls can be purchased either as pre-sewn or sew-your-own kits. So one of the aspects that I hope that it will help with is helping people learn how to sew. I think it’s an incredibly valuable skill for people to have, and it’s also a traditional trade that’s slowly been getting lost. When I was little, I took sewing lessons so it’s something that I’ve continued with as an adult. So that’s one aspect of it. And I’ve had some great experiences of grandparents purchasing Jane Jacobs kits and sewing them with their grandkids so that they can fuse both a skill experience and also educating them about a preservation icon.
I’m also utilizing them as a way to fundraise and create the Emerging Preservation Professional Scholarship, which last year helped support five people to attend the Saving Places Conference, which is the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference. That was in Chicago last year. And we’re also providing tiny scholarships for people with big dreams this year to attend the Past Forward Conference in San Francisco.
Many of the scholarships that are available today for preservation conferences are limited to students. So I feel there’s a real disconnect between being a student and then being an emerging preservation professional where your work might not necessarily have enough of a budget to send you to the national conference or you could be wild like me and trying to run your own business as a 20-something. There’s all kinds of voids there to help bridge that financial gap because when we look at a conference, it’s going to cost at minimum between travel, food, lodging, and registration, $1,000. So anything that helps and I’m really excited to be able to do that again this year, and hopefully, for the foreseeable future.
[NR] So how many have you sold? I mean, obviously, it sounds like if you’re able to fund the scholarship, something is going right. But do you have any sense for how many tiny Jane Jacobs are running around the world now?
[SM] I’ve sold close to 200 at this point. And what I’m hoping to expand it into this year is also into workshops, where a portion of those would help sustain the scholarship. And the workshops are going to be me helping people sell their own tiny Jane Jacobs dolls or help them design and sell dolls in the image of their own hero.
[NR] Cool. And is that the next… In 2018, you’re working with Latinos in Heritage Conservation. Is that the new doll or is that different?
[SM] That’s different. These workshops, I’m working with different historic sites to highlight their local heroes.
[SM]With the Latinos in Heritage Conservation, I’m very excited. We’re partnering to discover the lesser-known histories of Latina activists, who acted in a similar fashion of Jane Jacobs. The women who helped preserve the heritage and the built environment that they thought was valuable to their community. So we are currently soliciting nominees for who you think is the Latina activist that should be the next Tiny Activist doll. And we’re already getting a really great response just in the past few days that it’s been open, and I’m excited to see what we get because once we have a compilation of all the proposed Latina activist nominees, we’re going to highlight them and their work online through a blog series and allow the public to help vote and help us determine who that preservation icon should be.
[NR] Well, that’s probably a great segue to how people can find out more about all of this and if they want to hire you to be a consultant or they want to find out about what you’re working on. Where can they keep up with all of this and find out about all the new things that are coming up?
[SM] You can go to SarahMarsom.com, and there will be a prompt to sign up on my mailing list. You’ll also see a tab for the Tiny Activist Project, and that’s where you can either consider purchasing a doll or you can also find the application to apply for this year’s emerging preservation professional scholarship. And you can find me on social media. I’m on Instagram @Sarah Marsom or @Tiny Activist Project, and also on Twitter @SarahMarsom or @TinyActivistProject. I like to be very consistent.
[NR] Yeah. So if you Google “Sarah Marsom,” they’re going to find you.
[SM] I’m the one and only.
[NR] So before we depart here – and this has really been a great interview, great to hear about all the good work that’s going on in Columbus and beyond – the most difficult question for most preservationists that join us, which is what is your favorite historic building or place?
[SM] I’ve been thinking long and hard about this, and it’s very difficult to select one, but I think I’m going to go with Canyon de Chelly. Canyon de Chelly is a national landmark in Arizona. There are wonderful cliff dwellings that have been actively preserved for decades, but it’s also an area where the Native American population still lives and farms today. So I love that you can see a community spanning centuries of time and still being thriving and respecting the culture and continuing those traditional traits.
[NR] Really great, great answer and a new one for us. Every once in a while we get a repeat, but that is brand new for us and one for everyone to check out. Sarah, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for all the good work that you’re doing. And again, if people are looking to find out more about all the projects she’s working on or want to learn how to pick up a Tiny Activist Project doll of Jane Jacobs or the Latina that follows, you can find that at SarahMarsom.com. And again, thank you for joining us and look forward to talking with you again in the future.
[SM] Thank you so much for having me.
You don’t need to open a history book to find us. PreserveCast is available online from iTunes, the Google Play Store, and wherever else you download your podcasts, as well as on our website PreserveCast.org, where you can find a complete archive of all our previous episodes plus photo galleries and additional content. We’re also on Facebookand Twitter at PreserveCast.
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!