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History's Sentinels

Tuesday, June 5, 2007 – William Inman, University Relations

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Richard Laub imagines Atlanta as one great big history lab. And the history professor and director of the Heritage Preservation Program doesn’t miss a chance to get his students’ noses out of the books and under a 100-year-old home in a venerable old neighborhood for a more hands-on approach to history.

“My agenda is to get people out of the classroom and into the community to learn what the practice of preservation is about,” Laub said.

That active approach to history isn’t just what keeps this master’s program popular. Rather, as Laub pointed out, there’s something intrinsically altruistic about preserving the built environment. Moreover, the program delves deeper into the notion of preservation, as its name asserts. It’s not just historic preservation; it’s heritage preservation.

“We think about heritage in a wide sense, not just historic preservation in terms of buildings but cultural heritage, material heritage, oral history… We try to think about preservation in a very broad way,” he said.

When history professor Tim Crimmins started the Heritage Preservation Program more than 20 years ago, he wanted to weave other disciplines into historic preservation to build a more all-encompassing degree. Students in the program not only take specialized history courses such as American architectural history and preservation planning, but also courses in anthropology, folklore and interior design.

The program offers a master’s degree with tracks in historic preservation and public history, and it has become increasingly flexible. Through cross-registration, students have access to courses and resources at Georgia Tech, Emory and the Atlanta University Center.

Circling the city

The Beltline project has captured the imagination of Atlantans. The proposal is a 22-mile loop of historic railroad encircling downtown and midtown Atlanta that is envisioned to bolster green space, improve transit, connect neighborhoods and foster livable communities. But along the proposed route stand some of the city’s historic buildings, which are jeopardized by the developers’ rush for the valuable land along the Beltline.

From May to December of 2005, a team of master’s degree students in the program set out to prepare an inventory of the historic structures that line the Beltline’s path for an internship with the Atlanta Urban Design Commission. One of the students, Brandy Morrison, served as team leader for the project.

“We did a field survey along the Beltline photographing and taking notes on all of the buildings that appeared to be potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places,” said Morrison, who graduated from Georgia State last December. “When we were done with that, we put the information into a database and analyzed it to see what trends there were and what areas had the greatest concentration of resources.”

Morrison and a half-dozen of her peers surveyed more than 1,200 buildings they deemed to be historic. And while it isn’t clear how many of these buildings are in danger, she said their goal was to make sure that preservation is, at least, on the table.

For her work on the survey, Morrison was recognized as the city’s Outstanding Preservation Professional for 2006 by the Atlanta Urban Design Commission. For Morrison to win the award, officially called the Jenny Thurston Memorial Award, is unusual considering that it generally goes to working preservation professionals rather than students. The overall project won the Outstanding Student Project Award from the Georgia Planning Commission.

Laub says preservation efforts are increasing, and the program’s work will only gain importance. In Atlanta, where a project like the Beltline could frame it as a model 21st-century city, students and alumni of the Heritage Preservation Program will likely have played a major role in shaping the city’s future.

“We use Atlanta as a resource, but also as a laboratory because there’s a lot going on and lots of people who need our help,” Laub said. “And that also gives us an opportunity to give back to the community, and I think that’s a really important aspect.”

Brandy Morrison and Richard Laub