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News Student Blog: Historic Preservation

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​Left: A row of historic houses located on Second Street in Lewes, Delaware’s historic district; the houses date from the early eighteenth century to the present. (photo: Center for Historic Architecture and Design) Right: PSP student Catherine Morrissey surveying historic structures in Lewes, Delaware. (photo: Michael Emmons)

After graduating from the University of Michigan with dual Bachelors degrees in History and the History of Art, I wanted to find a career that applied historical research to physical objects in meaningful ways. These interests soon led me into the field of historic preservation.

I began working full-time in preservation at the University of Delaware’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design (CHAD) after receiving my M.A. in Urban Affairs and Public Policy in 2010. For several years prior to my enrollment in the Preservation Studies Program, I worked with small towns in Delaware to preserve their historic structures and landscapes. Through my work at CHAD, I realized that the creation and regulation of historic districts needed to be reexamined. These designated areas are among the most critical assets of the preservation movement, yet a large percentage of the districts were created decades ago, when methods for evaluation, standards of qualification, and regulation were quite different. During the last few decades, the theoretical considerations of preservation and architectural studies have evolved significantly, but real-world practice remains largely constrained by the old legislative framework set forth in 1966 by the National Historic Preservation Act. At the same time, older historic districts feature many buildings that have been highly altered or destroyed completely, gradually prompting state and local governments to reevaluate the conditions within these evolving districts.

As the assistant director at the Center for Historic Architecture & Design, I am uniquely situated to carry out this critical evaluation of historic district policies. I have spent the last 5 years re-surveying historic districts in Milton, Lewes, Delaware City, and even the Hagley Museum and Library. For my dissertation, I will draw on data collected through my work at CHAD, and conduct my own additional fieldwork and research, including comparative examinations of urban historic districts—providing an opportunity to discuss more deeply issues that are unique to cities, such as gentrification and large-scale redevelopment.  I will also systematically interview stakeholders in historic districts—such as home- and business-owners, preservation officers, contractors, and realtors—to better evaluate the social and economic forces that shape historic districts.

PSP student Catherine Morrissey surveying historic structures in Harrington, Delaware. (photos: Michael Emmons)

The Preservation Studies Doctoral Program at the University of Delaware affords me a perfect opportunity to complete this much-needed work. As a full-time employee at the University, I am a non-traditional, part-time student. The flexibility and interdisciplinary nature of the PSP program has allowed me to work full-time at CHAD while simultaneously pursuing my degree. The PSP requirement of only one-year of course work (18 credits) allowed me to complete this requirement over three semesters. Other PhD programs traditionally require 2 years of coursework (36 credits), which for me would have taken about 4 years as a part-time student. Additionally, the interdisciplinary structure of PSP allowed me to take courses across many departments in the University in a variety of disciplines, including Geography, Urban Planning, Historic Preservation, and the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture (WPAMC). Two of my favorite courses were in the WPAMC program, Early American Craftsmanship and British Design History. Both courses introduced students to complex and compelling issues in material culture studies, using resources from the Winterthur Museum collection, and both included eye opening fieldtrips outside of the classroom. Early American Craftsmanship took students to Colonial Williamsburg to learn how to make objects utilizing traditional methods. British Design History included an intensive two-week field study in England, where we visited numerous historic sites, museums, and collections. What better way to understand British design history, than by studying world-class collections in leading British institutions? Through these courses and others, I have been able to forge strong relationships with a variety of faculty across many departments, whose expertise will be invaluable in shaping my dissertation research. These opportunities afforded to me by PSP wouldn’t be possible in a traditional PhD degree program.

With two years of study in PSP behind me, I have now finished my coursework and have begun to prepare for my doctoral exams. I will sit for these interdisciplinary exams—in the fields of historic preservation and vernacular architecture—in the early fall semester. The exam process in PSP allows me to focus on theory, methodology, and applied practices that are critical to my own unique brand of dissertation research. After I pass my exams, I will begin work on my dissertation prospectus—tentatively titled, “Maintaining the Past, Preserving the Future: Reexamining Historically Designated Buildings and Landscapes.” After I complete my prospectus, optimistically by the end of 2018, I will begin writing my dissertation. In 2019, I plan to present my ideas and initial work on the topic at national conferences that focus on historic preservation, vernacular architecture, architectural history, and material culture.

— PSP student Catherine Morrissey

More information about Catherine’s doctoral work and dissertation research can be found on her PSP page here.

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PSP doctoral student Catherine Morrissey shares how her work at UD’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design sparked her interest in historic structures and landscapes, which she is pursuing through UD's Preservation Studies Program.

PSP doctoral student Catherine Morrissey shares how her work at UD’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design sparked her interest in historic structures and landscapes, which she is pursuing through UD's Preservation Studies Program.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489