Volunteering for History

A group of Americorps volunteers work to restore historic sites in Randolph County.

By Shay Maunz and Ryan Whytsell | 05/24/2011

There are around 95 windows in the Elkins City Hall, each one original to the building.

The City Hall building, now home to some city offices and the Elkins Police Station, was built in 1917, and for the next 90 years not much was done to maintain the building, or those windows.

It showed: by the 21st century the walls were covered in peeling plaster, the floors in paint chips. And the windows showed their age by letting the elements into the building through their cracked wood and loose construction.

But in 2006, a small group of AmeriCorps volunteers, sponsored by the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area, began repairing the windows, a few at a time, taking great care to preserve the building’s historic integrity.

The process is labor intensive – it takes several working hours, and many more to allow the paint and glaze to dry, to restore just one window.

“It’s important we’re properly repairing the wood windows, not replacing them with vinyl,” said Logan Smith, the financial administrator for the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area and preservation team supervisor.

“Vinyl windows are the nemesis of preservation these days.”

Though homeowners often assume that replacing historic windows with vinyl is the best deal, a historic preservationist can make a convincing argument to the contrary.

The cost of restoring old windows is generally about equal to the cost of buying new ones, but preservationists say if they are well maintained, the original, wood windows will last another 100 years before they need attention. Vinyl windows will need replaced in around 20 years.

Crystal Whiters, one of the AmeriCorps volunteers in historic preservation this year, said we don’t give our predecessors enough credit for their ingenuity.

“Buildings made sense. We didn’t have central air, we built according to our environment and the environmental conditions that were here … responding to nature,” she said.

“We were able to do a lot, but we forget our past. It’s our nature as humans.”

AmeriCorps volunteers are still working to restore the windows in Elkins City Hall. This year’s group of workers has repaired about 15 windows, and will leave the project nearly half complete. The City Hall restoration is only one of their several other historic preservation projects in the area, sponsored by the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area.

The Appalachian Forest Heritage Area is a regional non-profit group that works to create heritage tourism sites throughout West Virginia and western Maryland. Originally established by a grant from the USDA, it is now an independent non-profit organization that focuses on partnerships with other, like-minded agencies.

It sponsors this small group of AmeriCorps volunteers each year, taking applications from groups who would like to use AmeriCorps members for historic preservation projects.

But it’s more than just cheap labor. Phyllis Baxter, executive director of the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area, said that to be considered, a project must be in the public interest (generally the buildings are owned by a non-profit organization or government entity), and the sponsor must value historic preservation as highly as the AmeriCorps team does.

“Certainly it wouldn’t be something that would detract from the history of the building in any way,” she said.

This year, in addition to working at City Hall, the historic preservation team has done work excavating the Collett House and restoring the Goff House, both in Beverly, and giving a facelift to the Riverside School in Elkins.

In its four-year history, this program has had AmeriCorps participants working on more than a dozen buildings throughout the Elkins and Beverly communities, though nearly all of them are ongoing projects.

AmeriCorps, the domestic branch of the Peace Corps, engages around 70,000 individuals each year, including more than 600 in West Virginia, according to figures from Volunteer West Virginia, the state commission on volunteerism. The participants are paid living expenses during their year-long service term, but are essentially volunteers.

They are put to work in communities throughout the country, but this group in Elkins is the only one doing hands-on historic preservation work.

“There was an old joke that when you had and old building and you didn’t know what to do with it, everyone said ‘Oh, tear it down and make a parking lot’,” Smith said. “We’re hoping to show with the AmeriCorps work that you don’t have to tear it down and make a parking lot. There are ways to restore it that are sustainable and keep it historic.”

This year, there are four volunteers working in historic preservation in Elkins. At first glance, they’re an unlikely bunch to be grouped together on a project like this.

One has master’s degrees in architecture and urban planning, and another has a background in construction, but there are also members with backgrounds in philosophy and accounting.

But upon closer inspection it becomes clear that they all share a devotion to historic preservation and its ideals.

Their mission is part ecological – they believe “the most sustainable building is one that has already been built,” and part economical, since much of the work they do is on buildings that are touted as tourist attractions.

The Goff House, for example, was built around 1772, and later served as a Union hospital during the Civil War. (Its owner at the time was a Confederate. When the war started he left town, supposedly under great duress, abandoning his home. The Union Army took it for its own use.)

Now, the Goff House will be part museum, part gift shop and antique store. The walls are still lined with graffiti from Union soldiers during the war – everything from the soldiers’ names and military titles to drawings of canons and eagles. But the rooms will soon be filled with textiles and antiques.

All of these renovations are meant to draw tourists, and tourist dollars, to the area. Heritage tourism is seen as especially important in West Virginia, where the tourism industry continues to grow despite an economy that is troubled in other areas. Figures from the state Division of Tourism show that travel spending by overnight and day visitors totaled $4.38 billion in 2008, and 16 percent of visitors say they visited a historic site during their visit.

“Every locality has its own sense of place, and the buildings and the location and everything are the physical manifestation of that sense of place. It’s a manifestation of the history and where that place has come from,” Baxter said. “With historic preservation we try to use that in a productive way to benefit the future of the community.”

Somehow, she said, Elkins and Beverly have managed to do this with a high degree of success.

Certainly, Smith said, this has something to do with the AmeriCorps workers. Relying strictly on volunteers or hired labor, the projects would have taken years longer to complete.

Still, there is much more work to be done. Until historic preservation dominates the landscape, Smith said, historical preservationists will still wince each time they see a historic building go to waste. People who aren’t historians don’t look at buildings the same way.

“They look at an old building, and they see wood everywhere that needs painted and plastered, and they don’t know what to do with it, but there are things you can do,” Smith said.

“The hump is to get everyone to realize you don’t have to tear out your old windows and put in vinyl.”

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