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College of Environment and Design

Historic Preservation students explore old buildings to diagnose structural issues

Historic Preservation Building Material Conservation Class

Students in the Master of Historic Preservation (MHP) program get hands-on experience researching the physical condition of old buildings by researching properties and writing historic structure reports. According to the National Parks Service, a Historic Structure Report, or “HSR”, is a vital tool for preservation planning that, “provides documentary, graphic, and physical information about a property’s history and existing condition.”   

Every Fall semester, students in Dr. Mark Reinberger’s Building Material Conservation class (HIPR 6350) are divided into teams to create HSRs for a variety of clients. The three main areas that students focus on in the course are the history of building systems, approaches to building materials conservation (i.e., diagnosing structural problems and their solutions), and hands-on conservation techniques.  

Once students have studied these areas of focus, they begin working on their HSRs. These reports are meant to be a comprehensive study of the building and include site history and description of the structure (foundations, floor, roof, etc.),  the interior, any problems with the building, and recommendations for how to fix said problems.   

Students in the class were interviewed about their project sites, any unexpected discoveries, and a fun fact about their experiences. 


Listed below are some of the buildings students worked on this past semester, along with student reflections on project. 

Threlked Grocery, Paoli, GA 
Students: Seth Boles and Devon Pawloski. Reflection by Seth Boles. 

For this project, I worked with Dr. Reinberger and another MHP, Devon Pawloski, to do an HSR of a historic grocery store in Paoli, GA. The building, the Threlkeld Grocery, is a contributing structure in the Paoli Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.  

Using the information in the Register nomination and the building itself, we dated the building to be c. 1910. The owners of the building bought the 19th century house located next to the store and contacted us to do this research. The first thing that needs to be done is move out a ton of junk that has been piled up in the building. Outside of that, we recommended clearing the vegetation around the structure and replacing one of the walls to prevent further water damage.  

Something unexpected that came up was a unique structural problem with the building. The back half of the store was historically used to smoke and cure meat for sale. We discovered a pile of salt that had formed into a kind of salt block on the floor in this room. The salt was causing an issue that we normally wouldn’t cover in class – it was drying out the wood all the way to the floor structure causing a problem called “defibration”.   

My favorite part was busting into the roof of the store to take a look at the roof structure. It’s always fun to walk along ceiling joists to take measurements and look at structure and issues.  

A fun fact is that some MHPs love to take souvenirs from these sites – old nails, pieces of wood, interesting hardware, etc. There was a barn owl living in the roof of the store who we spooked our first day – we recommended the owl nest be removed from the store, but I did take home a feather I found on the site.  

Another fun fact is that the program is incredibly hard on your knees. Devon and I [Boles] had to crawl around under the building to document the way the floor structure and foundations were laid out. 

Stowe House, High Shoals, Georgia  
Students: Megan McPherson, Katherine Mitchell and David Riddle. Reflection by Megan McPherson. 
Directly adjacent to the High Shoals Baptist Church and across the street from the High Shoals Methodist Church, this house aids in telling the rich story of the High Shoals Manufacturing Company mill town. Many of the other mill houses have been lost over the years, but this one still stands.  
“One unexpected thing was learning that the house had been passed down through the family. I thought it was really special to learn that multiple generations lived here,” said Megan McPherson.  
My favorite part was getting to learn the history of the structure and the history of the town. Mill towns are really interesting in their development, so it was fun to see how this house fit into the broader story of the town. 

One fact about this house is that it was abandoned, so everything is the house is exactly as it was when the tenant left. There is even still food in the fridge and pantry! 

825 Reese Street House, Athens GA 
Students: Shelby Reed, Allison Maier, and Kaitlin Salley, assisted by Devon Pawloski. Reflection by Shelby Reed. 

825 Reese Street is a house that is located in Athens, Georgia, that was originally constructed in the period between the late 1880s and early 1890s. The house is nestled just to the west of the Downtown Athens Historic District, behind the popular restaurant, The Varsity, and sets itself in one of Athens’ historically Black neighborhoods. The house does retain a number of historical features, though the house has undergone a number of additions and changes since its initial construction, thus it has not, as of yet, been included in any historic registry databases.    

Currently, the house sits vacant, owned by the Athens Land Trust. Historically, the house was used by middle class families in town, but over time it transitioned into student housing, which coincides with the additions that were made to the house. Athens Land Trust intends to rehabilitate the house and turn its use back towards an affordable housing unit, along with the structure immediately next door to its left.  
The most unexpected thing that I learned was how quickly houses can deteriorate. In one of the rooms, there was intense water damage to the ceiling that we noticed on the first inspection of the house. After a big storm came through the water damage opened up a hole that let water, leaves, and debris in. 

My favorite part of the HSR is a tie between getting to use a sledge hammer and break down part of a cinder block wall, and knowing that our HSR will help the Athens Land Trust turn the house into affordable housing to help the Athens community.   
An interesting fact is we know the name of a former resident! His name is Reverend Cyrus Brown and he lived in the house in 1889.  
To learn more about some about some of the other unique sites and Historic Structure Reports that have been done by past students, please visit the MHP website

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