Monday, April 3, 2017

Steven Engelhart: Making of a Preservationist

Steven Engelhart group

I grew up in Plattsburgh, which I think makes me a local. My father was a professor at SUNY Plattsburgh and taught the literature of Emerson and Thoreau and other late 19th  century American writers.

When a PBS documentary was made in the 1990s about the creation of the Adirondack Park, he was interviewed about Emerson and his outing to the Philosopher’s Camp in 1858. Like Emerson, he had a deep appreciation for nature, which we all inherited, but I can’t say that this translated into wilderness adventuring as a family. This I would discover later on my own.

My parents were intensely curious and loved to travel. Because dad was an academic and could periodically take a sabbatical and get another job overseas, we had the great fortune of living abroad for a year on two separate occasions, in Germany and Austria. We went to German-speaking public schools while dad taught but in-between our daily lives we explored the length and breadth of Europe, nine of us packed into a VW bus, and saw what seemed like countless historic sites, museums, and architectural treasures. This was the beginning of my interest in architecture but it was also the beginning of realizing that place really matters – it’s part of who we are and it’s part of what makes life so rich, or not – and that treasuring and protecting the places we love was good work.

After graduating from public high school, I went to the Rhode Island School of Design to study architecture but with a somewhat romantic view of the field. I quickly found that there wasn’t a lot of modern design that resonated with me and that the work of an architect involved a lot of tedium, for which I did not have the patience. I then spent a year at the College of the Atlantic studying human ecology and, while there, wrote a rather naïve article for The Conservationist that made a case for reintroducing the timber wolf into the Adirondacks. I certainly did not understand the politics around that issue!

Steven Engelhart in his 20sIn my twenties I lived on a 160 acre homestead in Peasleeville with two of my brothers and there we grew vegetables and kept chickens and honeybees, worked our draft horses, built a house from fieldstone and moved a timber frame barn from down the road, learned to fix tractors and trucks, lived without running water or electricity, and, to supplement our livelihood, pruned apple trees in the winter. Eventually I learned stone masonry from a wise and talented Lithuanian named Antanis “Tony” Matulionis and for five years I had my own masonry business building walls, fireplaces and chimneys, steps, and putting stone veneer on houses. It was during these years that I really got to know a greater breadth of people in the region – tradespeople, farmers, corrections officers, loggers, mechanics, hairdressers – and came to better appreciate their lives and valuable work.

Then, while restoring four brick chimneys at the historic Kent-Delord House Museum in Plattsburgh, I had an epiphany. Right there before me were so many of the things I had come to treasure in life – restoring an historic building connected to my love of architecture, working with my hands gave me a sense of deep accomplishment, and I was doing something good for a community that I cared about deeply. Through the restoration architect in charge of the project, I also came to realize that there was an emerging field called historic preservation, largely unknown to me, that embodied all these things.

But without the credentials to work in that field, while still doing masonry work, I had to finish my BA degree at Plattsburgh and then I went on to get a master’s degree in historic preservation at the University of Vermont. The director of that program was Chester Liebs. Although we did get some training in the technical side of preservation, he left us with two way more important gifts: he taught us how to use our eyes to see the many rich and varied layers of the world and he inspired us to be champions for heritage and community preservation and revitalization.

Upon graduating, I was fortunate to find related work in the Adirondacks, as the director of housing and preservation programs at the Friends of the North Country, which I did for ten years. In 1987 I attended the first gathering of people interested in forming a regional historic preservation organization in the Adirondacks and I became a board member three years later when AARCH was born. In 1994, I became AARCH’s first executive director and I can honestly say that going to work has been a joy every day. AARCH has a wonderful and important mission, we have a great staff and board, I get to meet and work with some of the most fascinating and engaged people in the region, and I get to see how our work helps to make this region a better place to live, work, and visit.

Steven Engelhart todaySo what else stands out from these early years that shaped me? With my brothers and friends I explored and came to love the wild places of the region. A highlight of our year was a winter week at some remote lean-to in the Cold River region or there was the time we all witnessed the massive ice face fall off of Rainbow Falls one spring. I got to live at Rockwell Kent’s Asgaard Farm for two years, which felt like living in one of his beautiful, celebratory paintings every day. Here again, the sense of place loomed all important. But mostly it’s the incredible people I’ve met along the way – people like Roger and Mason Forrence, who were great storytellers and whose passion for growing apples was infectious; Jack Brennan, who took me a mile deep into an abandoned iron mine and opened up a whole new world; and finally a nod to Roy Hurd, extraordinary singer/songwriter and friend, whose music is all about loving the place where you live.

Photos of Steven Engelhart provided.

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Steven Engelhart is the Executive Director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), the regional historic preservation organization of the Adirondack Park. AARCH's mission is to promote better public understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the region's built environment. Among AARCH's many activities are: sponsoring a series of tours of historic places; offering workshops; giving slide presentations; publishing a newsletter; managing Camp Santanoni, advocating on behalf of threatened historic sites; and providing technical assistance to individuals, organizations and local governments.   Steven is a native of the region and has a BA from SUNY Plattsburgh and a MS in historic preservation from the University of Vermont. He is the author of Crossing the River: Historic Bridges of the AuSable River, a small book about bridges and local history of the AuSable Valley. He resides in Wadhams and loves to hike, canoe, read, play the banjo, explore the region, and spend time with family and friends.




5 Responses

  1. Larry Roth says:

    Thank you for this story, Mr. Engelhart.

    As someone with a long standing interest in historic preservation myself, I can appreciate how important the built environment is in remembering who we are and where we come from. Too often familiarity breeds undeserved contempt for the past.

    Our predecessors may have had different tastes, different styles, different ways of meeting their daily needs, but that doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from them. Quite the contrary. We impoverish ourselves when we unthinkingly discard the lessons they learned about the world, the knowledge embodied in the architecture of their lives. We lose perspective on our own place in history. What did they know that we’ve forgotten, but may desperately need? What problems did they solve that face us anew?

    The battle to save the past is a fight to preserve our own place in the world. It is a battle fought every day against the ravages of time, the unthinking greed of the market, and the willful ignorance of the uncaring. The distinctive heritage of the Adirondacks is threatened now as much as ever, and the sad part is how often it is at the hands of those who mean well but do not understand.

    Thank you for the work AARCH does to give us new eyes to see the old in new ways, to strike a better balance in our place in the world and in time.

  2. Bob Meyer says:

    Great article a tan important Adirondack organization.
    Thanks Steven.

  3. Terry says:

    Thanks, Steve, for your outstanding efforts over the years!
    Thousands appreciate it….can’t wait to see what tours are coming up this season!!

  4. Suzanne Roberson says:

    I look forward to many more articles from you, Steven. Thank you for your leadership of AARCH and the important services AARCH offers.

  5. Rick Fenon says:

    And in his spare time, he plants street trees in Saratoga Springs.