Falmouth Field School: U.Va. Faculty and Students Document and Save Historic Buildings in a Jamaican Port Town

January 30, 2008 — For the past several years, Louis Nelson, associate professor and chairman of the Department of Architectural History at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, has brought students to Jamaica for a unique hands-on learning experience in historic building documentation and renovation. Since 2006, this effort has been organized as The Falmouth Field School in Historic Preservation and managed in partnership with Falmouth Heritage Renewal, a Jamaican non–profit preservation organization.

The staff of Falmouth Heritage Renewal includes alumna Eryn Brennan, a former field school student who now serves as the organization's director of development and communications and assists with the administration of the field school. The organization teaches restoration and preservation skills to local Jamaicans who are then employed in restoration carpentry masonry, and other fields in partnership with Jamaica's Vocational Training Agency. The organization also restores buildings in Falmouth and provides advice to local community leaders to assist them in historic preservation planning.

Historians celebrate the town of Falmouth as perhaps the largest surviving Caribbean locale with intact colonial architecture. The local economy is such that the majority of these historic properties are owned by families who cannot afford to renovate them, and thus the buildings are quickly deteriorating.

Last summer, a group of 15 advanced undergraduate and graduate students spent four weeks in Falmouth, housed in a basic dormitory and experiencing everyday life occurrences there, such as frequent power outages, hungry mosquitoes, extreme heat and water shortages.

The field school's curriculum includes a combination of lectures and hands-on tasks: measured drawing, carpentry, masonry and archaeology. Lectures were given by noted visiting speakers, including Ed Chappell, director of archaeological research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Matthew Webster, director of restoration at Kenmore Plantation. For the 2007 session, the field school had a special joint emphasis on historic archaeology with an archaeological dig at a nearby slave village site directed by Jillian Galle, historic archaeologist at Monticello.

Students in the field school are responsible for acquiring skills in all of the hands-on task areas during the session, and take turns working in teams on the buildings selected by Falmouth Heritage Renewal for renovation that summer. At the conclusion of the three weeks, students take a final exam based on the lecture series, and their measured drawings are graded for accuracy and clarity.

In the 2007 session, one of the students' primary jobs was to extract the acidic 20th-century mortar that has been used to repair the buildings in recent times and replace it with mortar made from lime that will not damage the historic bricks. Students made the lime-based mortar at a local lime kiln near Falmouth. In other work, students repointed 18th-century windows, preserving the glass for decades to come.

As the majority of the buildings being restored are currently occupied, field school students come into daily contact with local homeowners. As Nelson noted, the experience of meeting and interacting with the people whose houses they are preserving provides a special learning experience for the students,

"We have built a strong network with the locals – they are always interested in us, and often those of us who are white are the only whites in town," he said. "The students learn that 'good' and 'beautiful' mean different things in different cultures. They are exposed to the ethical dimension of their work, the 'urgent matters' of working in the public realm."

Doctoral architectural history student Emilie Johnson, who attended the program in 2007, said the field school experience provides a unique opportunity to bring together theory and practice, "For those of us who work in what sometimes seems like a field of intangible and theoretical ideas, the possibility to see real impact was an extraordinary experience, one that bids us to use our training as scholars to participate in projects that have real impact on the world."

In anticipation of this summer's field school, a significant development will mean temporary changes to the structure of the program: a cruise ship terminal is being constructed in Falmouth, which is expected to bring hundreds of tourists to the town several times a week. For the 2008 and 2009 sessions, Nelson hopes to secure funding that will allow him to increase the number of students and temporarily forego the archaeological focus in order to accelerate the historic preservation process.

Nelson explained that the prospect of the cruise ship terminal adds a new layer of urgency to the work of preserving Falmouth's rich history, "[The terminal] presents significant opportunities and challenges. The next 24 months will be an intense season of evaluation, advocacy and working with developers to think about the human experience of the environment we shape," he said.