Eastern Michigan University

“If We Don’t Preserve It, Who Will?”

A closer look at Eastern's award-winning Historic Preservation program

Bookmark and Share

As a child, Amanda Wetzel thought that she would enjoy working in a museum some day. Because of EMU's Historic Preservation Program, she is on her way to becoming the assistant executive director of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse.

EMU's award-winning Historic Preservation program was developed in the late 1970s by former faculty member Dr. Marshall McLennan and Professor Andrew Nazarro, with a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It came about in part because the National Trust was perceived as focusing on "high style" forms and realized that many of its members didn't have the expertise to understand the vernacular forms of architecture and community. Professor Dan Bonenberger notes that cultural geographers had been studying common building types, folk art, ethnicities, and social groups for some time, but this was missing in preservation education in the U.S.

EMU's program deals with more than just the "important" buildings and looks at the bigger picture of cultural landscapes. It is unique in that it is the only program in the country that is part of a geography department rather than an architecture or history department. This gives students a different perspective on what the focus should be.

Wetzel is far from alone in finding a fulfilling career with a historic preservation degree. According to director Dr. Ted Ligibel, the program's placement rate is always at least 50%, even when the economy is struggling; currently it is about 80%. Dr. Ligibel admits he is very aggressive in pursuing jobs for his new graduates.

Dr. Ligibel describes EMU's program as one that "believes in civic engagement." Graduate students have assisted more than 100 communities in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana with historic surveys, National Register nominations, and urban preservation initiatives. Interns have worked with the City of Ypsilanti, the Ypsilanti Historical Society, The Henry Ford, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the City of Detroit, to name but a few.

Ypsilanti is the perfect site for this program, Ligibel believes, because of the community's appreciation of historic preservation. He calls Ypsilanti a "living laboratory, with one of the largest and best-defined historic districts in the country." Professor Dan Bonenberger, who joined the program in 2008, said that as a newcomer to the community he was very impressed with how Ypsilanti embraced historic preservation, unlike some other communities that consider it an intrusion.

Bonenberger is known nationwide for his work in "digital cultural heritage," which recreates historic environments. His dissertation deals with 1850s Wheeling, West Virginia, and is described by Ligibel as "a walk through history." Another nationally known faculty member is Professor Nancy Bryk, acclaimed for her work with museum practice and interpretation of historic houses. Her classes are among the most popular in the program.

Of approximately 20 graduate historic preservation programs nationwide, EMU's is the largest, currently enrolling about 90 students. More than 500 students have earned a master's degree or certificate in the program. According to Ligibel, certificates are generally geared toward those already working in the profession who want to "beef up" their credentials. A master's degree, on the other hand, is sought by students interested in working for the government, architectural firms, museums, Downtown Development Authorities, Main Street Programs, and more. One current student was just named the executive director of the Detroit Land Bank Authority. Some have become professors themselves, including Mary Ann Heidemann, who has been named the director of Ball State University's Graduate Historic Preservation program, having worked for the State Historic Preservation Office in Minnesota. Heidemann states, "It is doubtful whether I would have gotten the Ball State job without the Minnesota experience, but I wouldn't have gotten either position without my EMU degree.... the joy I experienced in my EMU classes likely shone through during interviews." She acknowledges that EMU facilitated the degree process by encouraging part-time adult students like her to take evening, weekend, and summer short courses.

Amanda Wetzel, originally from Owosso, Mich., wasn't sure what she was going to do with her history/journalism double major until someone suggested she meet with Dr. Ligibel. EMU's Historic Preservation program fit in perfectly with her education and her interest in working at a maritime site in Michigan with the goal of enhancing tourism. She summed up her experience as "walking out of an amazing program into your dream job." The job was listed on a number of websites, garnering a great deal of interest and competition, but Wetzel prevailed, stating that she can "never thank all of the faculty in the program enough." She feels confident that she will succeed at her new job and says of the built environment, "If we don't preserve it, who will?" - Lisa Mills Walters