BU Students share experiences from VAF Potomac Conference

15 Aug 2018 1:55 AM | Christine R Henry

BU Ambassadors from left to right is Casey Monroe, Maddie Webster, Aaron Ahlstrom, Rachel Kirby, and Sam Palfreyman. Photo courtesy of C. Ian StevensonYou know you’re at the right conference when it starts off with a boat ride to Mount Vernon where you’re greeted with cocktails, stunning views, and basement to cupola access. From this auspicious beginning, the 2018 Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference only got better. For a Yankee such as myself, the tour portion of A Shared Heritage: Urban and Rural Experience on the Banks of the Potomac introduced me to fascinating landscapes and buildings. While touring the Upper Western Shore, I was delighted to see everything from beautiful Georgian mansions to modest farmhouses. In Alexandria, I investigated a new (to me!) urban setting with intriguing similarities and differences to the northern cities I’m familiar with. Overall, I was particularly struck by our tour of Galesville, a thriving community that cherishes—and safeguards—their past, as seen in their restorations of a Rosenwald school and the “Hot Sox” baseball field. Having a delicious lunch of fried chicken and fish outside the Galesville Rosenwald School with community members stands out as true conference highlight.

Our Galesville tour reinforced what I value most about the VAF conference and the field in general: we study the relationships between buildings, landscapes, and people. That emphasis influenced all aspects of this year’s conference. In addition to visiting great sites and attending exceptional paper sessions, I was able to forge lasting connections with both established scholars and fellow graduate students. With the generous assistance from the VAF in the form of an Ambassador Award, my colleagues from Boston University and I were able to attend this conference and create new academic networks that we believe will strengthen both our program and the VAF.

--Aaron Ahlstrom, PhD Candidate, American & New England Studies Program, Boston University

Given the generous number of Ambassadors Awards this past year, it is clear that the Vernacular Architecture Forum is continuing to invest in and welcome the next generation of historians, preservationists, and other professionals working to better understand, interpret, and advocate for the built environment. I am very grateful for the Ambassadors Award that allowed me the unique opportunity to attend the VAF Conference in Alexandria with a cohort of students from Boston University eager and enthusiastic to discuss thoughts and experiences. This enriching cohort experience helped us to more naturally and comfortably network with other fellow VAFers.

This year’s conference covered an extensive diversity of buildings and landscapes along the banks of the Potomac: rural and urban, agricultural and domestic, colonial and modern. On Thursday, I attended the Lower Western Shore of Maryland tour where I learned about corn cribs and smoke houses as well as mid-century modern homes framing rustic views of the Maryland countryside. On Friday, I explored the city of Alexandria with my Boston University colleagues while exchanging our findings and impressions concerning both the previous day’s tours and the sites before us.

During the Saturday paper sessions, I had the honor of chairing the Religious Landscapes panel and attending three other vigorous panels. The Architecture and Identity panel procured a wonderful discussion about the varied roles of entrance orientation in modified homes along Arctic shores, suburban-like homes in mining towns, and Milwaukee gay bars. The late afternoon Issues panel provided a wide range of problems and opportunities that balanced a critical examination of the past and present with an optimistic vision for the future of vernacular architecture studies. It is a rare thing to see an academic community (really any type of community to be honest) discuss its shortcomings and seek to be more inclusive and open-minded about progressive change. I am glad to be a part of such a community and look forward to future participation and contribution.

--Samuel Palfreyman, PhD Candidate, American & New England Studies Program, Boston University

My first VAF conference experience was a positive one to say the least. Thursday's bus tour of the Western Shore was, of course, the highlight of the conference. Every time our bus arrived at a site, we had the requisite barrage of photographs of the front of the building, after which each person would attack the site as he or she pleased. Then, my favorite thing about VAFers: we would have a group of people walk immediately toward the main entrance, but the majority of people wandered off in divergent directions to go investigate whatever piqued their fancies: a decrepit barn, a shaded burial plot, a family-sized privy, a cooing peacock. The total environment mattered to VAFers. No rock went unturned. In that vein, I enjoyed chatting with some of the owners of the houses and then walking off to see how they've spread out their lives inside these structures—how they furnished the rooms, adapted them to fit their needs, and left other parts as they found them when they got there.         

The highpoint of Friday's walking tour—in addition to the apothecary that everyone loved—was the eclectic Murray-Dick-Fawcett House. The peak of that highpoint was the moment when I crawled through a tiny doorway to emerge in an inhospitable attic between the roof of the original 1775 structure, with the shingling still intact, and the 1790 addition. The joy I felt crouching there matched the euphoria my fellow VAFers reveled in when they got a glimpse of the brick bogging at Wyoming the day before. Admittedly, I couldn't see then what the hype was all about, but on Friday when I became giddy about the secret roof hidden beneath the addition, I knew I had drunk the Kool-Aid. By the time the paper sessions began on Saturday morning, I looked forward to sitting through a full day of papers. I see that enthusiasm as a testament to a few factors: how physically exhausted I was from the previous two days of excursions, how interesting I found the topics, and the camaraderie I shared with many of the presenters after having spent time together scurrying around old buildings.

--Maddie Webster, PhD Student, American & New England Studies Program, Boston University

As a student of art history and first-time ambassador to the Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference, I admit I felt a little out of my depth having only recently begun to examine the American built landscape in my scholarship. Any initial hesitation, however, was quickly assuaged by the myriad friendly and learned colleagues, esteemed scholars, and members of VAF who helped make the 2018 Potomac Conference one of the most enlightening and exciting conference-going experiences I could hope to have.

Beginning with a river cruise from Alexandria to Mt. Vernon, I had to ask myself if I was at an academic conference at all. The following day on Thursday, I attended the bus tour of the upper western shore of Maryland, during which time me and fellow VAFers were treated to near-universal access of multiple gorgeous Georgian homes, including the imposing Tulip Hill and its enviable view. Galesville, nevertheless, was the highlight of the trip. It was a special experience to be invited into the homes of current residents to observe what was originally housing for employees of the nearby Woodfield Fish & Oyster Company. In addition, as a lifelong fan of baseball, it was thrilling to visit the ball field of the Galesville Hot Sox. Entering and observing that field helped further inspire thoughts about the vernacular usages of spaces, in addition to the formation of those spaces as well. This concept of vernacular usages, I believe, will be pertinent in my future scholarship. While the baseball field and the town itself were subjects of great fascination and inspiration, it is impossible to ignore as a high point the delicious fried fish and potato salad so generously served to us at the Rosenwald School. On Friday, me and my cohort of fellow Boston University Ambassadors explored the city of Alexandria, excited to share details about the architectural gems we had been shown. This walking tour reminded me that in Boston, as well, there are surely similar gems to be found—I simply must remember to look.

Exhausted, I was ready on Saturday for an array of what proved to be enlightening, thought-provoking, and even challenging paper sessions. Topics ranged from such diverse subjects and distant locales as Inuit dwellings along the banks of the Arctic Sea, to the development of the familiar George Washington Memorial Parkway. It was encouraging, furthermore, to see a session devoted to the VAF itself and ways of adapting during an era of progressive change. I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity not only to engage and converse with admired scholars and colleagues, but also to deepen and expand my own understanding of vernacular architecture and the built environment. I look forward to coming years.

--Casey Monroe, PhD Student, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, Boston University

Having attended VAF two times prior, I am incredibly appreciative to have had the opportunity to attend once again for the 2018 Potomac Conference this spring. Though I am in school in Boston, I am both from the South and I study the South, so I was particularly grateful to be able to attend a conference that took me to Maryland and Virginia. Conferences are fundamental to the graduate student experience, yet the financial requirements can prove prohibitive during this stage of professionalization. The Ambassadors Award reflects VAF’s commitment to continuing its tradition of being an open and welcoming space for interested folks no matter where they are in their career. Thank you for investing in the next generation.

As someone who has bounced around a bit with my degrees - studying art history, folklore, and American studies, respectively, I find VAF’s interdisciplinary nature refreshing and exciting. The tours and paper sessions alike offered opportunities to learn about different methods, approaches, and theories to studying vernacular architecture, encouraging me to seek out additional and complementary was of investigating different topics. This year I was particularly pleased to attend a panel on “The Continuing Role of Folklore Research in Vernacular Architecture Scholarship,” and to meet numerous individuals who share a background in folklore. The folklorists’ commitment to people and their stories - a commitment that seems to run throughout VAF at large - furthered my sense of belonging within the VAF community. This commitment to the people behind the buildings was most evident to me when VAF awarded the Advocacy Award to the Galesville Rosenwald School for their work restoring their building and, by extension, revitalizing their community. I was thrilled to have visited the school and spoken with men who have played on the Hot Sox field, but I was even more honored to be able to stand in applause of the strong women who have dedicated so much of their time and resources to this local treasure. Moments such as these are important reminders of both the great possibilities and deep responsibilities at stake in doing the type of work that VAF strives to pursue. I look forward to continuing this type of work both with and beyond VAF.

--Rachel C. Kirby, PhD Student, American & New England Studies Program, Boston University

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