Experiences from the UMW Student Ambassadors

11 Aug 2019 11:00 AM | Christine R Henry (Administrator)

UMW Ambassadors (l-r) Emily Whaley, Christine Henry (faculty sponsor), Brenden Bowman, and Garek Hannigan The University of Mary Washington (UMW) Ambassadors share their personal experiences below, but also had a chance to talk with many conference attendees about their own reflections on VAF.  This group of students continued the work started by the Ambassadors from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee last year; using the free app PixStori, they collected short interviews from 21 attendees to find out what VAF means to them in our new initiative WeAreVAF.  Thanks to all who participated and shared their thoughts!

Subway Station at UPennThis spring I was fortunate enough to attend the Vernacular Architecture Forum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was my first time attending the conference, but I was immediately comforted by how welcoming everyone I met was. I was initially nervous about going on the day trips by myself, but soon forgot my worries when I began talking with longtime VAF members. My favorite part of the conference was meeting people who practice preservation professionally and hearing about their careers. I also really enjoyed studying the houses and site visits with other members and hearing about their perspectives that were influenced by their different educational or work backgrounds. I really liked that the conference is centered on vernacular architecture because you get to know the city you’re visiting from a very intimate point of view. This was an experience that I truly loved, and I am definitely considering becoming a VAF member. I can’t wait to attend another conference!

--Brenden Bowman

As a VAF ambassador from the University of Mary Washington, I had the pleasure of meeting many of the conference’s attendees, those who were ‘first-timers’ like myself, and others who have attended for years. In meeting innumerable VAFers, I began to understand what exactly VAF meant. To me, VAF is an organization of people who are passionate about understanding the everyday built environment in a holistic fashion; it is a collection of professionals and scholars who bring together their personal experiences as students, professors, public historians, architects, preservationists, and numerous others, in order to further the interpretation and protection of vernacular architecture.

Being that it was not only my first time at a VAF conference, but my first time being at any conference at all, I was both nervous and excited for what was to come. But after the Opening Reception my nervousness was quelled as I met conference-goer after conference-goer, all as eager as the next to not only welcome me to VAF, but also to speak with me and to share their stories of their studies and of their careers with me. That, for me, was a continued theme of the conference, the idea of the story, of a shared, cathartic experience.  It was that idea which connected the narratives of the historic landscapes the conference introduced to us with the experiences we all felt together as VAFers exploring the vernacular built environment. This was exemplified by thursday’s bus tours which plunged us all into the depths of Philadelphia’s long and storied histories. For myself, I experienced the Tacony and Northeast Philadelphia tour, a trip which saw us traverse two company towns; the Kensington development which supported the Dyottville Glassworks and the town of Tacony which grew out of the Disston Saw Works. These tours propelled countless conversations with my fellow VAFers as we explored landscapes, basements and attics together, as we not only learned more about our built environment, but about each other as well. 

It is these shared experiences which made the 2019 Vernacular Architecture Forum conference as enjoyable and as memorable as it was. For an undergraduate like myself, it was both joyful and inspiring to see so many students, professionals, and scholars who I shared common interests with and whom I could have so many vivid conversations with. I cannot wait for my next opportunity to attend another VAF conference, to see previously unknown-to-me vernacular landscapes and to share my experiences and have experiences shared with me. I thank you all for welcoming myself and my fellow ambassadors.

--Garek Hannigan

In Philadelphia, we visited unique buildings and sites with rich histories. I went on the Tacony Tour of northeast Philadelphia, where I was able to explore the city’s industrial history, from factory worker housing to the Disston Saw Works, a real functioning factory. Next, we were able to tour private homes, from exteriors to basements to attics. Nothing could have prepared me for access into the basements and attics of private homes around Philadelphia! The best part of this section of the conference was being able to listen to professionals point out details and offer their opinions in each structure we visited. I enjoyed listening to their insight and learned a lot. The tours helped give me a better sense of what life what like for workers at the turn of the century by experiencing the built environment firsthand. After the first day of tours, I was shocked by how tired I was, but I was also eager for the next day of walking tours.

Historic graffiti at the Arch Street Meeting HouseOn the second day of tours we visited a variety of places in the central part of the city. The most memorable part of the tours was the historic graffiti done by children in the Arch Street Meeting House. By shining light on the wooden pews in the section where children sat, letters and notes carved into the wood became visible. It was a fun reminder that children (and people) weren’t so different in the past.

In closing, I would like to thank the Vernacular Architecture Forum for providing this wonderful opportunity to spend time with likeminded people, whom appreciate buildings for all that they are worth, and its members for being so kind. I learned so much and I had a great time meeting members and seeing the awesome sites!

--Emily Whaley

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