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In fall 2019 — just before the world shuddered to a halt for COVID-19 — a dozen Iowa State University students spent 10 days exploring and documenting Edinburgh, Scotland, as part of a one-of-a-kind historic preservation collaboration between ISU and the U.S. Department of State.
While investigating the Scottish capital and interviewing its local developers and preservationists tasked with navigating urban growth in a city heralded for its history, the ISU undergraduates studied the U.S. consulate situated in the heart of a UNESCO-recognized “World Heritage City.”
“The building provided a touchstone for exploring the challenges of preserving a historic diplomatic mission in a highly-regulated, multilayered heritage environment, in a ‘hot market’ city that is growing and constantly changing,” according to a virtual interactive project the ISU students produced detailing, among other things, the history and cultural significance of the U.S. consulate in Scotland.
That project is among seven tied so far to an innovative ISU collaboration with the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, which began in 2016 after ISU professor Ted Grevstad-Nordbrock went public with plans to create a new historic preservation certificate program.
Dozens of students and faculty members have visited London, Morocco, the Czech Republic and Sweden in association with the partnership — although the pandemic paused travel in 2020, when students that spring pulled off a last visit to the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Lisbon, Portugal.
With vaccines now available, the partnership is gearing up to again resume study and documentation of U.S. embassies, consulates and ambassador residences around the globe — with a first trip planned in May to the U.S. embassy campus in Rome.
“Regardless of where we go, we use the embassy … as a touchstone for understanding the larger city,” Grevstad-Nordbrock told The Gazette. “We use it as kind of a launching point.”
‘Few and far between’
Kick-starting the program in 2015 was Tobin Tracey, a director of the Office of Cultural Heritage for the State Department and ISU architecture alumnus who reached out to the ISU College of Design after hearing about its plans for a historic preservation certificate.
Grevstad-Nordbrock’s pitch has evolved into an undergraduate minor and graduate certificate in preservation and cultural heritage, offering a wide range of students the chance to participate in the State Department collaboration.
Driving the partnership, according to Tracey, is the fact that more than 200 U.S. diplomatic properties exist globally but “records about the history of these buildings are few and far between.”
The State Department isn’t providing funding for the partnership, but it is facilitating student meetings and access to the embassy and consulate properties.
“Their role is to set up meetings and these site visits at embassies and ambassador residences,” Grevstad-Nordbrock said. “Their role is really a facilitator because, as you can imagine, trying to get time and photograph and take notes and document a very secure environment like an embassy requires a lot of work upfront.”
‘Win for all’
In the end, according to Grevstad-Nordbrock, the arrangement is “a win for all” in that it:
- Provides the State Department with “much-needed documentation of the historic and culturally important elements of its properties abroad”;
- Allows ISU faculty to share their expertise with students and expand their research;
- Affords students real-life learning opportunities on the intricacies of historic preservation;
- And offers the public an opportunity to see inside U.S. embassies and ambassador residencies.
This May’s trip to the U.S. embassy campus in Rome will afford students the chance to explore a 2,000-year-old Roman ruin and covered passageway called a “cryptoporticus,” which was discovered during excavation of the facility’s parking garage.
“I think a lot of students come into class thinking we’re going to be working with esoteric, moldy old history,” Grevstad-Nordbrock said. “I try to disabuse them of that, showing that the historic built environment is very much part of our everyday lives.”
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