She was actually only supposed to work for The Landmark Society for a three-month period, until the grant money ran out. Fortunately, other funds were found, and Architectural Research Coordinator Cynthia Howk stayed for 45 years – bringing an incalculable impact to people and places in our nine-county region. Recently, she shared a bit of her history.
Image Credit: David Boyer
What brought you to The Landmark Society?
My actual employment was completely by happenstance: I’d been volunteering as a docent at the Campbell-Whittlesey House in Corn Hill, to get practice in talking to the public, before doing my student teaching (music education) during Spring semester, in 1976. When a staff position opened up, I came on board for the three months remaining in the supporting grant. It was the U.S. Bicentennial, one of the busiest tour times ever for our historic sites. The offer was perfectly timed, as I could do this short-term assignment while looking for a permanent job as an instrumental music teacher.
The funding for this job – “Assistant Curator of Museum Properties” – was through a federal program known as CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act). When I met with the program coordinator, she informed me, to my great surprise, that I was eligible for 18 months of employment (not just the 3 months remaining for the previous employee’s service), as I was a new person in this position. And that one unexpected change ultimately led to becoming a member of Landmark’s permanent staff. During my 18-month CETA job, I worked at both of our museums and “apprenticed” with Libby Stewart, who was coordinating several major cultural resources surveys. I was Libby’s assistant for a historic resources survey of Fairport, which included every building in the municipality– a crash course in local history, historic architecture and styles, and survey methodology.
When Libby retired, Landmark was in the midst of a major contract project with the City of Rochester. As I was the only other staff member working on that project – and had learned survey methodology – Executive Director Billie Harrington offered me Libby’s job – “Research Coordinator” as a full-time staff position.
For a position that was only to be a “3-month job,” it turned into a wonderful professional engagement, that’s grown, expanded, and proved immensely interesting (certainly, never boring!) for over four decades.
Describe the kind of work that you’ve done here.
I’ve had three job titles during my time at Landmark: Assistant Curator of Museum Properties, Neighborhood Conservation Coordinator, and Architectural Research Coordinator. Projects that have used my research skills have included historic resources surveys for neighborhoods, towns and villages, as well as completing nominations for the National Register of Historic Places. My knowledge of local history and architecture has grown immensely, over these years – through association with professionals such as the incomparable Jean France, City Historian Blake McKelvey, historian Betsy Brayer, and a host of other veteran experts, from whom I took classes, attended lectures and tried to absorb as much info as possible!
In turn, I’ve been able to share that knowledge via slide lectures, classes for realtors, college interns, guided tours, phone calls/emails, as a major part of my job – a part I very much enjoy.
The consistent element in all my work is that it engaged my background in education and working with the public: all ages and abilities, as individuals or in groups, in a wide variety of settings (meetings, classrooms, guided tour, public forums, telephone conversations, email inquiries, etc.). Having an educational background has helped me greatly to explain Landmark’s work, and how it directly relates to these individuals, their community, and its built environment, not only via their history and architecture – but as a very practical tool for economic development. It’s immensely satisfying when you meet with a group, who, initially, might not know, exactly what, preservation planning is or how it can benefit their community but, soon, realizes that preservation planning is exactly what they’ve been looking for and that it’s a creative solution to some of their local challenges (vacant buildings needed repair, difficult zoning issues, grant funding for projects, new ideas to promote their community assets, etc.).
A familiar Landmark staff comment is “you’re never off duty!” and that’s proven true many times. We never know when we might encounter someone, totally by chance, and it turns into a conversation about preservation outreach. This “preservation networking” is one of my favorite parts of our work.
What ignited your interest in this field?
Like most of our staff, I’ve been interested in history and architecture since childhood. Family history was a major conversation topic in our home (my mother: her Swiss immigrant family, my father: his WNY rural/many-generations in the region family). My mother, a nurse, was particularly interested in historic barns (and had always hoped to buy/renovate one, as a residence). My family’s principal “hobby” was scenic drives throughout western New York: villages, hamlets, state parks, during which time, unbeknownst to me, I was actually “in training” for my Landmark career. This is due, in part, to my almost-photographic memory of buildings and places. Years later, that information has proven priceless. I often receive calls and emails from less-familiar city neighborhoods and smaller communities, such as Conesus, Pultneyville, Springwater, etc. The callers are often quite surprised that I know not only of their community but have visited there and seen many of its historic buildings! This always gets our conversation off on a positive footing – and helps greatly in establishing a long-term relationship.
This is also one of my favorite parts of my work at The Landmark Society: for the many communities I viewed as a child during those family drives, I’ve been able to meet residents of those communities, learn more about them and their wonderful historic resources, and often establish long-lasting partnerships, as well as friendships, that have benefited everyone involved.
What is one of your favorite accomplishments at The Landmark Society?
This is a real challenge to answer. One of the most rewarding aspects of working at The Landmark Society has been to experience the continuous growth and development of our professional field… with a group of multi-talented colleagues, who bring a terrific list of abilities to our work!
This includes the ever-expanding work in communities throughout our 9-county region – and contacts with new partners (residents, business owners, elected officials, etc.). When you have over 189 municipalities, it is a continuous challenge to make contact with local residents. That next phone call or email may be our next exciting outreach opportunity to do preservation planning in collaboration with local residents.
Why do you believe it is important to preserve our historic resources?
One of the most compelling reasons to work in preservation is that it offers benefits to everyone, no matter their location, economic status, or cultural background,. Once maligned as “saving big mansions of the rich and famous,” preservation planning is one of the easiest concepts to promote. Why? Everyone lives in/works in/worships in/shops in/recreates in some type of building! And, just about everyone would like to be in a stable community, where property owners are responsible stewards of their buildings, economic resources are widely available, and residents have pride in their cultural, as well as their natural resources. (Note: I firmly believe “cultural” and “natural” resources are equally important features of any community and should be mutually appreciated and preserved). That’s why Landmark’s work continues to remain relevant—the organization has always expanded and adapted.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Although my official retirement is October 1, my involvement with Landmark Society isn’t completely ending at that time. I’ll still be involved with several committees (Awards, Historic Markers) and special events (House & Garden Tour, Inside Downtown Tour). I will continue to do outreach to residents and communities interested in investigating preservation planning opportunities. On-going work with The Landmark Society’s archives of historic and architectural information and being available for questions about local buildings, architecture, and neighborhoods will all continue, on a reduced schedule. As the ‘longest-serving staff person,’ I look forward to sharing my institutional memory when needed. I also happily anticipate reversing my role and, after a 45-year hiatus, becoming a Landmark Society volunteer once again.
End note from Cindy Boyer
As the “second longest-serving staff person” it has been my privilege to work with Cynthia for three-quarters of her tenure. I’ve learned so much from her – sometimes by just being nearby when she’s answering a phone inquiry. I know I speak for all staff, volunteers and members when I say we will miss her fulfilling the role of colleague and Architectural Research Coordinator on a daily basis. I also know that we are all relieved to know she’s not going far, and we still get to work with her, learn from her, and enjoy interacting with her. Thank you, Cynthia!