S.8, E.6: “A Constant Kind of Puzzle”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alum and historical preservationist Valerie Heider '11.
Posted on March 5th, 2021 by

Valerie Heider ’11 on her path from Honors History and Scandinavian Studies at Gustavus to a graduate degree and career in historic preservation, currently with the Minnesota Historical Society, where among the projects she manages is the National Historic Landmark Washburn-Crosby A Mill Complex in Minneapolis.

Season 8, Episode 6: “A Constant Kind of Puzzle”

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life at Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College and the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, faculty member in the department of history.

History of the past is all around us, whether we notice it or not. Walk through any city or town, for example, and you are viewing history. What you are viewing is the result of choices, events, policies, and people in the past. Some of it, more in certain places than others, is also the result of historical preservation, which happens to be the profession of my guest today, Valerie McClusky Heider, Gustavus Class of 2011. Following graduation with majors in Scandinavian studies and history honors, Val worked as museum associate and depo manager for the Minnesota Transportation Museum in St. Paul, where she obtained valuable public history experience. From there she went on to earn a master of science degree in historic preservation and conservation from Clemson University, which led to positions in project management, first with M&A Architectural Preservation in Massachusetts and then with Historic New England.

In 2018, she began her current position as project manager for the Minnesota Historical Society, focusing on preservation of state historical properties. As a lover of cities fascinated by the history both preserved in and gone from them, and also I’m happy to say as one of Val’s former history profs, I’m delighted she could join me to talk about her story and work.

Welcome, Val. It’s great to have you on the podcast.

Valerie Heider:

Thank you so much for inviting me, Greg, and congratulations on the podcast. I’ve been listening to episodes as I drive around the state for work, listening to episodes with folks that I knew at Gustavus as well as folks that I didn’t know, and they’ve all been really fabulous.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks so much. That means a lot to me, very special. I appreciate that. It’s been fun to do.

I just want to say at the start how proud I am of you and all that you’ve done. There’s a lot to talk about. Maybe just quickly, how are things right now? You live in Minneapolis with your husband, Matt. How is COVID impacting your work with the historical society?

Valerie Heider:

It depends on what you do at the historical society to be honest. My job is essentially as a construction project manager. Construction has been an essential industry throughout the pandemic, so my work has remained largely uninterrupted. I still go to job sites where I have active construction projects. But, like many folks, the office component of my job has shifted to working from home. If I have meetings that can be done virtually or if I’m working on something on my computer, I am in my home office. It’s a little bit of a mix, which is sometimes welcome. To be able to get out of the house a bit, get on the road, see other parts of the state: it feels a little bit less isolating.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I can imagine. There’s all this talk about … There’s some talk about “Well, office work will never be the same.” Is it something you like, working from home, or would you rather be in the office? I personally miss my office a great deal. Maybe I’ll feel differently once I’m back in it.

Valerie Heider:

Mixed I guess. There are definitely things I miss about going into an office. I miss the office mates that I have and the informal conversations that we’d have together, both about personal things but also work related. I feel like we did a lot of good brainstorming being in the same space. But there is something to be said about being able to be at home. I’ve got two elderly dogs that it’s really nice to be able to just let them outside whenever they need to be outside. There’s I think plusses and minuses.

And it’ll be interesting to see what ultimately ends up happening for the historical society after the pandemic, how many of us go back to working full time in the history center. There are jobs that can’t be done remotely that need to be done in that space: conservators or librarians versus those of who can do work remotely. It’ll be interesting.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I agree. I think it will be very interesting. The labor historian in me wishes I could fast forward to see what it will be like. Like you, I really miss those water-cooler conversations [crosstalk 00:04:57] television shows or movies but also the brainstorming that happens. I agree.

Let’s go back in time. You’re a historian as much as I am, and that’s what we do. I’m trying to remember. You and I met maybe … I don’t know if you were in your sophomore year, but, in any case, I actually don’t know a whole lot about why you came to Gustavus. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about where you grew up, your background, and why Gustavus, how you chose Gustavus?

Valerie Heider:

I’ve been reflecting on that question and realized it’s not a super glamorous answer, to be totally honest. I grew up in the Chicago area. The majority of my family are all professional engineers, so structural engineers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, just a very engineer-focused family. My parents grew up in the St. Louis area. We would drive back and forth quite a few times a year to visit my grandparents. We loved to … Or I didn’t love it. My parents loved to stop at places like bridges and dams to see their feats of engineering. I despised it as a kid. I thought it was very boring. So growing up I always thought I don’t want to be an engineer and I don’t want to work in a field that has to do with buildings or bridges or dams or the built environment, but I also didn’t really know what I wanted to do quote-unquote when I grew up. I didn’t have necessarily a dream school that I wanted to go to.

I grew up in the Chicago area, so things I enjoyed were going to museums, particularly the Field Museum in Chicago. They have a great Egypt exhibit that I loved. Knew things that I liked but, again, didn’t really know what I wanted to do.

When I was a junior in high school and starting to think about college, I applied to a variety of different universities and colleges. I knew for sure that I didn’t want to stay close to home. I wanted to venture out a little bit further. My mom had gone to a liberal arts college in Minnesota and recommended maybe it would be a good fit for me. I had briefly lived in Minnesota as a junior in high school with my dad and my stepmom and had remembered some folks that I met while I was living in Minnesota talking about Gustavus. I thought, “Maybe I’ll just look at Gustavus and see what it’s about.” So applied, and I came to visit right at that really great time of year in the fall when everything just looked amazing in the river valley and just really loved the campus, loved everyone that I interacted with. I really liked the size. I found large universities to be really overwhelming. I felt like the size was manageable for me.

Then, ultimately, when it came time to decide, I remembered that feeling of comfort that Gustavus had and made that choice for that reason, which has turned out for the best. I’m glad that I chose Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:

I’m glad too. We’re all glad, all your profs, everybody. I love these stories. Regular listeners to the podcast or frequent listeners know it’s a major theme among alums. I guess it’s true no matter where … Hopefully, you’re choosing a college because you can see yourself there. You feel good when you visit as opposed to “Why spend four years here?” That’s something that comes across again and again. It’s funny, too. I felt that when I was interviewing. I vividly remember that feeling. I interviewed just on one other campus, one other liberal arts college, but it didn’t have that feeling. It is real, and it’s interesting. I’m so glad you chose Gustavus.

I didn’t know that about your mom. Was she majoring in a science discipline or something?

Valerie Heider:

Yeah. Her father was a professor of electrical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. At the time, in the ’70s, when she went to college there was a three-two program where she could spend three years at another college or university and then two years finishing a degree at Washington University. She double-majored in physics and engineering. She went to Carlton for three years.

Greg Kaster:

I guess that’s a common combo, physics and engineering. Also I’m reminded, I’m sure that Gustavus physics department is moving towards some kind of engineering program for undergrad [inaudible 00:09:57].

This also reminds me, by the way … Is it your aunt that you’ve talked about before who’s in the military? Wasn’t she involved in STEM work also?

Valerie Heider:

Yeah. My aunt was the first woman to be the head of the Seabees, which is the engineering branch of the navy, similar to the Army Corps of Engineers but naval and, in her argument, much better. She retired. She was in the navy for career, 30, 35 years, and recently retired and is I think still adjusting to life outside of the navy. But yeah. My mom works as an engineer. My aunt, who’s in the navy, engineer. It’s everybody.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:10:49] your destiny. You tried to avoid it, but good luck. But I love that. I love that story, that arch. And, of course, this begs the question: why Scandinavian studies and history? Why not physics? Was it just you were sick of bridges? You didn’t want to do what your parents did. In all seriousness, how did you come upon those two majors?

Valerie Heider:

Scandinavian studies I think was another happy coincidence. A friend that I made while I was living briefly in Minnesota in high school, he was doing … The name of the program I’m forgetting. I feel like it’s PSAE. It’s essentially where high school students could take classes at the University of Minnesota or other college-level classes and get credit for it while still being a high schooler. He was taking classes at the U and was very interested in languages and was taking Swedish. I visited him right before I had to pick my classes as a freshman at Gustavus and went to a Swedish class with him, a summer class he was taking, and really liked it, just found the language super interesting, really fascinating, the culture interesting. I’m not Scandinavian in terms of heritage at all, but it seemed interesting.

I am fortunate enough to have a parent who is super supportive of what I want to do, even if it’s not quote-unquote practical. It was something where I thought … I remember having a conversation with her as we were driving to Gustavus of “Maybe I’ll enroll in Swedish and just try that,” and I remember her saying, “That’s what liberal arts colleges are for. You just try what you want to do and see how you like it.”

So I took Swedish 101 with Roland Thorstensson, who is not retired, and he was just a phenomenal professor and made the subject matter very, very fun. I think you get this at liberal arts colleges more so than larger universities, but I just remember connecting with him in ways that made me feel, again, like Gustavus was a welcoming place. At that time … That was, oof, 2007, fall of 2007. He was recruiting people for the semester in Sweden program that he had put together, the study-abroad program where you go with a cohort from Gustavus and travel around the country, and I decided to do that. Essentially, the credits that you receive from going on that trip were enough for a minor in Scandinavian studies, and I thought, “Why not just do a major?” Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

That’s cool. Roland, I hope to interview him at some point. Roland is a native Swede, really interesting guy, very interesting, great professor.

By the way, god, I want to go to Sweden. Kate and I, my wife Kate and I, have been watching Wallander. We’re watching the BBC version. I guess a Swedish novelist who writes about this detective named Kurt Wallander. Love it. I can’t get enough of it. Then I want to go to Denmark. I don’t know. Maybe I should’ve been a Scandinavian studies major. [crosstalk 00:14:06] prime minister. Now we just started the Valhalla Murders, which seems like normally in Iceland. Anyway, I’ve had Sweden and Scandinavia on at least my television mind lately.

I want to come back to that semester in Sweden in a bit. It sounds like you were a Scandinavian studies major before also majoring in history. Is that right?

Valerie Heider:

That’s right. Yep. That’s correct.

Greg Kaster:

So what happened? I’m trying to think who would have been … Byron Nordstrom probably was there.

Valerie Heider:

Yep. Byron, maybe it was Byron’s second or final year, but I ended up taking a class with Byron. History was always something that I enjoyed. Thinking back to visits to museums, the thing that I enjoyed most wasn’t … I don’t know if folks are familiar with the museums in Chicago, but the Museum of Science and Industry wasn’t really something I was interested in. I loved the Field Museum and I loved history and culture. I think it was something that I always enjoyed, and I found myself wanting to take a number of history classes, and it just ended up being a natural progression from there.

I remember you and I had the Vietnam class for history majors together. Not that this is complimenting you because I’m on your podcast, Greg, but, honestly, I do feel like that class, as well as the Civil War seminar that you taught, were two of my favorite classes at Gustavus. Again, I think good professors make the subject matter accessible in ways that students hadn’t really thought about before, and I definitely felt like that in those classes that I took with you. I think it was, again, just a natural progression of “I find this interesting. No one’s telling me to be, again, quote-unquote practical,” which I hate when people say that, but it was something that I could just do. So I did it.

Greg Kaster:

You’re very kind in making me blush. Also, it was a pleasure working with you, and more on that in a bit.

But also [crosstalk 00:16:31] Man, we still have to sell that notion to students and some parents. You said you were lucky to have your mom, who said, “That’s the point of a liberal arts college.” It isn’t to know “Oh, this is what I want to be the rest of my life,” and then pursue a major [inaudible 00:16:50]. That’s not the point of a liberal arts college.

Valerie Heider:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

My dad didn’t go to college. I’m grateful that he, even though he never attended college, he, like your mom, never said, “You must do this,” or, “You have to do this to get a job.” It’s just about knowledge and learning and growing, and I’m forever grateful.

I want to come back to the Sweden abroad program, semester in Sweden, as I said. Leaving that aside for just a minute, are there particular memories you have besides from what you just mentioned about Gustavus, the good, bad, and the ugly, whatever it might be?

Valerie Heider:

Yeah. I think some of my favorite memories about Gustavus are around the extracurricular activities that Gustavus has and offers. I was not very involved in music until my junior year at Gustavus I think, but I played bassoon in high school, and one of my best friends that I met at Gustavus, Alex Legeros, was a bassoonist as well. He really encouraged me to continue playing and to try out for musical ensembles. My senior year I was in the Gustavus Symphony Orchestra and just memories around participating in that. The spring break trip that we took, which was glamorously to Nebraska, was still really great. And just being able to perform and be part of that community and collective was fantastic.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so cool. I have to say, until I came to Gustavus to teach, I never realized just how important all the … I guess it’s not cocurricular, extracurricular, but how important that is, especially at a liberal arts college. It’s so important at Gustavus, and I’ve grown much, much more comfortable with it as a professor over the years. Indeed, even just listening to you, I sometimes feel like, god, I’m one dimensional. I don’t play an instrument. I’d forgotten about that, that you did that your senior year. You owe me a bassoon concern or something. But yeah. [crosstalk 00:19:19] that is a part of the place for sure.

You wrote for the Scandinavian newsletter in 2011 [inaudible 00:19:27] something like, “I’m joking, but that semester in Sweden I learned more,” or, “It was the best time of my time at Gustavus.” What was it about that semester in Sweden that you so enjoyed that made you learn so much?

Valerie Heider:

I feel somewhat bad saying that my favorite time at Gustavus was when I was not at Gustavus, but it I think is partially true.

I think that there were a combination of factors that really made the semester in Sweden program really fantastic. I think that the group that I went with, we just had a really great dynamic. And the fact that it’s not a traditional study abroad where we would go to a certain city or a certain town and be there for four months or five months or six months and be at one university. We traveled around the country and stayed at folk schools, which are … There’s no real one-for-one in terms of what an equivalent would be in the US, but it’s somewhat like a trade school in Sweden. We stayed at those, as well as taking classes, like at Uppsala University. We took some classes with a Gustavus alum. I think he was an adjunct professor at the time there. It was really just a wide range of experiences.

One of the things that I distinctly remember … Part of it too was not even just the class and academic learning that we did, but it was just the practice, again, quote-unquote real-world learning experiences that we had. I remember we were flying from Minneapolis to Stockholm, and then we were supposed to fly from Stockholm to Umea, which is in the northern part of Sweden, and there was a snow storm in Minneapolis, and some of us got put on separate flights. It was a fiasco. We got rerouted to Amsterdam, ended up in Stockholm, but we missed our flight essentially to Umea. So we were all exhausted. Roland is trying to figure out what to do with 12 college students. We end up just getting on a bus. It was an eight-hour bus ride. But just experiences like that, where things weren’t going as planned and we all just had to figure out what to do on the go, which I think created a lasting bond and relationships with us all that you can’t really get in a different environment or experience.

Greg Kaster:

I love this. You mentioned the word comfort, feeling comfortable at Gustavus when you visited, and, yeah, that’s a real strength of the place. On the other hand, to learn and grow you need to be uncomfortable, and that’s what you’re talking about, and learning to cope, learning resilience, learning confidence. This also just relates I think to study abroad, which Gustavus … All schools promote, but Gustavus really does I think an outstanding job of it. [inaudible 00:22:44] study away.

I am so grateful that I went to Mexico as an undergraduate. I was in Mexico City. I was only 21, 22. That was the first city I was there alone. I started living there, not literally, but visiting often. God, what an incredible experience that still is with me to this day that I could not have had had I not gone there. [inaudible 00:23:12] wouldn’t have even had [inaudible 00:23:13] some place more familiar, same as you.

You I’m assuming weren’t fluent in Swedish at that point, right?

Valerie Heider:

Right, no, not at all. I think that the time that I spent in Sweden, my Swedish improved dramatically because of experiences where you’re stuck in a small town where people speak English but not as well as if you’re in, say, a large city, so really taking the chance and using the language and really improving.

One of the memories I have is we had a week-long spring break where we could essentially travel to where we wanted to. Some folks decided to go to England. Some folks stayed in Sweden. Some folks went elsewhere in Europe. But I decided to go to Faro, which is a small island off of the southeast of Sweden where Ingmar Bergman, the film director, is buried. I’m a big fan of his films, so decided to take a pilgrimage. I remember waiting for a ferry and being super hungry and just starting a conversation with this little café owner in Swedish and doing a much better job than I thought I could with the language. But, yeah, things like that.

Greg Kaster:

That’s excellent. I was down with my then-girlfriend in Mexico, in central Mexico, and we were staying at a place where the land lady’s mother, a widow, I’m now alone with the land lady’s mother, who speaks no English, and she’s still in black, mourning. I don’t know, mourning the death of the dictator [inaudible 00:24:56] decades before. But what I remember is she was eating I think it was octopus in a tin, which I love octopus, so, by god, I managed to have a conversation with her. It was, again, around food. I ended up getting some of that octopus after all. Anyway, that’s a great story.

You wind up graduating in 2018 with the double major, including history honors. Let’s just pause a bit to talk about your honors work, which I was so happy to be a part of. Tell us a little bit about Bishop Hill and how you came to be interested in that, what your research involved.

Valerie Heider:

My history with honors thesis was about religious utopias in the US and focused on the Bishop Hill settlement in western Illinois, which was settled by Swedes who were following this gentleman named Erik Janson, and he essentially saw himself as the second coming of Christ, so brought this group of Swedes to this town. They established it very, very quickly. Erik Janson dies, and they assume that he will rise from the dead, and then he doesn’t. Go figure. Very quickly, the social fabric around the town starts to deteriorate. It’s this boom-and-bust town that was established quickly and then, after the death of Erik Janson, deteriorates pretty quickly.

I had visited the site growing up. Again, as I said, it’s in western Illinois, so along the Mississippi. And guess what there are along the Mississippi? Dams and bridges. I had visited as a kid, and then also I think must have been some summer break or Christmas break maybe when I was back home with my mom from Gustavus. We took a drive out to visit again as an older adult, and that sparked in my mind the possibility of looking closer at that site.

My thesis work was, again, focusing on that site but also comparing and contrasting it to the Oneida Community in New York and similarities and differences between more what I was looking at as Bishop Hill as a more religious utopia versus Oneida, which I was viewing more as a secular, even though there are religious overtones, utopia.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:27:49] very roughly the same time period in mid-19th Century. [crosstalk 00:27:53] I’m a Chicagoan like you, south suburbs, but I had not … I may have heard of Bishop Hill. I’m not sure I had. But I certainly didn’t know anything about it. It was fun to learn a lot about it with you.

Then foreshadowing, my memory is you looked also at the physical plans, the architecture, of the place. Is that right?

Valerie Heider:

I did. I did. I took a visit as a senior while I was working on that thesis to Bishop Hill to go to the archives there and, part of that time while I was there, realized that, oh yeah, the architecture of the place, there’s a significance here to how the town is laid out and what it looks like and doing the same thing with the Oneida Community as well.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right. You were doomed. By the way, your parents, did they ever say, “Mm-hmm (affirmative)?” I imagine they’re proud, I’m sure [crosstalk 00:28:51] with you explicitly or not?

Valerie Heider:

I think they realized that it wouldn’t end well if they just rubbed it in my face, for lack of a better term, because I spent so many years being so defiant of what they did to ultimately just come full circle. I think it’s something that allows us, as adults, to have a shared experience and shared interest that we can talk about.

Greg Kaster:

Not to rub it in your face, that sounds like the right move.

You graduate, and then am I right that fairly quickly you wind up with an unpaid position, correct me if I’m wrong, at the Minnesota Transportation Museum? Tell us a little bit how you came to be there.

Valerie Heider:

Yeah. That’s right. As a senior in college, I was in the same position as I was as a senior in high school in realizing I will have these degrees now but I don’t necessarily know what I want for a career. I remember feeling an immense amount of pressure that was mostly self-inflicted of trying to figure out what I wanted to do. For a while, honestly, I had a position lined up at a winery in Washington state where I was going to go live with some family there and just work on a winery and figure things out, which I ultimately didn’t end up doing. I decided that I wanted to move to the Twin Cities after college because of the person that I was dating at the time, who is now my spouse, so that worked out well, but realized that I, again, enjoyed museums as a kid and that public history might be a realm and field that I would enjoy working in.

I honestly just put together a resume and some cover letters and sent it out to any sort of historical society or history museum that I could think of or find in the Twin Cities, so Hennepin County History Museum. I’m sure I probably sent something to the Minnesota Historical Society. And ultimately no one called me back or I heard, “No, we’re not taking on interns, even unpaid,” except for the Minnesota Transportation Museum, which is centered out of the 1903, 1907 Roundhouse for the Great Northern Railway built by James J. Hill between Jackson Street and 35E in St. Paul off of Pennsylvania Avenue.

I honestly just went, interviewed with the executive director there. He asked me if I’d want to be an intern, was super willing to work around the schedule that I needed to have jobs that would make me money so I could pay my rent, and was apparently impressed enough after a couple of months that he offered me a stipend, a monthly stipend, and then, about six months in, offered me a paid position, which it was just me and him as the paid employees. The rest were all volunteers.

It was really just me taking a chance on seeing what was out there and putting myself out there and being lucky enough to hear back, which was great.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. I don’t know if you can see me. I’m almost jumping out of my seat, because that’s the lesson, right? You took initiative. You take a chance. It doesn’t always work out. Lucky is a part of it, as you say, but all you need is one, and you got it. I vividly remember the one and only time I’ve been there was when you kindly showed me around. Oh my god, it just brought out the kid in me. I wanted to climb all over the locomotives, and the Roundhouse is cool. I remember the director. I don’t remember his name. But the director telling me, in front of you, that you were the first person that was hired and paid. [crosstalk 00:33:00] work. Again, it’s a lesson. You didn’t have it all figured out. You had what sounds like an interesting back-up plan, although it left Matt out of your life, but [inaudible 00:33:09] not a bad back-up plan. But anyway, it’s okay not to have it all figured out if you’re willing to, as you said, put yourself out there, as you did.

How long were you there? Were you there for like a year, more than a year?

Valerie Heider:

Yeah, just about a year. While I was there, one of the things that I started to do pretty immediately was help manage this bricks-and-mortar grant program that the museum had applied for before I started with them with the National Trust for Historic Preservation called Save America’s Places. That’s not the exact name, and I’m blanking on what it is at the moment, but essentially it was a competitive grant program where it targeted a certain city or region of the country every year and picked a certain number of applicants. I think it was a dozen to two dozen that were then historic sites. Then they competed over the course of a couple of months for support and votes. My role in all of this was figuring out a way to get the fact that we’d applied for this grant and what we would do with the grant money should we receive it out to the public but also to encourage people and to get people to vote for us … I think it was a Facebook-related voting platform … so that we would be able to receive the grant money that we needed for the Roundhouse. That was the highlight or the big part of the year that I was there at the Transportation Museum.

Greg Kaster:

Did you get the money?

Valerie Heider:

We did not get the money. The Pioneer and Soldier Cemetery in Minneapolis off of Lake Street did, which was great. They had some friends with local musicians, which I think was a good tactic where they put on some free, pro-bono concerts for them.

Greg Kaster:

All those dead people voting, that’s the problem.

What a great experience, though, for you. My god. That’s incredible, especially given what you’d wind up doing.

Is it during your stint there that you’re thinking of graduate school already in public history?

Valerie Heider:

Yeah. I had thought, not seriously, but thought about graduate school while I was at Gustavus but then realized, while I was managing this grant program at the Transportation Museum, that there’s jobs in this field called historic preservation. I remember just sitting on my laptop in my studio apartment looking at job boards and potential jobs and thinking, “These all look super interesting, and this is something that people do and I could do.” It was then that I decided that I wanted to apply for graduate school in historic preservation or history with a historic preservation focus or certificate associated with it.

Greg Kaster:

Clemson, I had not been that familiar with the program, but, man, while you were applying and certainly while you were there, what an excellent program. Tell us a little bit. Was it a two-year program or not?

Valerie Heider:

It was a two-year, right.

Greg Kaster:

Tell us a little bit about just your experience there, what you learned [crosstalk 00:36:31]. You were a glazier. I don’t know if that was through the program, but all of that. Just tell us a little bit about all of that if you would.

Valerie Heider:

Sure, yeah. I applied to a number of programs and ultimately was choosing between either the University of Vermont or Clemson University for a historic preservation Masters and chose Clemson for a lot of the same reasons I think that I enjoyed getting a liberal arts degree, and that’s because the program at Clemson is a very wide-focused program. Historic preservation is a term that applies to a number of different sub-fields, so architectural conservation and material conservation is historic preservation, but advocacy is also preservation, and architectural history is also preservation. The program at Clemson let me dip my toes in as far as I wanted in all of those different parts of historic preservation, and required to it some degree that we had to take certain classes.

The program with Clemson, it’s a joint program between Clemson University and the College of Charleston, so I was not in upstate South Carolina. I was in the city of Charleston for two years, and it was honestly the best living, real-world classroom that you could ask for in preservation. The city of Charleston, South Carolina’s the first city in the country to put forth zoning laws that created the Board of Architectural Review and put limits and restrictions on exterior modifications that could be made to homes. That happened in the early 1930s. So preservation is really just rooted in the blood of that city.

We did a lot of real-world practical experiences. In our first-year architectural studio class, we put together HABS drawings, which HABS is the Historic American Building Survey. It’s a program that was started during the Works Progress Administration, Works Progress Program, to essentially put out-of-work architects to work. They were recording existing buildings, putting those into architectural drawings. They were doing that for buildings that had historic significance. There’s HABS. There’s also HAER, which is the Historic American Engineering Record, and there’s HALS, which is the Historic American Landscape Survey. We were out in the city of Charleston creating HABS drawings for a specific home that had not yet been added to the Library of Congress records.

It was things like that that really, then when I was going to apply for jobs, I could say, “Oh yes, I have done this. Here is this example that I have for you.” That was really, really great.

Greg Kaster:

It’s just another example of how incredible the New Deal was. I knew about the WPA but not about that aspect of it, which is amazing, just how much we walk around … That’s another thing we’re not aware of when we’re walking around. The New Deal in some ways is all around. It’s not just in Social Security.

Valerie Heider:

Right, absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

Attention all policymakers listening: during COVID, this is how you employ people.

That is fantastic. Now, did you also do a specific thesis as part of that or not?

Valerie Heider:

Yeah, I did. My thesis was about … It was a survey of ecclesiastical stained glass on the peninsula where Charleston is located. One of the classes that I took early on in graduate school, it must have been the first semester I was there, was an intro to historic building methods. We spent a long time talking about glass and stained glass. That was something that I think reignited in my mind this interest that I’ve had growing up in ecclesiastical buildings and in stained glass in particular and the way that being in those spaces makes one feel. I think regardless of whether you’re religious or not there’s a certain power in being in those spaces.

I then did sort of the same thing that I did as a senior at Gustavus in terms of looking for an internship. There’s a required internship as part of the graduate program at Clemson between your first and second year during that summer. I reached out to a place called Charleston Architectural Glass that had started out as a stained and leaded glass restoration studio and new fabrication studio and had been moving more towards art glass but still did some stained and leaded glass. I reached out to them and just said, “Hey, I’m a graduate student at the Clemson program,” which is pretty well known in the area, and I just asked, “Can I come in two days a week or whatever?” Over the summer it must have actually been more like three or four days a week. “And just shadow you and do whatever you need around the shop?”

The owner was super gracious, said, “Sure.” Also then he needed more help, so he hired me on about halfway through the summer, and then I just worked there during my second year in the program. But gained a lot of real, practical experience about how things go together that has been really useful for me in my post-graduate-school professional life and understanding practically, again, how things actually go together, which has been great.

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 00:42:30] I think you probably did send me at least parts of that thesis.

But anyway, I’ve never been to Charleston and really want to go, which I [inaudible 00:42:42], Kate and I both.

But the other thing, again, just your resourcefulness, your initiative.

But also let’s start to talk about your professional work, as you put it, knowing how things go together. When I think of New England, I love Boston. That’s where I went to graduate school, Boston University. But just New England in general, I certainly think of historic preservation, and you were working for some what seemed to me pretty big outfits there, the M&A Architecture Preservation of Historic New England. Tell us a little bit about what you were doing. What does it mean to be a project manager? Were there particular projects you were particularly fond of or interested in?

Valerie Heider:

To answer your question about what does it mean to be a project manager, that’s, again, a very broad term, but, essentially, as a construction project manager, which is really what I am, is to … Again, I’m probably going to essentially describe what this is using the words, but to manage a construction project from start to finish, so, depending on what the position is, from the inception of what it is if you’re working from the owner’s side and you’re the one who owns the building or from when the project goes out to bid if you’re from the contractor’s side of things all the way through completion, so putting together bid documents, drawings if you’re the owner, working with architects and engineers to do that, or if you’re the contractor, reviewing those and putting together pricing for what it’s going to cost you to do the part of the project that is your work.

Then, as the project manager, I’m the one that is essentially reviewing the project manual, project specifications, and the drawings and ensuring that the carpenters, which is the group of trade workers that I’ve worked most closely with, but they are the ones who are executing the work in the way that it is supposed to be executed per these construction drawings and plans.

Greg Kaster:

I’m sorry. You have to be familiar with the particular codes or regulations or laws whatever around preservation with these different sites.

Valerie Heider:

Yep. Not while I was at M&A Architectural Preservation but absolutely while I was at Historic New England and now at the Minnesota Historical Society, part of my job is to make sure that the work that we’re doing meets the secretary of the interior’s standards. The secretary of the interior has four standards for historic preservation. There are preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. So, depending on the project and the site and, in lots of cases, how the building is going to be interpreted if it’s a museum space depends on what treatment you are using for that building, and there are certain restrictions on what you can and can’t do depending on what treatment you decide to use. That’s a large part of the job that I have now.

But, backtracking just a little bit back to New England, a couple of my favorite projects, one of them while I was working for M&A was some exterior work to the Old State House in downtown Boston. The company that I worked for, their offices were north of Boston about 30 miles, but I remember driving the company pickup truck with the balcony that the Declaration of Independence was read off of to Bostonians in the back of this pickup truck just driving it back to the shop and just thinking, “This is wild.” That was a particularly interesting project to me.

Then when I left M&A and went to work for Historic New England, which is … Legally, they’re not Historic New England, but they started out as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in the early 1900s.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:46:54] Anyway, yeah, so when you worked for them?

Valerie Heider:

Yeah. I worked for them. One of my favorite projects that I managed there was restoration of the Lyman greenhouses, Lyman Estate greenhouses. The Lyman Estate is west of Boston in Waltham. Now it’s a close suburb of the city. The Lymans were merchants. They built this large, fabulous estate in the late 1700s, and it is home to America’s oldest greenhouses. There’s a bark pit greenhouse that was built in 1798. There’s another greenhouse that’s 1804, another one that’s 1820s, and then another one that’s 1840s. The work that I was doing there was all encompassing. We were restoring the glass. We were doing masonry restoration. We upgraded the heating system. I learned a lot about a type of building that I knew very little about, but also it was very cool to be working on something that is the oldest in America. I think, for a lot of preservationists, that’s one of the dreams of working on the oldest or a prime example of. That was very cool.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. I assume they’re still working greenhouses?

Valerie Heider:

They are. The greenhouses were specifically for the Lyman family when they lived on site. There was a greenhouse where they specifically grew a certain type of flower. There was one where they grew flowers just for cutting to display around the house. They were operational until the 1930s, which I’m questioning if that’s correct, but I believe it was the 1930s when the last Lymans who lived at the estate passed away, and then, in the next 20 years or so, I think by the mid-1950s Historic New England, or SPNEA, was the owner of that site. They’ve been operating since SPNEA, Historic New England, took over ownership.

As still continually operating greenhouses, folks can go in and buy plants from them. It’s a really cool operation.

Greg Kaster:

I can’t believe that. The next time Kate and I go back to Boston, can’t wait to go. I’ve never been there. We’ll go and look at your work and some people’s work.

It is obviously complicated, not only your position, incredible responsibilities, but also just the whole process of preservation. Yet, at the same time, I love that very mundane image of you having the balcony from which the Declaration was read in the back of your pickup truck.

Rightly or wrongly, I think of this field, although I guess when I think of construction too, as mostly a male field or male dominated. I don’t know whether that’s the case. But just what was it like to be a woman working … What is it like to be a woman working in this field?

Valerie Heider:

I have been fortunate or was fortunate that my first position out of grad school at M&A Architectural Preservation, which is a family-owned business, a husband and wife … The husband is the master carpenter and the wife is the business owner, has an MBA, runs things from the office. She was really a great mentor in terms of how to operate in such a male-dominated field in a way that allows you the respect that you deserve. It was great to be able to have conversations with her, even things like I remember there would be times where someone would need a copy made of something, and one of either the husband or one of the carpenters would come up and ask me, “Can you make a copy of this?” I remember her specifically yelling from her office, “Don’t do it,” because she grew up in the ’60s when being a receptionist and making copies for people was all, you as a woman, could do. She was very adamant that “Nope, you don’t do that. That’s not your job.” I’m really thankful for her and the guidance that she’s given.

I’m also thankful for the fact that, both at Historic New England and in my current job at the Minnesota Historical Society, I have been and continue to work with women that are around my same age, so right around 30 or so, who are going through the same sort of experiences that I am, and we are able to talk about the difficult situations that we get in and how we handle that and how we can better approach those situations in the future.

I think, for me, the best thing for a woman working in construction is to meet and network with other women who work in construction, because there’s a solidarity that goes along with that and a mutual understanding, which has been invaluable.

Greg Kaster:

I can imagine how important and valuable that is in sustaining. That’s interesting about the woman, and that’s another example of how mentors … When you were here, you were a mentor already, and you continue to be to others. That’s really important. That can make a big a difference, having that kind of example or not having it.

Valerie Heider:

Yes, absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:52:27] from her office, “No, don’t you do it.” That’s great.

Let’s talk a little bit about your current work. I have a memory. Again, correct me if I’m wrong, but I have a memory of you … I don’t know if it was a picture I saw on your Facebook page, but you were climbing. Was it the Mill City site or something? You were in industrial ruins there. Someone I think once wrote it’s our industrial Pompeii. The ruins of a mill that burned, a flour mill. Anyway, is that true? Is that what you were working on? What are you working on?

Valerie Heider:

That is currently one of seven projects that I am working on. Mill City is the largest, both in terms of financial component as well as timeframe, project that I’ve been working on. I started at the historical society in October of 2018, and I’ve been working on this Mill City project since that time. That project, like you said, Greg, the Mill City Museum is at the site of the former Washburn-Crosby A Mill complex, which, if you see that gold medal flour sign along the riverfront in Minneapolis, that is on top of elevator number one, which is part of that building complex.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:53:49]

Valerie Heider:

Yep. The work that I’ve been doing there has been focusing on the ruins’ courtyard. A space that people love when they visit there is the courtyard right off of West River Parkway, right next to the river. That is the ruins part of the A Mill.

Like you were saying, the building has exploded, because flour dust is highly explosive, but also burned a number of times, most recently in the ’90s, the early 1990s. The building had been abandoned since the early 1960s, and there was a fire that started in the abandoned A mill in February of I think it was 1992, if I’m remembering correctly. The fire was super intense. It burned really, really hot, but, because it was February in Minnesota, the building got dowsed with water and then froze. That freezing on lime stone and within the mortar caused a lot of damage to the building, and so parts of it collapsed after that, both from the fire as well as from the post-fire experience that it’s had.

The A mill, part of it was rehabbed, the front part of it along Second Street. That is where you enter into the museum. But then the back half of it is still this ruined space.

Before I came to the historical society, the north wall and the west wall of the ruined courtyard were preserved further. It’s an interesting paradox to preserve a ruin, to preserve something that’s constantly in a state of deterioration. There’s been a lot of continued discussions about that with the design team that I’m working with.

But right now the project I’m working on is preserving the east wall. That’s the wall that is the largest of the ruins. It’s still the full height of what the A mill was, which is nine stories. It also serves to help understand the connections between the different buildings on the site.

On the top of this wall right now, there’s two conveyor bridges that sit on top of it, one that went to another part of the A mill and then one that connects to elevator number one, that building that has the gold medal flour sign on top of it. That was a way that grain was transported form building to building during the processing process.

The other part of the complex that is connected to that east wall is this stair tower that was put on in 1929 after a fire that occurred at the site. That was one of the first by code, really changed code, stair towers for industrial buildings and for any building in the country. That was a fire escape both from the A mill, but it also connects up to the feed elevator. It was a way for folks working in the feed elevator to get out as well if there was a fire.

This wall is both in extremely poor condition but also holding up these other components that help us understand how connected and interconnected this place was. In preserving that wall, we want to preserve those elements of it so that we continue to understand what this complex was and why it was so important, not only to the history of Minneapolis but to the history of the country.

There’s a lot of challenges that go along with that, both just in terms of the site itself. It’s downtown. It is squished between different other neighbors. But also from a practicality standpoint of how do you preserve conveyor bridges that are eight stories, nine stories up if you have to take down part of the wall underneath it, and how do you do that meeting these secretary of the interior standards that I mentioned earlier. There’s a number of parts and pieces that go into it.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so cool. First of all, I did not know that about the stairs. It’s called a stair tower. Is that what it’s called?

Valerie Heider:

I’m sure if you’ve looked at the building either from on the site or from the river, you see that stair tower right next to the ruins. They’re beautiful in a deteriorating, decrepit way. But yeah, the stair tower there.

Greg Kaster:

It must be, the Triangle fire in New York, after that I guess. That’s incredible. I did not know that. I’m going to take a walk after we’re done here, go look at it, seriously. That sounds fantastic.

The other thing about it that must be … It’s challenging obviously to figure that all out, but that must be part of the appeal of your work too. You’re not bored. [inaudible 00:58:42]

Valerie Heider:

Right, absolutely. It’s a constant puzzle, which is really enjoyable.

Greg Kaster:

That’s exactly the word I was jutting down, puzzle. Very, very cool, very interesting, and well worth it.

I also love your point about … That’s right: the paradox of preserving a ruin. And then also your point about how it’s a ruin in process. I was just thinking listening to you here we think of preservation, a preserve in amber. No, that’s not the case. I suppose even a building that is a new building, there’s a life to it. Stuff is happening. Preservation doesn’t mean just freezing the thing in time.

Valerie Heider:

Right. There’s a new book out by an author named Whitney Martinko that was about the history of preservation in the US. I read an interview with her talking about her book, and she was really talking about preservation as managing change, which I thought was a really interesting way to put what preservation is essentially. In any way, shape, or form, it’s trying to manage both the building changing but also a bigger picture. Preservation in the US is largely related to keeping what is there versus development. It’s this continued managing change of keeping something for the public good or getting rid of it for private interest and economic gain. It’s this duality that goes with it that I think is interesting. But yeah, managing change is just a phrase that has stuck with me.

Greg Kaster:

It’s going to stick with me too. It’s fantastic, and it appeals to the historian in us right. History’s about continuity and change. That’s great. That’s a great phrase. I’ll take a walk and buy the book too. I look forward to it. Wow. I could keep going. I’m excited. You’ve got me revved up here.

In the time remaining, what about Gustavus? [inaudible 01:00:49] thinking about your work. I don’t know how much anybody thinks consciously about their undergraduate education and their impact on what they’re doing years later, whether it’s a few years later, many years later. That’s one question. Do you? Do you think about that? If so, what is the impact? What are the connections? But also then just your pitch for Gustavus as a place if you’re speaking to a prospective student, if you’re speaking to a young Val [inaudible 01:01:19]. Take it away.

Valerie Heider:

I think that the experience that I had at Gustavus and majoring in history continues to help me in ways that I honestly don’t really consciously even think about but that are really invaluable to the work that I do.

I feel like majoring in history has taught me to think critically about where the information I’m getting is coming from. In my professional life, that’s useful when I’m planning projects and looking at past information about what has happened at a certain building in the past. Is this a reliable narrator or is this just a word-of-mouth piece of information, and how much value should I put on that? Which is something that, as a history major, I’ve learned that looking at primary sources and secondary sources and analyzing those.

But I also think that the writing that I did as a history major as well and having to distill information I’m getting from sources into something that is concise and cohesive helps me every day in my work. Whether it’s I’m writing an email to the design team that I’m working with or I’m writing a memo to the State Historic Preservation Office, it’s really useful for me to be able to distill the information that I have into a way that is easy for people to understand. They get the information they need, and they’re able to take action from it.

I think that majoring in history helps me every day in the work that I do.

I think, as a pitch for Gustavus, I think that the experiences that I’ve been able to have or that I had at Gustavus were so varied, and I don’t think that that is something that you can get at a lot of other places, at large universities. Where else are you going to go that you get to take a Swedish class? You can take that. You can also then take a studio art class. You can take a history class. You can take a physics class. There’s computer science. There’s everything. Just because it’s small doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the resources to make it a really robust experience in four years. I think that it’s a place, like I had mentioned earlier and we’ve talked about, there’s a comfort to it and a manageability to it, but there’s also experiences that come along that challenge that comfort and can allow you to get out of that comfort zone.

Greg Kaster:

I have to say again, I’m not just saying this because you’re a former student [inaudible 01:04:04], but, honestly, your growth over time and how you’ve changed just in all kinds of ways is just phenomenal. You’re a great ambassador for the place.

I think that point about variety is a good one.

I always wonder if someone will say writing, and sure enough you did. By the way, I’ll be quoting you and be playing that as part of this podcast for [crosstalk 01:04:33]. You probably remember me harping on the importance of writing and nitpicking, but it matters. It matters in the world of work, no matter what you do. Someone might think, “Well, why do you have to write?” You probably do a fair amount of writing, more than people may realize.

This has been just an absolute pleasure. I can’t tell you. I’m so proud of you. You’re doing great work. Be careful on the sites, not just because of COVID. It sounds like they’re active construction sites. I assume you wear a hard hat or something.

Valerie Heider:

Yep. We’ve got all that PPE.

Greg Kaster:

Great to talk to you. Boy, I miss … You and Matt have introduced me to … You know I love going off to breakfast, and you and Matt have introduced me to some great places. I look forward to resuming that as soon as we’re all vaccinated.

Valerie Heider:

Absolutely. Same from our side.

Greg Kaster:

Take good care of yourselves and the four-leggeds in your family. We’ll talk soon.

Valerie Heider:

That sounds great. Thank you so much, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. Bye-bye.

Valerie Heider:

Bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus graduate Will Clark, class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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