Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse

August 16, 2016

An Interview with Architectural Historian Connie Gray

Connie W Gray headshotThis summer, CPAR sat down with Connie Gray, Senior Architectural Historian of Confluence Environmental Company and one of the consultants on the Campus Survey Project being conducted at the University of Washington, to discuss her path in Preservation, Seattle’s changing urban fabric, and the campus-wide project.

August 9, 2016

You’ve been working in cultural resource management for fifteen years plus, what drew you into the field?

I’m from the Midwest, grew up in the Chicago area, actually Park Ridge where Hillary Clinton is from (she grew up a block from me, but you know, a little older), in one of those kind of historic “string of pearls” suburbs outside of Chicago that was formed around the railroad. And so there was some natural interest in walkable neighborhoods. That’s just how I grew up and loved it. Then, I went to Indiana University and majored in Spanish and American History. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with that. I actually thought I would do more with my Spanish than my History. It didn’t quite work out that way.

After college, I was working in Chicago and I had one job as an AmeriCorps member, and I was hired by this organization, Public Allies, which provides extra funding to AmeriCorps members and then puts you with a partner organization. While I was working at Public Allies, Michelle Obama was the executive director, so I got to work with her a long time ago. Anyway, I was partnered at this organization called Sculpture Chicago. They were bringing artists to work in historic parks around the city: Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, and a couple others. As part of this project, I worked closely with the woman who was the parks historian in Chicago, I had no idea that was a thing. She was basically doing Culture Resource and Management/Historic Preservation for the parks, the landscapes, the buildings, all the parks. But I was fascinated that was a field. I just didn’t really realize it. So, I started to research schools and ended up choosing the University of Washington because of their historic preservation program. That’s how I got into it.

While I was in graduate school, my advisor would Gail Dubrow – who’s now at the University of Minnesota – I had some research assistantships with her, writing national register nominations. I wrote the national historic landmark nomination for the Panama Hotel. I ended up doing my thesis on sites on Bainbridge Island associated with internment and pre-WWII Japanese-American life on the island. So, I was interested, early in my career, still at school, in working to daylight some of the history that isn’t always readily apparent, at the time Japanese-Americans in the Seattle area especially associated with internment. I’ve just been really interested in that kind of research, areas you don’t really know just looking at them you don’t know they’re important such as industrial sites and historic landscapes you learn the story behind with more research and write about it. And from there I started working at Historical Research Associates (HRA), which is a cultural resources management firm here in Seattle, for a few years, and then started working for the Washington Department of Transportation for several years (during this time I also had two children and kind of working part-time trying to manage it all), and then was self-employed for about five years.

So you kept busy.

Then, last year I joined Confluence Environmental Company. They do a lot of natural resources work, so mostly biologists who work here. They’ve been interested in expanding into cultural resources management, so I I joined them in 2015 and started a new line of business here which is pretty exciting. Mostly it’s just really great people to work with, and cool projects. It’s worked out and been a good run so far. I’m looking forward to more years of it.

That’s quite a path. Well, you touched a little bit on this, but what do you find the most rewarding about being an architectural historian? You talked about the stories, and I think that really is what draws most of us to it to begin with, finding out all these interesting stories.

Yeah, I do love the stories. I have some friends who’re journalists and they talk about how some of the work I do is actually similar to what they do when they do investigative reporting: going and talking to people, finding out and gaining information from varying sources. Research can be fun: doing interviews and triangulating all that information together, as well as looking at historic maps, trying to tell the most accurate story from all these different sources. Sometimes you never really know. Sometimes you never fully know. It’s all interpretation of different sources that aren’t 100%. But, I love trying to solve that puzzle. I also really like writing. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I’m sure you know. In this field you haveto like writing. That’s the product.  

Sometimes you never really know. Sometimes you never fully know. It’s all interpretation of different sources that aren’t 100%. But, I love trying to solve that puzzle.

Also, I’ve come to really like working with interdisciplinary teams. That’s when I started doing a lot of, while working on the 520 project, for example. Being in a lot of meetings with engineers and project managers and finance people and biologists all trying to, again, solve the puzzle of how to build this (well, any project) particular project that’s in so many sensitive areas in so many different ways culturally, biologically, socially with people who live around it. I like opportunities where I’m coming in with my angle but also seeing what other people are doing and how it all fits together.

Seattle in particular, as you said and we all know, is a challenging environment right now for historic preservation…A lot of our neighborhoods are changing so quickly, it can feel like we are riding the bicycle as we’re building it. I think people are not quite aware what we’re losing.



I know you’ve committed quite a bit of time to documenting buildings here. Currently you’re working on the UW campus survey covering some 200 plus buildings. Can you tell me a little bit about that project?

It’s a really fun project. Our client is the City of Seattle. They’re administrating the contract. Our oversight committee consists of UW staff and staff from the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) in Olympia, and the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. There are many different interests, and, thankfully, they’re not particularly competing because we all have the same goal identifying and documenting all the buildings. We are looking at buildings, landscapes, and artworks that were built for buildings, designed for landscapes, and created for the artworks before 1975. So, that’s about two-hundred or so buildings, roughly fifty artworks, and about twenty or twenty-five landscapes. It’s fun. It couldn’t be more fun. We have a team of three different consultants. There’s us (Confluence), Mimi Sheridan, and BOLA (an architecture and preservation firm), where we’re working with Sonya Mulchaney and Susan Boyle there. We’re also working with landscape architect Rachel Gleeson at MVVA. She comes with a deep well of knowledge of the university landscapes already, and she’s studied other universities around the country. So, she has this really great perspective about open spaces on campuses nationwide.

So far, we are making great progress. We’ve surveyed and recorded maybe sixty or seventy of the resources so far. The archives are well organized at UW both online and in person. The challenge is going through everything and getting what you need. It’s been a great experience. A lot of the buildings are beautifully preserved. Some are contextual buildings, a little more utilitarian, the Suzzallo Library for example. A few have been taken down recently, the Nuclear Reactor Building, some other ones.

Did that one get categorized in the survey?

That one had already been listed on the National Register for Historic Places, so the documentation was all right there. When we started the contract in April, it was on our list. But there are other buildings too. there are many buildings on campus that have been really well maintained. But there are also pretty substantial development pressures on campus too. Especially as the campus evolves, the prevailing interest and the economic scale. You’re not going to get another Denny Hall on a campus. New buildings will be bigger, purpose built. That’s not particularly new.


I know the project is divided into two parts: the survey and also the contact statement. How do you envision or hope this information will be used in the future?

I think it’ll be used in a couple different ways. For the university, it’s going to be a great tool. If there’s going to be any substantial alteration in a university building they can look at it reactively. They’ll be able to do a study once the action is identified. This will be a document with all the architectural and historical information and background for all the buildings so they can be a little more proactive in dealing with any alterations or changes or actions. And then, the context, we’re not really breaking any substantial new ground because there is a lot of documentation already. But, it will be nice to have documentation really geared toward the built environment, to show how all of these trends of external happenings such as in the city or the world affect the university’s built environment and influence the built environment. Hopefully we’ll be able to tell that story a little bit more. Typically, these technical documents aren’t widely read, but what we don’t want is for this to just be another thing that sits on the shelf that nobody really looks at unless they need to. I really hope people, that it gets out there a little bit.

Is it going to be available in one of the libraries?
I’m sure it will be. My hope is that it will be available online too.