Next Gen Preservationists show old-house love

Courtesy photoA valentine hangs from the doorknob of the Capt. Caleb Woodbury house, a historic 19th century home in Newburyport’s South End.

NEWBURYPORT – The owners of an 18th century home on Warren Street were expected to wake up this morning to find a handmade Valentine’s Day card hung on their door; across town on Fruit Street, the owners of a painstakingly restored Federal house might also find a valentine, featuring vivid butterflies and red sparkling hearts.

The cards were to be delivered by Newburyport High School students who are interning with the Newburyport Preservation Trust as their community service project this year. The students wanted to show their appreciation for the care, skill and patience that owners of historic houses have devoted to the restoration of the city’s old homes.

Calling themselves The Next Generation Preservationists, the students are eager to point out the connections between the preservation of the city’s historic houses and the growing climate crisis.

When an old house made of wood, high-quality brick masonry and stone is preserved and adapted for contemporary use rather than being torn down and thrown in a landfill, “it protects the environment that our generation will live in in the future,” NHS junior Maximin Clement said in a press release.

Researching the environmental costs of new construction, with its plastic composite materials, vinyl and PVC, gave Clement a new appreciation of the environmental costs of making and hauling new building materials.

Cement, for example, is responsible for a high proportion of global carbon emissions, both because its production uses fossil fuels and because carbon dioxide is emitted during the manufacturing process.

“When the newly built houses of today are torn down, there will be no place to put the environmentally toxic materials they are built with,” Clement said. “New construction should be green, but an old house is already green.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has become more focused on promoting preservation as a successful strategy for urban sustainability that any city can employ since preservation cuts down on use of newly manufactured building materials and can inspire local economic growth.

Clement said he became interested in Newburyport’s built environment in John Webber’s social studies class at Nock Middle School when students researched and documented history as part of the yearlong Port Project, which culminated with the students’ presentation of their work on local history during the Port Project Exposition at City Hall. 

Other students took a different path to preservation.

NHS senior Julia Olson said it was the experience of participating in the theater program at the high school that sparked an appreciation of history and preservation because many of the plays and musicals in which she is performed have been set in different eras.

“Newburyport’s historic areas educate us, and then we get a new perspective on history due to the set pieces and props of a show,” Olson said in the release.

Theater students regularly travel to area antique shops for historic props for the shows, and after some of the most significant props were damaged last year during renovations, Olson realized that even the destruction of small things that contribute to our sense of history constitutes a big loss.

“We must protect Newburyport history,” she said.

For the Next Generation Preservationists, preservation values shape their consumer behavior as well, and they are more likely to buy clothing from thrift stores, purchase used records at Dyno Records, and pick up used books at the Newburyport Public Library’s book sale.

“I volunteered to help the Newburyport Preservation Trust because I spent my first 10 years in Newburyport living in an historic house,” said NHS junior Trace Lustgarten. “Looking around Newburyport, you see historic sites all around you, but many people never take the time to think about the significance of these places. I felt it was a good opportunity to put these sites into the limelight.” 

The students planned to deliver the valentines Thursday night to surprise homeowners the next morning. 

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