An Interview With Tabitha Almquist of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

By Sunny Jane Morton

The chief of staff at the National Trust for Historic Preservation was destined for the job: Tabitha Almquist was raised by historic home rehabbers and considers herself “a preservationist since birth.”

Old places, like those Almquist works to preserve, serve to connect us with our ancestors in a profound way. Our Genealogy Insider columnist Sunny Jane Morton interviewed Almquist for the October/November 2015 Family Tree Magazine, and we’re sharing the full interview here:

FTM: What’s your earliest memory of swinging a hammer?

TA: When I was 10 years old, my mother was the manager of a small town that had recently acquired a Victorian house to be renovated for its new town hall. My mom wanted the whole community to understand the importance of preserving old and special places, so she devised a contest for residents to suggest paint colors for the soon-to-be town hall. This was my first taste of community engagement for preservation, and, at the time, I had no idea what kind of impact it would have on my life and my career.

FTM: How did your family’s interest in historic preservation affect your childhood?

TA: My parents’ hobby is to renovate old homes and they do all of the work themselves—while living in the houses. So many weekends were spent on a house project, while dinners were sometimes eaten sitting around a makeshift table. We washed a lot of dishes in bathtubs, cooked on outside grills in freezing temperatures and wielded sledgehammers for after-dinner entertainment.

Small sacrifices, though, for being able to live in a house that quite literally was revived on our blood, sweat, tears and lots of laughter.

FTM: Tell us about a project that didn’t quite proceed on plan.

TA: My father was sustainable and green long before it was hip to be. He thought it would be a terrific idea to use some old wood and other materials that had been taken out of our house to build a pen for peacocks he recently purchased. Unfortunately, even as a trained architect, his execution of the pen was far from desirable for the peacocks, who eventually flew away to find a better home. My dad was devastated.

FTM: What’s your favorite (or least favorite) phase of a fix-up project?

TA: I love the concept phase, when everything is on the table and you really have to spend time in a place to determine what you want to do and what the house is calling for you to do. I’m a bit of a traditionalist and try hard to be respectful of the era when a structure was built, but I also like to acknowledge that historic houses should be lived in and enjoyed. Historic preservation isn’t about re-creating rooms with velvet ropes to keep people out. To me it is about mixing today and yesterday and creating an atmosphere of comfort and wonderment.

FTM: What’s something you took away from your recent preservation sabbatical in Rome? (Lucky you!)

TA: It was very humbling to be reminded that the places we try to save everyday here in the US are so very young compared to many of the places in Roma. But, we must remember that at one point in time, the Coliseum was only 200 years old, as was the Ponte Sisto (my favorite bridge in Roma first built in 700s and rebuilt in 1400s) and also Santa Maria in Trastevere (portions of it dating back to the 1100s). All of these places are here today because people loved them, used them and recognized their importance in an ever-changing society.

FTM: Tell us about your house.

TA: It’s my favorite old place: an 1830 vernacular house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. I remember vividly walking through my front door for the first time and knew instantly it was the place for me. I have had a terrific time making it my own refuge.

FTM: Tell us about a place you love that’s connected with your own family history.

TA: I am a ninth-generation Washingtonian. There’s a place on Capitol Hill called Congressional Cemetery. The National Trust actually included it on our “America’s 11 Most Endangered Places” list in the 1990s. At that time it was in need of major landscape maintenance and many of the headstones were crumbling.

The cemetery is now a popular haven for dogs and their owners, who have brought the place back to life, while being respectful of its inhabitants. When I was serving on the board of the nonprofit that oversees the cemetery, my grandmother informed me that our family has more than 70 relatives buried at Congressional. I take my dog there now and am often overwhelmed at my many connections to this unique place.

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The October/November 2015 Family Tree Magazine is available in print or as a digital download from Family Tree Shop.

In addition to help preserving historic places, it has expert advice on using your DNA matches, organizing your genealogy with Evernote, finding old marriage records, researching Welsh ancestry and more.