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Bklyn HS of the Arts students take a hands-on approach

The Brooklyn Paper

The clinking sound of metal on metal carries through the air as two young men labor over their task of cutting locust tree logs with splitting wedges and mallets.

Drops of sweat roll down their brows as they work in the grass - far from shade - on this steamy August afternoon, amid the fluttering of white moths and twittering of birds.

They hoist up their long wooden posts and rails and form them into a fence around the 18th-century fieldstone farmhouse behind them.

Until the traffic begins to roar through the intersection of Arthur Kill and Richmond roads in Staten Island, it seems a scene out of a movie. And while the 16-year-olds might be using historically accurate tools, they’re wearing very 21st-century jeans and sunglasses.

For their summer internship, Elijah Ottley and Travis Thomas put their historic preservation skills learned at the Brooklyn High School of the Arts, on Dean Street in Boerum Hill, to work at Historic Richmond Town in Staten Island five days a week for five weeks of the summer.

On Aug. 14, the last day of their internship, the young men reflected on their time in the pastoral historic village and museum complex operated by the Staten Island Historical Society.

Their biggest challenge was just getting to the internship.

"From Boerum Hill, it can take me an hour and 30 minutes to two hours to get here," Thomas said of his commute from home on trains, ferries and buses.

He said it was worth it.

"These are very motivated students," said Matt Hankins, a member of the historical society’s restoration department. "They have to be to do the commute and there’s no air conditioning here."

"The rest of the interns are in offices," said Thomas. "This is very unique to be outside, splitting logs. We would tell our friends to do this, but they wouldn’t because they’re lazy."

Ottley, of East New York, said he uses "a lot of measurements" to make the posts and rails, which are placed over an existing stone fence to give it added height and make it a more effective barrier to animals.

Travis agreed that they used a lot of geometry and math in general to create the fence around the historic house, once home to Joseph Christopher. During the American Revolution it was used as a meeting place of the Richmond County Committee of Safety.

Eventually, according to Restoration Specialist John Abb, who supervised the interns, the Christopher House’s interior will be completely restored and will be open to the public.

"It just doesn’t look like it’s a part of New York City," said Thomas, who enjoyed bird watching while he worked, but did object to the "nasty bugs."

Abb said he enjoyed overseeing the interns.

"It’s very important," said Abb. "We’re only here for just so long. It’s part of our job to maintain these structures for the future, but it’s also our responsibility to pass on that knowledge, respect and responsibility to take care of our heritage to the next generation. There should be a teaching component with everyone who does this kind of work.

"In this field, we forgot traditional trades and we have to reteach and relearn how to do things in a traditional way," said Abb. "In other cultures, such as Japan, they carry on traditions. They can still build a tea house with bamboo. There’s an emphasis on preserving the old ways as opposed to the American emphasis on what’s new."

Brooklyn High School of the Arts Principal Robert Finley said his was the first high school in the nation to have preservation arts as a major.

"New York City is one of the most landmark-rich cities in the world and it is in desperate need of architects and artisans to restore these buildings," said Finley.

The Christopher House is rare because it has survived. Other stone farmhouses were dismantled over time so the stones could be used in fences, explained Janet Falk, director of institutional advancement at Historic Richmond Town.

Ottley said that in addition to creating the authentic fence and learning blacksmith techniques, he was fascinated by the exhibit titled "Indelible Memories: September 11 Memorial Tattoos," by photographer Vinnie Amesse, on display in the 1848 county clerk’s building.

Although both Thomas and Ottley said they are interested in careers in animation rather than hands-on historic preservation, Kate Burns Ottavino, of the New Jersey Institute of Technology Center for Architecture and Building Science Research, which designed the curriculum for Brooklyn High School of the Arts, said that was OK, too.

"Even if they don’t go into preservation as a career, they will walk away with a sense of appreciation for and a profound knowledge of preservation and a sense of history as a living dynamic of which they’re a part," said Ottavino.

After two years of preparatory courses in historic preservation in ninth- and 10th-grades - with classes focusing on the benchmarks Weeksville and Green-Wood Cemetery - students majoring in Preservation Arts take two years of studio in which they study building materials and technologies used to build historic buildings, the physical means by which they deteriorate and how they are preserved.

Students in the program receive a Career Technical Education diploma that will enable them to enter the preservation industry’s workforce upon graduation or go on to higher education.

Ottavino believes that the interdisciplinary curriculum will make the Preservation Arts students winners on the Regents exams.

"We expect our students to do even better because they apply their academic knowledge. In answering why the Brooklyn Bridge needs to be restored, they apply math, science, English and history," said Ottavino, who conceived of the program in 1993 and has worked "10 years to make it a reality."

Ottavino’s family has operated a stone business in Ozone Park for 90 years, she explained, and she, too, is a stone cutter who now has a degree in architecture and a masters in historic preservation from Columbia University.

She says that "this September will see 15 kids entering Brooklyn High School of the Arts with a major in preservation arts."

"So far there has been a very positive response from the students and the teachers and the site sponsors: architects, masons, conservators - we run the gamut of what makes the industry," said Ottavino. "And when they graduate, they are qualified as an entry-level apprentice in any endeavor, from carpentry or stained glass, that they are pursuing.

"Forty percent have gone directly into the artisan context and the rest to higher education," said Ottavino. "This program is a success and it will spread to other schools."


Brooklyn High School of the Arts is located at 345 Dean St. at Third Avenue in Boerum Hill. For more information about the Historic Preservation Arts and Technology Program, call (718) 855-2412.

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