Keeping History Above Water: Salem, Preservation in a Changing Climate
An Interview with Susan Baker, The House of the Seven Gables Collections Manager
What is your role here at The House of the Seven Gables?
I’m the Collections Manager, responsible for curatorial and collections-related matters. I’m also heavily involved with preservation planning and activity for our National Historic Landmark District’s buildings and site.
What is Keeping History Above Water?
Keeping History Above Water was founded by the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) in 2016. Newport, like many historic cities along the Atlantic coast, is facing threats from rising sea level and climate change. The NRF is dedicated to preserving early American architecture and has preserved over 80 historic properties in Newport. Keeping History Above Water: Newport was one of the first national conversations to focus on the increasing and varied risks posed by sea-level rise to historic coastal communities and their environments. Importantly, the conference addressed what preservationists, engineers, city planners, legislators, insurers, historic homeowners, and other decision-makers need to know about climate change, in particular rising sea levels, and what can be done to protect historic buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods from the increasing environmental threats. Inspired by the success of this inaugural initiative, NRF has sponsored and participated in Keeping History Above Water conferences, workshops, and programs in Annapolis, Palo Alto, Des Moines, St. Augustine, Nantucket, the Caribbean, and Charleston.
How did you become involved in this project?
I’m The Gable’s representative on Preservation Partners, a partnership of city representatives and preservation organizations from around Salem that meet regularly to discuss issues and share ideas. Due to our vulnerable location on Salem Harbor, rising sea levels and climate change challenges have always been of great concern to The Gables. With the release of the Massachusetts Coast Flood Risk Model inundation maps for Salem, it became clear that The Gables is at ground zero for experiencing tidal flooding. Many others in Preservation Partners share our concern and sense of urgency about the need to plan for adapting the developed environment to withstand regular tidal flooding. This led to our partnership with Keeping History Above Water and the first annual conference this September: Keeping History Above Water: Salem, Preservation in a Changing Climate.
Why is this conference relevant to our work here at The Gables?
The conference will serve as a catalyst to begin developing concrete plans to adapt our buildings and site to handle rising sea levels and other climate change challenges like water table flooding, increase rainfall volume, etc.
How can the public access the conference?
Any and all are welcome to attend. The event is being offered in-person at the Peabody Essex Museum (limited capacity) and is also accessible via Live Stream. Conference information and the registration link are available here.
The two days of the conference are packed with amazing presentations and events. If someone is only able to attend two or three sessions, which would you recommend?
That’s a tough one – we have an amazing schedule of speakers and tours! If I have to choose, Monday evening’s keynote speaker, Erin Minnegan, brings real-life experience to the discussion. She is the Director of Historic Preservation for the Preservation Society of Charleston, S.C., and will be discussing Charleston’s efforts to adapt to rising sea level – a not-to-miss opportunity to hear from a city actively involved in adapting properties to rising tidal flow!
Tuesday morning’s two panel discussions bring together organizations that are in the midst of dealing with climate change realities. Panel 1 will have representatives from the Peabody Essex Museum (steward to 24 historic properties), Strawbery Banke Museum of Portsmouth, NH, (with 10 waterfront acres and 37 historic properties), and the Waterfront Planning Department of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, a group that’s been deeply involved with creating guidelines for building adaptations.
Panel 2 will have speakers from Salem State University and the City of Salem, highlighting environmental equity issues, a project highlighting the effects of coastal flooding that dives down into visualizing the effects of flooding on three historic properties (including The Gables). Jenna Ida, Salem’s Director of Capital Projects & Municipal Operation, will address climate change initiatives being planned for and undertaken by the city. Plus, there’s the companion exhibit at the National Park Service’s Visitor Center that’s not to be missed (I know that was four things!).