ILLUSTRATION BY JULIAN RENTZSCH
Every year nearly 600,000 visitors take in the sights and sounds of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. All those hands and feet take their toll on structures first erected in the 18th century.
For 28 years, it was Tom Taylor’s job to help visitors get as close as possible to history while protecting historic buildings from damage. Taylor is an architectural conservator, and his job is to help communities preserve their sense of place.
As an architectural conservator, Taylor is part historian, part design expert, part advocate. He routinely researches buildings that might be good candidates for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. After studying its design, construction, distinct features, and former residents, he understands a structure’s place in history.
Taylor treats the building the way a doctor treats a patient coming in for a physical. He conducts building-condition assessments and prescribes remedies to take care of the structure. He also lets owners or community groups know about a building’s historical or architectural significance so that they can recognize and protect the structure.
As an advocate for historic preservation, Taylor speaks for the building, “letting [the community] know this is something we need to protect and preserve in the face of development pressures.”
Billed as “the world’s largest living-history museum,” Colonial Williamsburg features more than 40 historic sites and trades, four historic taverns, and two art museums. Taylor worked as the building doctor for the 600 structures on the premises that have been preserved, restored, or reconstructed. “One of the most challenging things about Colonial Williamsburg was coming up with ways to protect the original fabric of the buildings while also making them accessible to the public,” Taylor said.
Now Taylor lives in Savannah, Georgia, where he taught for nine years at Savannah College of Art and Design. He is also a ruling elder emeritus at Grace Church of the Islands. He helps his community appreciate its colonial heritage while ensuring buildings are functional, not simply nostalgic. All this effort, he says, helps new residents understand why the past matters, and it inspires them to care about the future, too.