Preservation Profile: John Auwaerter

  • Partner, NPS Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation
  • Co-Director, SUNY ESF Center for Cultural Landscape Preservation
  • Visiting Instructor, Department of Landscape Architecture, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

"Historic preservation is not a profession or practice by itself—it is an aspect of all design and planning professions that deal with the environment."

John Auwaerter’s contributions to the field of landscape preservation include both academic and public practice. He is the co-director of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) Center for Cultural Landscape Preservation and since 2000 has served in a partner capacity as a Historical Landscape Architect with the National Park Service Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation.
Three men, one with a camera and one with an "ESF" flag, beside a low stone wall.
John Auwaerter (center) with Olmsted Center historical landscape architect and ESF alumnus Tim Layton and ESF student intern Zhangshuai Wang during field inventory at Gettysburg National Military Park, July 2016.

NPS Photo

In his role with SUNY ESF, John teaches a survey of cultural landscape preservation, thematic studios in cultural landscape preservation, and helps organize and teach a semi-annual summer field school with the Olmsted Center that has been held in the past at Shenandoah and Acadia National Parks. He works with graduate students on developing cultural landscape inventories and reports, and advises students on independent research and capstone studio projects.

Recently completed projects include:
A high angle view of a low stone wall along a broad road, with a cluster of tents to the right.
This image, taken shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, was used in the Cultural Landscape Report for Gettysburg National Cemetery. The area to the left of the road is the current site of the national cemetery.

Library of Congress, LC-B815-273

John holds a Master of Landscape Architecture from SUNY ESF, Master of Arts in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University, and a Bachelor of Arts in History and German with a minor in Architectural Studies from Middlebury College. He has won a Preservation Design Award from the California Preservation Foundation, Certificate of Honor for Excellence in the Study of Landscape Architecture from the American Society of Landscape Architects, and John W. Reps Award for Academic Excellent from Cornell University.

His professional interests include urban revitalization, historic preservation in design practice, advocacy and education, and the history of American architecture and landscapes.

In Conversation with John Auwaerter

John Auwaerter shares his early influences in landscape preservation, memorable projects, and thoughts for the future of historic preservation in this recent discussion with the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation:

What inspired your interest in cultural landscapes and their preservation?

John Auwaerter: As far back as I can remember, I was interested in the history of places, beginning with my family’s greenhouse/nursery/florist business on Long Island that was built in the 1920s. There was a 1940 aerial photograph hanging outside the office that I “studied” a lot to see what had changed—and I’m still doing the same thing, but now being paid for it! Our family business also gave me a good grounding in horticulture, design, and landscape maintenance.

Growing up, our part of Long Island was being transformed by suburban sprawl, so I think that was a big part of why I became interested in historic preservation, and planning in general. This was also a time (1970s) when many of the big commercial greenhouse ranges in our town, which were built between the 1890s and 1930s to supply cut flowers for the New York City market, were being demolished—so seeing this whole aspect of our community’s history being lost and replaced with executive mansions and condominiums had a big impact on me.
A man in NPS uniform talks to a small group, standing on patches of snow
An ESF landscape architecture studio at Chancellorsville Battlefield (February 2015).

NPS Photo

What early academic or professional experiences were most formative for you?

JA: I was not really aware that historic preservation was an aspect of design and planning until I took a winter-term course at Middlebury College on documenting and evaluating the Federal-period house of the college’s founder, which had long been vacant. Our class did the initial work on a sort of historic structure report. That led me to a summer architecture discovery program at Columbia University, after which I considered graduate programs in architecture, landscape architecture, and historic preservation. I decided on Cornell’s planning program because I was under the wrong impression that most jobs in landscape architecture involved planning suburban development. My first job after Cornell was working as a building conservator for a preservation architect, Walter Sedovic, AIA.

My awareness of how historic preservation could be applied to cultural landscapes came about during my five years at the New York State Historic Preservation Office between 1992 and 1997. As project review specialist for federal and state historic preservation laws, I saw the importance of addressing entire landscapes (whole places), not just individual buildings and structures. As a National Register program specialist, I learned about the importance of documenting and evaluating landscapes, not just buildings. After five years, though, I decided I wanted to do the research, inventory, and design work, not just review it, so I decided to go back to my earlier plan to earn a landscape architecture degree, and was attracted to SUNY ESF because of the work of George Curry.

What is the most rewarding project you’ve ever been involved with?

JA: Each project has its own rewarding aspect because this work always results in deeper understanding of place. I think seeing the plans we develop get implemented is certainly the most rewarding—such as reestablishing the domestic garden at the Home of FDR in Hyde Park, New York, or rehabilitation of long-neglected Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. It is also very rewarding to see students gain expertise in cultural landscape preservation through our project work.
A heap of fine, dark topsoil stands in the middle of an expanse of dirt, with a backhoe and a tractor.
Restoration of the Roosevelt Home Garden begins.

NPS Photo, Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site

What is the most challenging project you’ve ever been involved with?

JA: The projects that involve big landscapes—2,700 acres at Forts Baker, Barry, and Cronkhite, or the 1,000 acres at the 1st Corps battlefield at Gettysburg National Military Park are good examples. The challenge is trying to find the correct level of detail at which to document the history, inventory landscape features, and provide treatment recommendations with the funding provided. People always want to know more about a place the more you dig into it.

What advice would you give to aspiring landscape preservation professionals?

John Auwaerter and others assessing conditions at Harriet Tubman National Historical Park
John Auwaerter with park partner Mike Long and ESF Professor Don Leopold assessing conditions at the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, New York.

NPS Photo (September 2016)

JA: Historic preservation is not a profession or practice by itself—it is an aspect of all design and planning professions that deal with the environment. The biggest issue I see in historic preservation today is that it is not taught as a fundamental aspect of practice, whether applied to landscapes, buildings, archaeology, or ethnographic resources. All designers and planners should be equipped with the tools necessary to understand and conserve places before they propose new interventions.

We also need to integrate our approaches to managing natural and cultural resources—they are rarely separate in landscapes. We also need to address these things in primary and secondary education. Few schools teach kids to see, understand, and appreciate the cultural heritage of their communities reflected in buildings and landscapes.

What role do you see for historic preservation in society at large?

JA: We don’t need to look further than the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, in which Congress eloquently states the importance of heritage to the country. I’m hopeful that we are re-engaging this, especially as young people rediscover the value of historic urban places, from villages to cities, and place a high value on protecting the environment. A challenge is to make society see that historic preservation is integral to a holistic approach to sustainability that addresses both nature and culture.

Last updated: February 7, 2018