Indiana Landmarks President, Marsh Davis

If you are reading this, you are surely aware of the indefatigable and stellar work of Indiana Landmarks. Formerly known as Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, Indiana’s statewide preservation organization, is in the midst of celebrating its 50th anniversary, as work on the old Central Avenue United Methodist Church—now Indiana Landmarks Center—races towards a spring 2011 grand opening. We all wait in breathless anticipation for the final reveal of what will surely come to be known as the crown jewel of Indianapolis.

Marsh Davis, President of Indiana Landmarks, was an early proponent of the idea, which he is quick to point out, would have been nearly impossible without the gracious gifts of the Cook Family. This is typical of Davis, always fast to praise everyone but himself—a notable trait in the most respected leaders. This Saturday, September 25, 2010, Davis will lead the annual meeting of his organization at the Woodstock Club, reflecting on the best work of  Landmarks’ first 50 years and perhaps, planting seeds for the next 50. Learn more about Indiana Landmarks and how you can make a difference to preservation in Indiana on their website or by calling their headquarters: 317-639-4534.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing Marsh speak is surely impressed with his quick wit, thorough knowledge of subject matter and genuine affection for colleagues and community members. He is so approachable and affable, it’s hard to believe he is at the helm of the second largest preservation organization in the country—second only to The National Trust. How would you attain a position like his someday? The following interview may offer inspiration or insight…

HISTORIC INDIANAPOLIS: What made you go into preservation? What inspired you?

MARSH DAVIS: It wasn’t an epiphany—there was no ‘AHA’ moment. As a senior at Butler, the courses featuring art history with a focus on architecture piqued my curiosity. I discovered, rather late in my college career, that I could get a degree in historic preservation and it appealed to me very much. After my senior year, I looked around for programs in historic preservation and selected Ball State. In retrospect it was a very gratifying direction. I feel very lucky I found it. When I studied history, there were few viable career paths in art history—there weren’t courses in material culture. Later, I came to appreciate the art of vernacular architecture. That has made me appreciate everywhere I go so much more—especially rural communities.
Another thing that inspired me was taking a seminar on southern history & architecture—and a book by Clarence John Laughlin that really intrigued me about photography and architecture. There is something romantic about those crumbling old buildings.

HI: How did you arrive at your current position?

MD: I started at the bottom—and stayed there a long time. I worked on surveys of historic sites and structures, which was a wonderful experience. I was a graduate assistant at Landmarks at first, doing multiple projects. I got an internship at Landmarks for a summer, and then worked for a company in Bloomington that had a contract with the state of Michigan. So I traveled Michigan doing national register nominations and did about 30 of them in 9 months—the research and writing part. I came back to Landmarks and did more survey work for a couple years and then became “Rural Project Coordinator,” doing national register nominations, landscape studies, and farming communities; then “Director of Community Services,” serving in a variety of roles for 15 years or so. Then I had the opportunity to go to Texas as Executive Director of Galveston Historical Foundation.

So how did you end up back at Landmarks?

MD: Reid retired, and Landmarks did a national search, so I put my hat in the ring alongside all the others and was very lucky to be selected for the position.

HI: What does your job entail? What’s a ‘Day in the life’ like?

MD: First of all, I like that I work for a great organization and with terrific colleagues. I may think I am going in to do one thing in my day and then seven or eight other things can crop up. It’s not a predictable job, nor is it a 9-5 job, by any stretch, but it’s a very gratifying profession. When you study history, you can take a variety of different paths. I had no idea where it would lead me, but all along the way it has been a very gratifying experience because of the people I’ve been able to interact with. The buildings are great, but it’s really the human element and dealing with people. When you can sense changes in a community because of the work you are doing, it is very gratifying.

HI: What is the best advice you have for someone interested in a career like yours?

MD: Surround yourself with talented people and let them do their job.

HI: Speaking of which, is there anyone in particular you like working with?

MD: I respect Dr. Jim Glass greatly as a colleague, and my staff, who I learn from; I am inspired by their energy and ideas.

HI: Any suggested reading for someone new to preservation or any favorites in general?

MD: Henry Glassie in particular and other scholars in folk architecture and material culture (which had not intersected with historic preservation to the extent it has since I graduated). These people awakened me to the fact that that is what we are dealing with.

HI: What is “vernacular architecture”?

MD: Basically architecture of everyday people, which lacks self-conscious design and comprises most of the historic stuff in the country. You may find architectural styles implemented, but in many cases, those are just applied to vernacular house forms, perpetuated by local customs and materials.

HI: What are some places in Indiana that inspire you?

MD: The Stutz Building—not only is it a great piece of architecture, but functional as well. I love the way it’s alive now. It’s more than just a place; West Baden, of course; Rome, Indiana in Perry County; The former home of Dotti Reindollar– her porch looked over the Ohio River. *

*You may see photos of the home in the book “99 Historic Homes of Indiana,” for which Marsh Davis took all the photographs.

HI: Places outside Indiana that inspire you?

MD: Machu Pichu: it’s like the world, upended; San Miguel de Allende is very rich in colonial vernacular architecture; I also love New Orleans.

HI: What inspires you in general?

MD: Finding solutions to problems and bringing people together in the preservation arena. Being part of the solution. And the wonderful people–people of all stripes are involved—and the victories of saving something. To see the commitment people have for their neighborhoods and passion for certain properties.

HI: Any favorite projects in which you had a role?

MD: Lyle Station School—the last African-American farm community in Indiana. It was at the point of vanishing and we worked for 2 years to save it. It has become a thriving community center, with computer labs and classrooms. Not only has it survived, but it is energized and now has an even greater identity. And Rush County covered bridges—bridges are now sacred resources. Seeing the Moscow Bridge restored.

HI: Most impressive restoration you’ve seen?

MD: West Baden Springs Hotel went from a near disaster to one of the most glorious places in America. And on a much smaller scale, the work now underway at new Indiana Landmarks Center.

HI: Speaking of West Baden, How did you come to know the Cooks?

MD: Early restoration projects. The first project in which I came to know the Cooks was Cedar Farm on the Ohio River —the site and landscaping are incredible.

HI: In your opinion, what are some of the greatest architectural losses in Indianapolis?

MD: The TeePee Restaurant, which Landmarks tried to save; St. Bridget’s Church on Martin Luther King Boulevard shouldn’t have been lost. It was torn down for apartments; The Hume-Mansur and Board of Trade buildings—two classics lost.

HI: Current downtown favorites?

Christ Church, Columbia Club, Memorials on Monument Circle, Chamber of Commerce Building—the low scale/ early sky scraper (where Landmarks spent time during the restoration of the Williamson Center after the fire last year) it’s almost a little community unto itself with the shops; you know the security guards and cleaning people.

HI: Best view in Indianapolis:

MD: From Riley’s Tomb in Crown Hill

HI: How would you get people outside of preservation interested?

MD: Go to West Baden and if your jaw doesn’t drop a bit you are impervious. I think that’s a good test.

HI: What can people do if they don’t live near a West Baden?

MD: See if there is an organization you can join. Learn more about historic places in your own community. You can’t always recreate the wow of a West Baden Springs, but (visiting such a place) can effect an awakening in your own community. Awaken people to heritage in their own community—most every little town has some—and to value it and keep it from being lost. And if there is none, ask why.

Side note: I came to know Mr. Davis through other friends in the field, seeking to channel my enthusiasm for preservation by making some volunteer contribution to Landmarks. Davis graciously agreed to meet with me and finding that I was most passionate about Victorian and Industrial era Indianapolis, suggested exploring the possibility of creating a local chapter of the Victorian Society in America. With his assistance and that of other great historians and preservationists (to be featured in future interviews) we accomplished just that. I recall thanking him for his patience and time fielding queries for a low-level volunteer such as me. His response: “Low-level volunteer? There is no such thing.” No wonder people think so highly of him.

One response to “People in Preservation: Marsh Davis, Indiana Landmarks President”

  1. flo stanton says:

    Listening to Marsh on Indiana History Live! on WICR this morning–thanks for the interview, Tiffany!

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