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Guerilla Preservation w/ Dr. Kwesi Daniels
Episode 3812th July 2023 • Tangible Remnants • Nakita Reed // Gābl Media
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This week's episode features a fun conversation with Dr. Kwesi Daniels. We talk about his journey into the profession, various tools of the trade, and having a 'Guerilla bag'.

Building Highlight: Tuskegee University Sage Hall


Bio: Dr. Kwesi Daniels is the Head of the Architecture Department at Tuskegee University. His professional experience ranges across various disciplines, including historic preservation, architecture, sustainability management, and urban geography. He previously served as the Green Homes Coordinator for the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. Within this capacity, he was responsible for "greening" affordable housing throughout the state by implementing renewable energy, energy efficiency, and green finance products, which developers could use to improve the sustainable performance of the properties within their portfolio. One of the best financial products he uncovered while working with the NJ-HMFA was the integration of green financing with historic preservation and affordable housing tax credits. The coupling of sustainable building features with the restoration of historic structures creates an excellent opportunity to address three needs- aging infrastructure in urban areas, the demand for affordable housing, and the pending changes from climate change. His groundbreaking working at the NJ-HMFA provided the foundation upon which he does his current work.

In 2018 he began developing a historic preservation program at Tuskegee University, within the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science. The goal is to train architecture and construction science management students to handle the nuances of historic properties. This preservation work has expanded the resources of Tuskegee into African-American communities in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Tuskegee, Ala. He and his students are currently working to preserve the Armstrong School in Macon County, Al, a Tuskegee rural school model building and precursor to the Rosenwald School program. Some of his civic work includes serving as an advisory board member for the UPenn Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Heritage Sites, board member of the Rosenwald Park Campaign Advisory Council, and the 3rd Congressional District Representative of the Alabama Black Heritage Council. Dr. Daniels earned a BArch and MArch in architecture from Tuskegee University and the University of Illinois at Chicago and an MS in sustainability management from Columbia University. In 2020 he earned a Ph.D. in urban geography from Temple University. His doctoral research focused on the positive and negative social impact universities can have on communities around their campuses, particularly communities of color. 

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Episode 38 - Kwesi Daniels


Welcome the tangible remnants. I'm Nikita Reed. And this is my show, where I explore the interconnectedness of architecture, preservation, sustainability, race, and gender. I'm excited that you're here. So let's get into it.

Welcome back. My only announcement for this week is that I will be giving one of the keynotes at the AIA architects and action virtual conference this Friday. With the talk, I'll be demystifying the historic tax credit process. And so I'll put a link in the show notes. If you want to check it out.

lack graduate of MIT and the [:

Be sure to check out the tangible remnants, Instagram page to see some current and historic photos of the building. And now if you're wondering why. I decided to choose a historic building. In Alabama. It's because this week's episode features a fun conversation with Dr. Kwesi Daniels of Tuskegee university.

Kwesi talks about his journey into the field during the episode. But for context, you should know that he is the head of the architecture department at the university and his professional experience ranges across various disciplines.

ment, and urban geography. In:

I first got virtually introduced to Kwesi during COVID when I was a mentor for five architecture students at Tuskegee. As part of the preservation and practice program through the national trust for historic preservation. This episode is such a fun one, and we get a bit into the weeds about the tools used to do some of the preservation documentation.

His excitement for preservation is contagious. And I'm so excited that he's getting the next generation of architects and designers excited about the field. After the episode, feel free to check out the show notes for additional details

about Kwesi’s background, as well as to get more information about things discussed on the show. And so without further ado, I hope you enjoy this conversation between me and Dr. Kwesi Daniels.

And so I remember [:

So,interesting enough, I first engaged in preservation in about 2001. I was in Philadelphia. Working with Habs. Oh, nice. Okay. And, so Habs actually was my very first official architecture internship. Okay. And we were documenting African American historic sites in North Philadelphia. And as I was told then, this was a very unique summer because we were doing six sites.

ht it was cool, you know, we [:

And so I didn't, my next project around preservation came when I came back to teach at Tuskegee. Around 2000. I had to come back in 2003, but I, the project was around 2006 seven. And it was with a, would've known as the Tuskegee Rosenwald Community Schools. And, you know, we approached, the, the person who approached me at, you know, said, Hey, here's this project, we wanna get this building placed on the National Register.

gee Rural School model dated:

Wow. And so I was like, whoa, this is kind of. This is kind of deep. Right? And it was actually that project that opened up this world for me because we were looking at a community who had a need and we were looking at how we could solve that need. But this very interesting thing is I didn't see how it could tie into architecture because it was like, this is not us designing anything.

You know, we're just, You know, restoring some windows and documenting some, you know, elevations, you know, but it didn't fit within the curriculum of architecture. But I knew it was important. And it was the first time I learned about learning about a building. Right. You know, new construction, you don't learn about a building.

ntroduced, it has a history, [:

But you know, I'm still trying to be an architect. Right. You're like, that was nice, but Okay. Exactly. so it really wasn't until I went to, so I was working on my PhD. Okay. And, and I was, I was looking at the social impact of Drexel University's expansion into North Philadelphia. And I had these grand ideas about how I was gonna save the community and I'm gonna stop all this expansion and growth and, you know, everybody's gonna throw a big party for me cause I saved the world.

frican American communities? [:

Like that's part of this standard conversation that's happening. However, I didn't understand how all these connected and geo or geography was sharing that with me. Interesting. Okay. Now, what I found over the course of my research, you know, it was about three, four years, the development was happening so rapidly that I was like, you know, there's no way of stopping that train.

lking to him and I was like, [:

Got the Preservation Act. You have a section, oh, there's, you know, there's, there's a social impact assessment that you have to do with historic sites. And so there's all of this like infrastructure, right, to protect spaces, right? And I was like, well, I may not be able to save the whole world, but I can save some really strong, culturally significant environments.

And then when I, you know, being back at Tuskegee and, and running the Department of Architecture, I was like, yeah. Know what I mean? We must sit on, we were sitting in a national historic landmark. I mean, we're the, it's the only college campus in the country that's a, that's a national historic landmark. Dang, we have all these historic buildings around me.

ty meeting and I was telling [:

Mm-hmm. And they gave us a standing ovation. I said, I was like, we ain't even done that.

You know, like, okay, cool. But, it hit me. I said, wow, the community has been hungry for this. They've been waiting to hear that we were gonna be reassuming a role. Yeah. And I was like, this is, I guess this is where I'm supposed to be because I was brought here. All the spaces I've ever dealt with as it relates to preservation, have been African American sites.

you know, I was brought to a [:

And, you know, someone was like, listen, I said, go out there. So I was like, yes sir. So, you know, none of these, I, I've not, I had not intentionally moved that in that direction yet. I was there doing the work and seeing how impactful it was. Mm-hmm. And so it was, It was that moment that I knew I was doing something that the community respected, felt there was a need, and it was able to address something that was important to me, which was knowing how architecture could be used to meet the needs of our communities.

rstand historic preservation.[:

There's not that many black architects that understand historic preservation. and so then knowing just the history of Tuskegee and the fact that there would be, potentially more people of color entering the profession of, of preservation was really exciting to me because I think for so long, Preservation has put the spotlight on elevating the stories of those who don't look like us and not focusing on people of color, other, historically disinvested communities.

The focus hasn't been there because the people who have been doing the nominations and deciding what to elevate to historic status. Haven't looked like us and haven't been focused on that side of history.

And so I know the field has changed and there's definitely more focused now, but knowing that there will be more people who will likely make different decisions

As you've been introducing architecture students to historic preservation and the field of it, what are some of the, what's some of the resistance or the pushback or even excitement that you're seeing in the students as they're learning more about preservation as a field?

So, [:

Yeah. We are, you know, we're doing hands-on work with teaching students how to restore windows and repoint brick or, you know, exposing them to traditional trades. Mm-hmm. We're teaching students how to do documentation, where they're going out and. You know, walking in buildings and learning about historic structures, reports, and assessments and, and doing physical documentation, you know, by hand, you know, drawing it up.

ey're. You know, we're using [:

Mm-hmm. We're, we're also exploring design, so we're able to have conversations about what the building looks like currently, and then can say, all right, so after we repair it, after we restore it, after we stabilize it, after we do, all that needs to be done to to get it up and running again. What do you really want to be?

rom architecture. It's, it's [:

Mm-hmm. The documentation, you know, the restoration work. I mean, all that's research you're investigating. You're gaining an understanding of, you know, the resource that you're working with. And once you do all of that and you made decisions on how you stabilize it, now you can talk about how you're gonna, you know, redesign that space for a new use or, or redesign for a former use.

en inside the home that Rosa [:

Wow. I've been inside the church that Dr. King spoke in. I've been inside the church where he was made president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was responsible for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Mm-hmm. I've, I've been inside Brown Chapel, the place where mass meetings were held and when people were crossing the Pettus Bridge.

And what resulted in Bloody Sunday, this was one of the places they ran back to. Wow. I've been inside 16th Street Baptist Church Church designed by Wallace Rayfield, who was a Tuskegee architect. Mm-hmm. And we know it very well because it was also a church that was bombed.

t was known to be fireproof. [:

Like making sure Yes.

I’ve had a chance to be in Rural schools that people, when we say that, you know, there's an old disgusting joke that says if you want to hide anything from black people, put it in a book. I've been able to be in schools where black people totally defied that disgusting joke, right? Because they said, whether you want to give us education or not, we're gonna create it for ourselves and we'll build it for ourselves.

power of the buildings that [:

and so then as you were going into those spaces, and kind of looking at them or just being in them, understanding their historic significance, do you think it would've been different if you didn't know the history of them? Or do you still Oh. Or how does that kind of knowing the history and all that change the perception of the building?

place and the space. Right. [:

Harris house, the Dr. Richard Harris house in, on Jackson Street in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a refuge for people escaping attacks when they came in, into Montgomery. They were part of the Freedom Writers and congressmen, late Congressman John Lewis was among them. Dr. Richard Harris was a pharmacist who had recently, and I call his house the Noah's Ark, because he had recently expanded his house and instead of using wood studs, he had used concrete for the flooring system.

, just a regular house. It's [:

And he did that about a year or two before the Freedom Riders came in. So it's kind of like, you know, Noah, it was Arc where God said, you know, build an arc. Right, right. And for what? Don't worry about it, just do what I said. Right. And, but we couldn't get started with any of the work because his daughter, Dr.

Montgomery, oh. We had to get our, we, we had to get introduced. Got you. She pulled out, she pulled out the pictures. She pulled out the yearbooks. We, we, we, you know, one of my students played the piano and so, you know, we started doing some, some negro spirituals. I mean, listen, we went to church and went back to the, the movement all at the same time.

the first day, I don't think [:

Yeah. And what I love about it is that that's actually, that's what I've also seen every other site, you know, without going into detail of every single one. But these sites, when you go to them, there's a caretaker, there's a mother, there's a father, there's a, there's a champion for the site. Who is vested, who, who bleeds for the site?

what allows you to now be a [:

Right. And it also makes the history more real, like it becomes like a heart thing because you feel it and you understand more of the context and why it's important as opposed to just reading about it in a book where you're like, okay, yeah, the freedom writers went there. But then being in that space and being like, oh, they came here in this space.

Yes. Like it. If it's not, it's not four walls in a, in a ceiling right now it's alive. Mm-hmm. Yeah. And I think that's one of the things I also am excited about preservation and I'm excited that your students are getting that experience as well. Cause I know you're saying, oh, there was no, no work done that first day, but like, That's the, the heart work, like the, the emotional connection, which makes you love a place even more.

trips, how do the students, [:

So then how are they engaging with the people that they're meeting at the sites? Are they inquisitive or are they just kind of like waiting to receive and not really wanting to ask the wrong question, if that makes sense. So it really all depends. Okay. So I think what, what happens is, Anything, you know, just like meeting, meeting a person for the first time, you're kind of standoffish.

re engaging in architecture. [:

This building is not something on a sheet of paper, but a couple of lines usually with this fake expression about how this is gonna be impactful. You're talking to people who are telling you how your architecture can be impactful. Right. And more specifically, we're talking about, for a number of spaces, these are spaces that were designed by Tuskegee Architects.

Which is also wild. Some of them were built by students. So Cool. So you're not just talking about the impact of architecture, you're talking about the impact of an architect who came from your institution who was sitting in your chair a hundred years ago. Right. And you're learning about the impact that they had, an impact that they died, never even knowing that they had

ranscends anything you could [:

We helped her secure a $30,000 grant. Mm-hmm. This 80 plus year old woman jumped up. I literally jumped and started doing a happy dance. Aww. I said, man, you look like you got more energy and, and younger than me right now.

ntribution that you have yet [:

Right. Right. Oh, that's fantastic. and so then I know that you and Tuskegee have formed a partnership with U Penn in doing a collaboration. And, so being a UPenn grad, I legit was like, wait, what? Let me find out. Penn is doing some cool things with Tuskegee. so I would love to learn more about how that partnership came together.

als who, was running a class [:

He, he said, Hey, I have a, I have a contact, Randy Mason over at UPenn that I would love for you to connect with. Mm-hmm. I think he could take this work and, you know, the work that y'all are doing and, and really help elevate y'all and. Help you want, you know, gain deeper, deeper understanding of this field.

Nice. and also help support the growth of your program. Mm-hmm. And so, Randy came down, saw what we were doing and was like, Hey, we would love to jump on board and, and support it. And now for about four years, we've, We've done work around, civil rights sites. Our major joint project is with the Armstrong School, where we're figuring out how to get it stabilized, and get it preserved.

hey've been able to bring an [:

Right. You couldn't have told me that you could do something with some paint. It's like it's paint. It's a layer of paint. Who cares? It's like, no, doesn't even look like it's that big. And you put it under a microscope.

hole nother world for us and [:

They give, they give us an opportunity to peek into, into the, the rabbit's hole and see how deep it goes. Mm-hmm. And then we're able to go back and start figuring out how to jump into that hole ourselves. Right. And so, through this engagement, it's, it's helped us be clearer about what we need at Tuskegee to do preservation for communities in the black belt.

Mm-hmm. Of Alabama. Got you. you know, we need conservationists and, you know, archeologists, anthropologists, it's like, you know, this, this list is growing. but we, the fact that we can say this is, this is a need. I love that. Yeah. Because people, you know, people gotta know what, what you need to bring to the table in order to do the work.

Mm-hmm. [:

but I also, I like that you're able to layer in that information. And learning more about all that. Do you think Tuskegee will at some point in time, wanna do like a conservation lab kinda thing? Oh yeah. No, we're, we're actually developing it now. Oh, great. Oh, yes. We were developing it. you know, we, we, we've been tremendously blessed, not only our engagement with UPenn but also the Park Service National Trust.

ng and we wanna support you. [:

Mm-hmm. And we've taken those gifts. And what's the most beautiful thing about it? And it's just, I think what gets our students excited. Is that we show them how to bring these, bring these tools and these gifts into communities of people who look just like them. Mm-hmm. And I don't know about you. It gets fun.

You know, you, I, we were at Florida at University a couple of weeks ago, and I don't know if you've ever heard of, have you heard of the mounds, the indigenous mounds that are around the country? Yeah. Yeah. Okay. I had never heard of them until maybe two months ago. Yeah. And the only reason I heard of them is cause I have a colleague who's done a lot of work with indigenous, populations,

saw a sign on the road that, [:

So if you see it, please excuse my, understood pronunciation. Thing so, so amazing about it is it's like gorilla preservation. We're like riding along and we have all our laser scanning equipment in the.

ow, right? we're not here to [:

Out some ideas, right? Ideas, but man, it's something else. You, you see something and you quickly pull out some scanning equipment and try to get it done. You pull out a drone and people, what's that doing? You're so, that's amazing. I, I love.

Oh, and it's funny cause my coworkers gimme a hard time cause I have, it's basically survey my car


I'm glad I'm not the only one. Cause you know, you gotta have your bag and it has to be ready to go. You can't be trying to pack it later, you know? Nope. You know, while you're running. No, you gotta have it all in there.

Oh man. We were on campus. I had my bag, my gorilla bag, right. And, we're, we're walking in, one of our buildings, Sage Hall. It was a building designed by Perley. Okay. and, and Robert R. Taylor. And it was one of Taylor's last buildings.

And so

we're walking around. He opens up the, the, the, the hatch to go up the ceiling and, uh,

I have my headlamps.

s just what you do. Exactly. [:

You can't do it exactly

but I feel you.

You know, was that Doherty Explorer? Yes. Backpack. Like, I can reach in this thing and I can pull out everything you need.

I, I'm gonna tell you the thing, speaking of tools, the thing that I love so much about this space is when you show up on site, you know how you would see the, the, you know, the, old films with the doctor who would make house, house visits? Yeah. Yeah. And they have their bag. Mm-hmm. And they look like they were coming there to do something really official, superficial.

I mean, you think about as a, a, you know, traditional architect, there is no official thing that you look like you're about to engage in. And when you walk on the site, that's fair. You're just gonna walk, Hey, I got a camera. I look around, you know, you can't tell I'm about to do some business or whatever.

out and you won't even know [:

And then you get busy, right. And he's like, oh, you might only be out there for, for a couple of minutes. But man, it's a production. It's a whole show. It says we are about to dissect this thing. Mm-hmm. And learn something. Mm-hmm. Oh, I love it. I love it so much. Well, amazing.

So, of all of the things that you are doing at Tuskegee with the students in the, in the, program, what is currently exciting you the most?

Oh man.

known is that I, I actually, [:

To, you know, as they say in architecture, the most sustainable building is an existing one. Mm-hmm. And, and so I see preservation through the eyes of a sustainability practitioner. Absolutely. It's the sustainability of the community. Mm-hmm. It's the sustainability of resources, the sustainability of culture.

was sustainability. Mm-hmm. [:

Okay. Okay. So our students, in our first year were, were approached by someone in the community, named, judge Biggers. She's,Local judge in juvenile court and she has a group policy council for children's Policy Council for Macon County. And they had gotten a grant to do a book mobile for children.

And so I'm so excited cause [:

And our students last year did the design. Our students this year actually built the design. Oh cool. And so we were able to convert an old bus and repurpose old shipping pallets in order to create this environment for our students. Oh. And what I love about it is we get to, on my end, I can have a conversation about preservation that can span design, traditional architecture design, and can span into a very traditional hard line related to preservation.

hitecture hat and a historic [:

Can turn around and have a whole nother conversation with me about how we can repurpose shipping pallets or shipping containers and some very contemporary stuff. And when they ask me why and know, you wonder how this all connects? Mm-hmm. I can say it's all about being sustainable. Yeah. Oh, I love it. And that is what is so needed.

Cause that is, that's the thing. They're two sides the same.

Exactly. I'm so excited. I'm so excited you were doing the work that you're doing. Thank you for doing it, and I love it. It was amazing.

e doing that, the work that, [:

It's like being a kid and, going to the playground and playing in the sandbox. I love it. You know, you're, you're having fun every day.

Yeah. Yeah. And I'm, I'm just, I, I'm just very blessed, and feel honored to be able to do this work and be able to do it for my people. I feel that I, I mean, get to walk in the, walk in the door and know whatever challenges you have. I got some stuff in my gorilla bag for you. And, when I leave here, You gonna be happy?

I can. I love it. Hell, [: