Standing Tall

Dr. Philip C. Marshall keeps iconic buildings going strong

Bethany Vaccaro
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Photo by Melissa Stimpson

The next time you visit a historic landmark or walk through one of the historic mansions in Newport and nothing collapses or caves in on you, you can appreciate the work that preservationists like Dr. Philip Marshall, professor of Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University, do. He focuses on keeping the building materials of a historic building intact. His particular specialty is in masonry and decorative finishes, as well as many other kinds of building materials.

As an architectural conservationist, Dr. Marshall has consulted with historic societies across the country on how to keep their buildings standing. He has provided assessments of iconic landmarks like the Paul Revere House in Boston and the famous mansions of Newport.

“It’s like being a house doctor,” he explains. “We take a holistic approach these days.” Not only does he analyze the state of the exterior and interior of the buildings, but he charts its physical development as well. Later additions to a building used to be removed to bring a building back to its “original” state. “We don’t do that anymore!” says Dr. Marshall. “The focus now is on maintaining a record of the evolution of the building.” Looking at details like paint composition or the type of mortar used can reveal a building’s story, as well as the builder’s story, like nothing else.

The neat thing about conservation work is that it can take you all over the globe. “One of the most exciting things I’ve gotten to do is work with the Hopi nation in Arizona,” says Dr. Marshall. Since 1990, he has served as an associate and architectural conservator for the Hopi Foundation Lomasumi’nangwtukwsiwmani, which focuses on preserving Hopi millennia-old structures. Thanks in part to the foundation, traditional Hopi house-building is able to continue today much as it has for thousands of years.

Dr. Marshall is able to share this excitement with his students. “Our program gets us out in the field alot—on specific sites and in communities,” he says. “We conduct a lot of field-based work, which is also helped by our new Community Partnerships Center.” The Center is able to provide RWU students with real-world preservation experience, which also benefits the local and regional non-profit and governmental agencies who receive their support.

As he has been at RWU since 1990, Dr. Marshall has been able to see many of his students flourish in their field. “It was a special moment this spring when I got to hand over the teaching of my favorite class in architectural conservation to one of our own alumni, who now works on amazing sites up and down the coast.”