Penn’s Architectural Conservation Laboratory
takes a rigorous approach to historic preservation.



July|Aug 09 contents
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BY DAVID PERRELLI | A cursory glance at Frank Matero’s Conservation Science class might make you scratch your head and wonder if you’ve mistakenly wandered into the medical school. His lab-coated students, hunched over microscopes, look as though they could be scrutinizing tissue samples or culturing bacteria. But the blocks of stone and bits of crushed brick arranged throughout the room set the record straight: This is the School of Design’s Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, and while its Architectural Conservation Laboratory (ACL) is a highly sophisticated operation, the expertise here has more to do with brick and mortar than flesh and blood.

The medical analogy isn’t lost on Matero, the architecture professor who chairs the Department of Historic Preservation.

“Students in historic preservation need to learn basic techniques in much the same way a doctor would learn about the human body,” he says, scanning the room with a supervisory eye. “This is the all-purpose lab, the very beginning, where they’re learning the necessary skills to diagnose and treat pathology in structures.”

The purpose of today’s lesson is to investigate the properties of limestone as a building material, especially its behavior when exposed to water. The students are examining samples from the ACL’s historic-building-materials library: limestone from Europe, from the American Southwest, from Asian temples … name a kind of limestone and it’s probably represented. But the point isn’t variety for its own sake; it’s to facilitate comparative examination.  

“This is one of the many laboratory exercises we go through,” explains Matero. “The focus here in the conservation lab is on studying materials in a very direct and physical way, comparing them, learning standard testing methods, learning the quantification for how you determine the properties of materials.

“Franklin, the ultimate pragmatist, always saw the value of applying academic knowledge in the field, so it’s especially appropriate,” he adds. “Theory and practice is the mantra here. That’s what conservation is all about.”

The Future of Our Past By David Perrelli
Photograph by Jim Graham

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©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette

Preserving the Moderns

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