Faculty Spotlight: Trudi Sandmeier
Faculty Spotlight: Trudi Sandmeier
Trudi Sandmeier is the Director of Graduate Programs in Heritage Conservation and an Associate Professor of Practice in Architecture. She holds a B.A. in History from the University of California, Los Angeles and an M.A. in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University. From 2000 to 2011, she worked for the Los Angeles Conservancy, the largest local historic preservation non-profit in the U.S., holding the titles of Preservation Advocate, Broadway Initiative Coordinator, and Director of Education.
She co-founded and currently serves as president of the non-profit Will Rogers Ranch Foundation, an organization dedicated to honoring the legacy of Will Rogers through interpretive activities and fundraising to assist in the ongoing restoration, rehabilitation, and preservation of Will Rogers State Historic Park. In addition, she serves as secretary of the Docomomo Southern California chapter, as a member of the SurveyLA Review Committee (Planning, City of Los Angeles), as a member of the re:code LA – Zoning Advisory Committee - Historic Preservation Working Group (Planning, City of Los Angeles), and as part of the Education Committee of the California Preservation Foundation. She is also an advisor to the John Lautner Foundation.
Her exhibit, Word(s) will be on view in Watt Hall from March 28 – April 7.
How did you get interested in historic preservation and conservation?
Well, I’m a native Angeleno, which is rare. Both of my parents were born here as well, so I’m a second generation native. But my grandparents had some interesting origin stories and fortunately they were around into my adult life and played a big role in my life. One set of grandparents came from Kansas during the Dust Bowl and found work here, where my grandfather worked for an aircraft manufacturing company. It was very much a Grapes of Wrath story.
My other grandparents were Swiss, and my grandfather came here in 1923 and was a valet/butler for some of the prominent families here in LA. Eventually he married my grandmother in 1929 and they ended up finding work with Will Rogers, one of the first great international, multimedia superstars. So they worked for the Rogers family and lived at his ranch in Pacific Palisades until they built their own house in 1933 which is where I live in now.
So I live in the house my grandparents built which is another rare thing in Los Angeles and I grew up having these strong historical roots to these people and stories that my grandparents told. So some of my earliest memories with my dad’s parents was going up to Will Rogers State Historic Park and going to the ranch and my grandparents talking about what it was like to live there and what the Rogers family was like and what they did for them. So it was a very tangible link to history. Also, my mother was a history teacher and it’s a little bit in my genetics to connect to this profession.
I studied History as an undergrad at UCLA and did a series of different jobs for a while, bouncing here and there. And then ended up going to graduate school at Cornell and got a degree in historic preservation and planning and then circled back here to Los Angeles. I was fortunate enough to get a job at the LA Conservancy, which was where I worked for eleven years before coming to USC full-time.
When did you first start teaching?
So I’ve been teaching in various capacities since the early 2000s, probably 2003 is when I actually started and that was in the summer here in the Summer Heritage Program where I was teaching a day of that course. I was working at the Los Angeles Conservancy. That led to me teaching architecture 550, which is Heritage Conservation Policy and Planning, which had a different name at the time. That was in line with what I was doing at the LA Conservancy at the time, which was working on adaptive reuse and Downtown LA revitalization projects.
So the class talks about the preservation planning tools available to students or people working in conservation. Everything from preservation tax programs to conservation easements to adaptive reuse and other things. So I was able to bring that real world experience to the class.
Then I taught another class and eventually when they created a full-time position in the program I applied for it and was successful at becoming the director of the program. So I’ve been full-time since 2011.
What is your exhibit about?
It’s a challenge for both of my students and myself because we are not in the graphic visual discipline in the same way my colleagues in the School are. So this kind of thing is challenging for that reason. So my students and I have taken the approach that we are going to connect those seeing the exhibit to the works we do, relating it to the different disciplines in the department and beyond through the projects the students are showcasing.
The exhibit will actually graphically represent what we do best which is words. So I’m making a big word cloud to put on the wall that will have tons of connections to all the different things that we do. How our discipline connects, essentially, to everybody else in the School.
It’s an opportunity for a little internal propaganda because there are many who don’t know exactly what we do. So this is a billboard and opportunity for us to share that with the School.
So if we return to the idea of your word cloud, are these some of the issues that will be represented?
It will include all the different words that connect them, and where people see themselves connecting with them. Some of the big ones like “architecture”, but also “research”, “writing”, and “design”. But we operate mostly in our field in words as opposed to drawing or other visual techniques. So that’s why this exhibit is a bit of a challenge.
What sorts of work do you do in your field?
Our field is incredibly multi-disciplinary and I mean that in the truest sense. It’s everything from materials conservation, doing chemical and paint analysis to determine correct restoration techniques and technologies. That’s one side of the spectrum and the other is political advocacy. There’s a governmental side because there’s a lot of urban planning work.
What are the biggest challenges for your field and how do they manifest in LA?
Conservation in LA is unique and challenging in general because of the sheer scope of the place. When we’re discussing doing a survey, the recent survey that the city of LA did was the first time because it is 880,000 parcels and trying to wrap your brain around that to look at all of those parcels is remarkable. So that is one huge challenge.
I think people mistakenly believe that there isn’t a lot of respect for history in Los Angeles and that’s not true but it is a long-standing myth. So it’s something we struggle with. It is a culture here that always seeks the new. We spend a lot of time trying to help people understand that old and new can play together quite nicely. Conservation is about sustainability, progress, using the past to look to the future, and a lot of other aspects that people don’t really think about but once you show them, it’s exciting and offers an amazing opportunity.
Do you have a specific example related to DTLA?
Downtown has really transformed, especially in the last ten years but since 1999 when the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance passed. That had such a catalytic effect, and for historic resources, in a good way. Some of the theatres have been restored, as well as a lot of old bank buildings, which have been turned into adaptive reuse housing. And when that was really firing up, I was working at the Conservancy. It is exciting to see how far it has come.
For example, there is St. Vibiana Cathedral which was supposed to be torn down because it was deemed beyond repair and in the way of this new landmark cathedral building and you see today that Vibiana is thriving and in active use. The catholic church has built their new landmark in a different place and it will become landmark in its own right without erasing the past. There’s always a solution if you think about it a little bit. This is a win-win because the city has one of its oldest, significant buildings as the home of the largest archdiocese in the US with its original and new cathedral building. It’s a great example of how this can work.
Outside of teaching and running the program, are you still working in the field?
I started a nonprofit in 2006, I co-founded it with Jennifer Rogers, the great granddaughter of Will Rogers called the "Will Rogers Ranch Foundation”. It is for protecting and conserving the park. At the time when we did it, the park had been listed on the closure list for California State Parks a few times. So she and I decided that we would put this foundation together to help this place we care so deeply about. I am currently the president of that organization.
I am one of the co-founders of the Docomomo Southern California chapter, which is an international organization dedicated to the documentation and modernization of the modern movement. We have national and statewide chapters. There is also a Northern California chapter, but there hadn’t been one for Southern California so that was something we did a few years ago.
That is another really interesting and challenging aspect of preservation, which is modernism. That’s one of the exciting things about working here in Southern California, there is the modern legacy that we are beginning to grapple with in a big way beyond '50s and '60s. We’re now thinking ahead to the '70s and '80s and what are the landmarks that we want to be able to thinking about now, especially because people build structures now that are only supposed to last 25 or 30 years. So when you’re discussing conservation, the window of opportunity is shorter when something only lasts for 25 years.
What aspect of your work is the most engaging for you?
I love what I do, and what I find teaching full time is that I’m constantly energized by exploring this world through the eyes of my students. When I teach and work with students on their thesis and doing original research that expands the field, I get excited about why I think this is important work and why this work excites me.
I’m an advocate at heart. That’s my background and I’ve always worked in public service and the nonprofit world. And that is what drives me. And now I’m an advocate for my students.
Are there role models or inspirations that have guided you through your work?
There’s a lot of exciting work in our field internationally. So there’s lots of people to be inspired by. Early on, I was really inspired by my family, my grandparents and parents who had these really interesting stories. The idea of the personal relationship to history all of us have is a constant source of inspiration. Watching the lightbulbs go off in people and help them connect to the broader scope of history through the built environment is inspiring.
Professionally, I had a great set of classmates at Cornell whom I worked with as colleagues and continued to work with now many years out of graduate school. They are doing really interesting things all over the country. My network of peers is really helpful and exciting.
What do you hope students get out of the preservation discussion?
Well, they all have to look at precedents. They have all visited a historic site and connected to them in some way, whether a museum or the Gamble House. We start people off on that foot early on. So it’s more about connecting them to that. It’s not a question of either contemporary or historic, but rather it can be both. So helping people see that possibility and how that requires even more creativity to adapt or work with an existing context to understand how they can amplify one another.
There are a lot of great examples where the old and new have worked together successfully. It’s only in those cases when people have not been thinking creatively or they are blinded by some overriding desire that a solution is not possible. There’s almost always a way to integrate a historic building into a place, a landscape, or a neighborhood. There’s no reason in most cases to tear something down. There’s always an opportunity for everyone to get what they’re looking for. ■