Rethos’ Education Program Manager, Natalie Heneghan, had the pleasure of chatting (virtually) with Mae Bowley, Executive Director of Re:Purpose Savannah. Within the overlapping worlds of deconstruction & preservation, Mae is a creative force. Her organization’s fusion of heritage, sustainability, and women-led trades education is, frankly, awesome. As Rethos begins to create more programs that teach about deconstruction and material salvage, we draw inspiration from people like Mae and organizations like Re:Purpose Savannah. Read our interview to learn about their work and recent projects.
Our interview has been condensed and edited from its original version.
Hi Mae! Let’s kick it off. Can you describe the mission and the work of Re:Purpose Savannah?
I think of our mission like a three-leaf clover. One piece is focused on sustainability in the construction and demolition industry, working to convert the industry into more sustainable practices. The second is elevating women in the industry. We have our apprenticeship training program for women in construction and demolition and our whole company is staffed by women. The third piece is preserving the inherent value in histories and materials.
What we do is we get contracts to deconstruct historic buildings in Savannah, Georgia, and surrounding areas. We send our crew of unskilled ladies into these buildings and we teach them how to do this work. We harvest everything, we bring it back here to our lumber yard. We process it and we retail it to the customer. We also research and document every house we take apart. A lot of work goes into that. And every piece of what we sell has the history attached to it. We track the provenance. We make sure you know exactly what house your piece came out of.
Even in your sales receipt, there’s a link to our online archive. It’s amazing what a difference that makes. People come just because they’re attracted to the story and they need a piece of it, or they choose the product they want based on which house it’s attached to. Provenance adds value to this material in addition to the inherent value in terms of carbon sequestration.
We talk a lot about the stacking of meaning. There’s a natural history aspect. Then there’s this craft history – the artisans who cut this down by hand and turned it into beams with a steam mill and notched it with a hand axe and lifted it with ropes and pulleys into place in the building. Then you have the lived history of the building. It just compounds and compounds in a way that you can’t manufacture.
Can you say a bit more about how you embed these values of human history and craft history into the scientific process of deconstruction? It’s not just taking a building apart. It is so much more than that.
Oh, it’s so much more than that and I do think that you’re right, this is one of the things that distinguishes our practice. The research and documentation that we do is very unusual. I want this to be standard practice, especially if we’re dealing with historic buildings. Not every building is a historic building, but we still do the research. Even if the building itself isn’t that old – How did it get there? Why was it built there?
II would like to see policy driving requirements for research and documentation for the removal of historic buildings. In the preservation community, even with all the recommendations, they don’t acknowledge that loss happens. And if we can’t acknowledge it, how can we do better? We have to accept the fact that not every historic building remains standing as much as we would love them to. Research and documentation is preservation. Even if the building is lost, even if the building is traditionally demoed, you should still at least have to do this right.
We also tend towards the maximum diversion end of the spectrum. We don’t landfill anything. We have a lovely local partner here who recycles [construction and demolition] waste. All the stuff that we can’t harvest goes to their processing [plant].
Then I think the third major difference is the focus on women in the industry. Less than 10% of the construction and demolition workforce is female. And the vast majority of those jobs are in the office. So when it comes to field work, it's only one in 100. That's due to many factors. Gender bias is the biggest one. Lack of adequate training is another major one. We discovered that we were going to do this completely by accident. It was just me being visible in our marketing. We noticed a bunch of ladies who didn't have any experience coming out of the woodwork and just asking, can I learn? Can I do this? They’re so enthusiastic and eager to learn. A lot of ladies will say, I never thought I could ever do this. I never thought they never used power tools. They're terribly intimidated.
We realized that there is a real need to create spaces where women feel empowered to do this work. When we were co-ed back in the day, over and over, I would watch these guys - who’d never done any construction themselves - just take tools out of the hands of my women trainees because they weren’t doing it right. I’m thinking, how are they ever going to learn if you come in and take tools out of their hands?
Can I get a story from you? Can you tell me about a particularly special place that you researched and deconstructed?
I want to talk about Mama Lizzie’s house. It is the one that has been closest to my heart. It was a post-war, 1945, maybe 46, very humble house. It had a brick veneer put on in the seventies, you know, very basic house. But what’s amazing about this property is the history of it. We were hired by Mary Simmons, the daughter of Mama Lizzie. Mary grew up in this house.
First, I’ve got to back up a little bit and talk about the context of this house. It’s in this neighborhood called Coffee Bluff, which if you were just visiting Savannah and driving through, you would say it is a nice, wealthy, waterfront community. It has a lot of little mini mansions that are not architecturally fabulous, but whatever. Then there’s a great deal of very old, very humble, cottage style, shotgun structures that are just tucked away in the woods. If you Google “Coffee Bluff history,” you get page after page of real estate ads - that is all you’ll find.
The history of Coffee Bluff is fascinating, most notably because it was settled at the end of Civil War. There was a freed town established there by emancipated, formerly enslaved peoples from the local plantations. This is part of the land that was promised with 40 acres and a mule, right? This is the land that was seized from white enslavers and promised to freed folk. Then of course, eight months later, the order was rescinded, and the property reverted to white ownership. So the folks who were displaced from that formed a community in Coffee Bluff. It was a small fishing village. Access to the water is really important in this community because they made their livelihoods on oysters, crab, crawfish, shrimp - everything you would imagine.
And the history of these folk has just been wildly underrepresented. The only reason I know all of this is because we have put an enormous amount of effort into research. And because there is a local institution called the Crusader Club that is run by the descendants of these freed folk who still live in the neighborhood. The landholdings have dramatically decreased among the Black population in that area as it’s rapidly gentrified, but they’re still there. There is still a community there and they’re proud and they’re awesome.
So, Mary hired us because a giant oak tree had fallen on her mother’s house, and it was in disrepair. Mary spent 12 years trying to consolidate ownership of this property from her siblings, most of whom no longer live in the area. She is holding it down. She still lives in Coffee Bluff in a different house, and she refuses to sell this land. We’ve found records of her great-great-grandfather purchasing the land in 1868. It’s documented, he had 10 acres originally this corner parcel is all she has left that the family still owns, you know? It’s so powerful that they’ve held onto it for seven generations.
Not only has Mary had the battle with her siblings, but she’s also been the subject of an enormous amount of discrimination in the neighborhood because it’s this junky eyesore in this rich neighborhood. And everybody gives her a hard time. She’s been fined by the city interminably. But she couldn’t demolish the building unless she owned it. It took her 12 years, and she finally got it. And then she hires us immediately. You know, she loves her mother and it’s where she grew up. To just crush it and put it in the landfill would really hurt her.
So Mary was very happy to hire us. We took the building down piece by piece and did all this research. A lot of her personal documents that she had are just, oh, beautiful and heartbreaking. We uncovered a lot more than she even had. That was really rewarding for her. It’s engaged her children. She’s got grandkids now, and everybody is so engaged now with the story and the history. It just brought everybody to the table. And now she has this huge amount of support behind her. She’s designing a new home because she wants to build a new building on the property to live in and then to give to her children when she dies. She’s in her seventies. I mean, she’s an old lady, which is just beautiful! And we’re helping to make features for the house out of the pieces from her own, from her mother’s house. Of course!
That is so beautiful. What an honor to be involved in that. Thank you. Thank you for sharing that.
You can’t really capture it all – all that she’s gone through with the city or the neighbors, or all this hate that she’s had to feel in order to just hold onto her ancestral lands. We have way more research you can fit on a webpage or that anyone will read on a webpage. We’re talking about doing a book or a series documentary, and we’re also talking about collaborating with the Crusader Club. Fingers crossed.
Editor’s note: you can read the full history and see photos of Mama Lizzie’s here: https://www.repurposesavannah.org/mamalizzies
I am curious to hear a bit more about working in Savannah, specifically with the strong preservation community there. How are you positioning deconstruction within that world? Have you found good partnerships or tension?
At first, we experienced a lot of resistance from the preservation community. We have the Historic Savannah Foundation [HSF] here. They’re the oldest revolving fund in the country, and they’re largely responsible for starting the preservation movement in Savannah. They are credited with saving over 350 buildings or something like that. It’s wonderful, but HSF were among the people who were not very interested in talking to us at the beginning because they’re in the business of saving buildings, right? Not tearing them down. But there is one project that