Places that Tell Stories
A Profile of Trudi Sandmeir (M.A. HPP '00) from the Spring 2018 Issue of AAP News.
"In many ways, the story of Los Angeles is the story of mid-century architecture," states Trudi Sandmeier (M.A. HPP '00), a graduate of the Department of City and Regional Planning's (CRP) master's program in historic preservation planning (HPP).
"The city boomed in the postwar years and a huge amount of the built environment we know today evolved from the creative energy, innovation, and economic strength of Southern California during that time. You cannot practice conservation in the area without thinking about and understanding this legacy."
Sandmeier's respect for the city of Los Angeles's (L.A.) recent history is not strictly a sensibility acquired from graduate study, her 11 years of professional experience in conservation advocacy, or her relatively new academic career path as professor of practice and director of graduate programs in heritage conservation at the University of Southern California (USC). Rather, Sandmeier's extensive knowledge begins with her personal history and some of the earliest memories she has of family members and the homes they built for themselves.
"All four of my grandparents moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s. My mother's parents were Dust Bowl refugees who found work in the area's growing aviation industry. My father's parents emigrated from Switzerland and worked in household service for prominent families in the area. One of their posts was with Will Rogers on his ranch in Pacific Palisades. After Rogers passed away and the ranch became a California State Park to honor his memory, my grandfather stayed involved as a volunteer and docent for the rest of his life," recounts Sandmeier. "I now live in the house my grandparents built in 1933, when they worked for the Rogers family. These stories connect me to place — and I know that many people share the need to connect to sites and places, sometimes through stories like mine, and sometimes through the lens of history."
Sandmeier also holds a bachelor of arts in history from the University of California–Los Angeles, which, along with her family's strong relationship to their home in Southern California, led her to the HPP graduate program at CRP where she could combine her personal values with professional aspiration. "My early concerns were mainly with integrating historic places with the contemporary city, reactivating them, and making them once again part of the functional urban fabric — so I was in search of a preservation program that I could combine with planning," she explained.
Upon arrival at AAP, Sandmeier recalls the distinct impression that graduate study would not only provide an opportunity to strengthen her principles with rigorous research but also to translate the lessons of the classroom to practices that could be used in the joint fields of historic preservation and urban planning. According to Sandmeier, this was enhanced by the abundance of historic sites in Ithaca and on campus, as well as the supportive and passionate community of peers she found in CRP.
"I think one of the most important takeaways from my time there was the network I developed with my classmates — we were a close group and still are in many ways," reflected Sandmeier. "I feel lucky to have built such strong bonds, and so I now work to foster that same type of community among my own graduate students — although it is admittedly different in a place as large as Los Angeles."
As Sandmeier completed her degree, she considered job opportunities in East Coast cities such as Washington, DC, and Boston. But when she was offered an advocacy position at the Los Angeles Conservancy in 2000, the prospect of returning to Southern California to work at the largest preservation organization in the U.S. was simply too perfect to resist.
"Working in advocacy and the nonprofit side of conservation was important to me. I wanted to be a fighter for historic places and the people and stories that connect to them. I had those ties myself — the reason I gravitated to the field in the first place — and I wanted to connect my interest in public service with my interest in history. Conservation was a way for me to do that."
Sandmeier remained at the Los Angeles Conservancy for 11 years, where she worked in both advocacy and education. Over the course of her tenure, Sandmeier continued to learn more about L.A. and its relatively young history. The fact that so much of the city's building stock is only 50–60 years old makes protection efforts particularly challenging. Sandmeier, however, remains undaunted and instead embraces the range of strategies afforded her by her field, which she considers to be deeply interdisciplinary and resilient.
Beginning in 2004, Sandmeier began teaching classes for the USC Summer Program in Historic Preservation. More recently, she has had the opportunity to carry much of her experience in both education and advocacy with her as a full-time faculty member at USC, where she also directs a graduate program for conservation that makes student engagement with real dilemmas and opportunities in the L.A. area one of its primary goals.
"We want our students to really understand the impact of their work and the roles that they might play in our community," explains Sandmeier. "For example, our recent survey class did work that led directly to a significant African American neighborhood in L.A. being included on the National Register of Historic Places. Our historic site stewardship class meets in the Gamble House, and their class projects help to move some aspect of the site management or interpretation of the house forward. This semester, my students are partnering with the planning department of the City of Long Beach to envision the future of their oldest historic district."
Sandmeier's own role and impact in the community is palpable. Within a few years following her return to the area and working with the conservancy's resources to build a constituency around L.A.'s mid-century legacy, she helped establish a Southern California chapter of Docomomo to strengthen those efforts. She also cofounded the Will Rogers Ranch Foundation with Rogers's great-granddaughter. Sandmeier now serves as president of the foundation and sees protecting the park from the threat of defunding and facilitating appropriate rehabilitation of the site as central to the foundation's mission.
In addition to public advocacy, academic leadership, and teaching roles, Sandmeier is also currently at work on her first academic publication, the forthcoming Routledge Companion on Global Heritage Conservation, which she is coediting with a colleague at USC. While much of her professional path is, on the one hand, cohered by a series of opportunities and projects, her personal values form a foundation for her work that balances stories that are very much tied to place, and a look to the future of cities that stand to remain acquainted with their past as they continue to grow and change. According to Sandmeier, the main principle that guides her practice is simply put: "We need the old and the new together — we need to protect places that help to tell our stories, both good and bad, particularly because we are simply not always there to tell them ourselves."
By Edith Fikes