GSA preservation officer highlights some of DC’s most historic buildings

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Everything has a story, including the buildings that house museums and federal offices here in the nation’s capital.

On this week’s episode of Leaders and Legends in Government, Aileen Black spoke with Nancy Witherell, a historic preservation officer for the national capital region with the General Services Administration’s Public Building Service. PBS is the agency’s real estate arm.

Nancy Witherell, historic preservation officer, General Service Administration’s Public Building Service

The service manages approximately 95 million square feet of rentable land, and more than 1,600 buildings nationwide. Witherell said about 500 of those buildings are registered as historic, and 25% — around 130 buildings — are located in the national capital region alone. Part of her job includes the management and preservation of these historic buildings and the art associated with them.

“It involves a lot of research of the building itself and also of the documents … Fortunately, government buildings usually do have research associated with them or documents associated with them,” she said. “But a lot of it is careful looking, trying to match materials that might be missing with good replacements.”

In other words, her team spends a lot of time and energy on mirroring the authenticity of a building, yet ensuring they have the upgrades needed to function properly in the 21st century.

In this episode, Witherell goes more into detail on the history of three of her favorite buildings: Clara Barton’s Missing Soldier’s Museum, the National Building Museum and the Winder Building, now home to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. She also discusses how she stumbled upon her career path and how others can get involved.

“You can enter with any skill, any talent. And in terms of how to work with old buildings, certainly many of us started as volunteers with an interest in studying the history of our communities,” she said. “It’s possible to work in the public sector … the private sector and the nonprofit sector. There are all sorts of ways in which people who are interested in preserving our history through our architecture, and through our built environment, can contribute to the field.”

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