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Take Five: Interview with Landmarks' new director

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 11, 2008 - For nearly 20 years, dating back to graduate school and a visit to a dentist's office in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Jefferson Garland Mansell has been fascinated with St. Louis' historic architecture - but always from afar. Not anymore. 

Later this month, Mansell will move into a renovated historic loft building in downtown St. Louis and begin work as the new executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

After reviewing about 60 applicants, a committee at Landmarks selected Mansell to replace Carolyn Hewes Toft, its energetic leader for more than three decades and a relentless advocate for historic preservation, sound urban planning and good contemporary design. Toft, who joined Landmarks in 1976 as its first full-time employee, is retiring.

Mansell, who is 46 and single, is coming here from Roslyn, NY, a village that's a preservation success story on Long Island's North Shore. As executive director of the Roslyn Landmark Society, he's been busy buying and restoring historic buildings with the society's revolving loan fund, managing an historic house museum, planning trips and special events to entice new members and their contributions, among various other duties.

Mansell's move to St. Louis comes at what you might call a landmark time for Landmarks. Next year, the private, nonprofit advocacy group with more then 1,300 dues-paying members will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

But perhaps more important, Landmarks is in the process of establishing a major new resource and attraction for downtown and for the St. Louis region called Architecture St. Louis.

Its existence began in July when Landmarks moved from Locust Street to a more visible and accessible street-level location in the historic Lammert Building at 911 Washington Ave. Along with Landmarks' offices and archives, the space is getting exhibit galleries and a 50-seat multi-purpose room. The intent is to make it a hub with exhibits, lectures, films and public forums as well as to showcase the city's architectural history and culture, good urban planning and contemporary design. Landmarks is collaborating with its neighbor in the building, the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, on an upcoming exhibit.

Dan McGuire, a former city alderman, is a Landmarks Board member. He said the board was attracted to Mansell's experience planning the kind of programs and activities that should help make the architecture center here a success. Mansell also has done successful fund-raising, another plus as Landmarks continues to try to raise $500,000 for Architecture St. Louis. So far, it's raised more than $300,000.

"He's had a breadth of experience" leading organizations similar to Landmarks," McGuire said. "He's got a nice educational and professional resume, including fund-raising and management. He's exactly what we were looking for."

We talked with Mansell this week by telephone. He said he'd no doubt have more to say after arriving here and having more time to assess things.

What attracted you to the job at Landmarks?

The city of St. Louis, and (what) I read about Landmarks. The opening of the architecture center and the possibilities it affords a new executive director in terms of exhibits, lectures and programs really peaked my interest.

I had not visited St. Louis until I came here for an interview, but I had knowledge of the wealth of historic architecture in St. Louis. I had professors in graduate school who talked about what a wealthy area St. Louis was in terms of historic buildings. And I remember being in my dentist office one day, in the late 1980s or perhaps 1990. His office was filled with books on different places and historic buildings. While I was waiting in his office, I picked up a book on Westmoreland and Portland, private places in St. Louis, and I poured over that book. I was so captured by those images of St. Louis architecture, and it stuck with me. I ended up buying a copy of the book.

Have you any idea yet of your goals as executive director?

The programming aspect for the architecture center will be a main thrust. Programming is something I really enjoy and have been involved in for nonprofits for the last 18 years. I've put together lectures, symposiums, tours, special events. I'm looking forward to doing that. ... And I expect that I'll be doing a lot of fund-raising to make Landmarks even more financially stable.

Do you have any strategies for raising money and increasing membership at Landmarks?

I'll lay out different ideas and paths to the board after I get there, and we'll choose some. But it is all tied together with the programming aspect of the architecture center and attracting more members, greater participation from the community, and building on the successful track record established by Carolyn and the board.

One of the main strategies for any nonprofit is just education - constantly, continually educating about the importance of historic preservation. I'd like to expand educational programs with school children. It's something we've been involved with here, and in every organization where I've worked. We broadened it here in Roslyn. We got corporations to contribute money for scholarships. We had seniors develop presentations on some aspect of historic preservation. The winners got money (for their college education). I've always found that corporations really enjoy sponsoring education projects.

I will say also that to increase membership and the level of giving, you have to offer something in return. You have to give your members reasons to continue giving and giving at higher levels. I've done a variety of tours and trips just for members. And I like to see signature membership events. In Beaufort, for example, we had a signature event -- an oyster roast every January. We had bonfires, a blue grass band and roasted oysters. When we started, a couple of hundred people came. You had to be a member to come, and it got so popular that we had to curtail the crowds.

Every organization needs an event that people will remember and want to keep coming back to year after year. You need to offer members perks, so people will say, 'I am going to give not only because I believe in their mission, but I also get to participate in this really wonderful membership event.'"

How do you see Landmarks evolving in the future?

I will be able to give a better answer after I've had a few months under my belt at Landmarks.

But I would like for it to continue to play a major role not just in historic preservation, but also in fostering good design, being a resource for building partnerships in the city, bringing together different constituencies and smoothing over bumps.

One incident that's been brought up to me a number of times was (the demolition of) the Century building. There seem to be some hard feelings left from that, and I think we will need to work harder to move past that. I think we are all working toward the same goal, which is to make St. Louis the best possible place to live that it can be. Historic preservation is a great economic tool. We need to emphasize that, and we all need to be working on the same page.

How do you compare historic buildings in St. Louis with other cities?

I got the grand tour when I was there. I was just overwhelmed, which is putting it mildly, with the historic architecture. I had heard about and had an inkling of the buildings, but it was more than I had imagined. And I loved the different neighborhoods that all have different aspects, from Soulard to Compton Heights, Lafayette Square, Tower Grove, the Central West End. They're all special and unique.

(In downtown) there are certainly buildings I'd like to see used more. Perhaps when the economy has an upturn, those are potential projects. And we would want to help in any way we could.

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long reported on historic preservation and urban redevelopment. 

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