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Student Spotlight: Angela Wheeler (GSAPP ’16)
April 10, 2015

Angela Wheeler (GSAPP ’16) grew up in Berlin, Massachusetts. It was “a little farm town with a defunct downtown,” she recalls. But when she was about to graduate high school, Berlin received a Main Street Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the city restored some of the dilapidated, vacant buildings. A New England-style church became the new Town Hall and featured a little provisions shop. “It reminded me of something from the Oregon Trail,” says Wheeler. The renovations resulted in new community spaces and attracted cultural exchange—Berlin now hosts the only Tibetan Yak Festival in the United States. Wheeler was amazed by how much the character of the town could change and the experience sparked her interest in historic preservation.

Wheeler’s passion began on the local scale, but her interests broadened to the international arena in 2009, after she visited a friend in Tbilisi the summer following her freshman year of college. The friend connected her with the Georgian National Museum, where she worked on a project about historical cemeteries. The museum invited her to return the next summer for a project on an archeological dig in Dmanisi, home to the oldest hominids found outside of Africa. Eventually (after she studied in St. Petersburg and worked at the Hermitage’s archeological archives during her junior year of college), the Georgian National Museum sponsored her application for a Fulbright grant and she returned to Tbilisi from 2012 to 2013 to work for the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

Last summer Wheeler, who is now in her second year at the Historic Preservation Program in the Graduate School for Architecture, Planning and Preservation, had a chance to return to Georgia. This time as an inaugural recipient of the Harriman Institute’s Civil Society Fellowship, which provides travel and living expenses for unpaid practical summer internships at any international or non-governmental organization benefiting civil society in Russia, Eurasia, or East Central Europe. The fellowship enabled her to spend three months working for the Council of Europe in Tbilisi compiling a report on the development of historic cities. She traveled with colleagues around Georgia and met with local politicians to discuss their plans for historic neighborhoods. “We were trying to figure out how to preserve the built environment and historic landscape of these cities without using tourism as a crutch,” Wheeler says. Her most memorable experience on the fellowship was a trip to Rustavi, an ancient town rebuilt as an industrial center during the Stalin period. “It was one of the biggest steel works in the Caucasus,” she says, describing the machinery and the incredible heat—temperatures neared 110 degrees. “There were blast furnaces, everything. It was like an episode of ‘How It’s Made.’”  The entire town was planned around the steel work and much of Stalin’s architecture remains unchanged. “We call this preservation by neglect. If this were a more populous area, everything would have been torn down for the sake of development, but since most residents have left, these buildings from the 1930s and 40s are preserved time-capsule style.” Eventually, though, nature will take its course. “We have to figure out how we can make them useful so they can be protected from nature,” says Wheeler.

The experience was unforgettable, and Wheeler is grateful to the Harriman Institute for making it possible. “The Historic Preservation Program is great, but most people are interested in domestic preservation,” says Wheeler. In search of international funding, Wheeler sought out other options. She learned about the Harriman Institute and the Civil Society Fellowship through her professor Xenia Vytuleva, who encouraged her to become involved. “I really love it,” says Wheeler, who is currently a Harriman work study and has restructured her course load so she can pursue a Harriman Institute Certificate. Recently she was awarded a 2015 Harriman Summer Pepsico Fellowship and plans to return to Georgia to conduct research for her thesis. “I think the Harriman Institute is interdisciplinary studies done right,” she says. “It’s really good at getting people from completely different fields talking to each other and working on projects together.”

Masha Udensiva-Brenner