In this episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Rodney Rowland, the director of facilities and environmental sustainability at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. As his job title indicates, one of Rowland’s main responsibilities at the museum is to focus on environmental sustainability. He’s helping to implement a proactive adaptation strategy for the facilities at Strawbery Banke, which is rich in history and uniquely tied to its physical location, as the nine-acre living-history museum contends with the risks posed by climate change. Rowland and Hayes discuss the perils of sea level rise in historic preservation, and how institutions that face this problem (ranging from the Smithsonian museum and research complex in Washington, DC; to the Maritime Museum in Jakarta, Indonesia; to Strawbery Banke in New Hampshire) are making plans to safeguard their treasures.
Listen to the Podcast
- Flooding threatens museums and artifacts: “My most recent challenge is the sustainability of Strawbery Banke, in terms of keeping the water out. We’re under siege from below and from above. And we’re seeing impacts to our historic structures already that we’ve never seen before. We’ve lost some history.” (2:13)
- Historical sites are located close to coasts and rising sea levels: “The oldest parts of New England, the oldest parts of America, the oldest parts of the world are on the coast. They’re on the water because the people that lived there needed the water for transportation, and they needed the water for a source of food. And, as we know, a lot of those areas were later claimed waters—they were filled in by European settlers, by whomever. All of these places are now at the highest risk from rising sea levels.” (8:06)
- Natural infrastructure and other creative solutions: “We’re going to conduct what’s called a master planning study to understand where that water’s coming from … and we’re going to begin to look at ways that we can probably manage that surface water … How can we store that? Maybe rain gardens. Maybe we could create what was once a coastline—since this was actually a tidal inlet. Maybe we could recreate that somehow, and have those plants working to collect and store that water, rather than having encroachment on our historic properties.” (18:10)
Top of the Stack
- “Saving History with Sandbags: Climate Change Threatens the Smithsonian” by Christopher Flavelle
- Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
- White Pine: American History and the Tree that Made a Nation by Andrew Vietze
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. Today, I'll be talking with Rodney Rowland, who's the Director of Facilities and Environmental Sustainability at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. If you're not familiar with Strawbery Banke, never fear—Rodney's going to tell us all about it. You'll note that Rodney's title has two parts, and it's his focus on environmental sustainability that we'll largely be discussing today. And in particular, how do properties like Strawbery Banke—which is rich in history, but very place-based—contend with the risks posed by climate change?
We'll be talking about sea level rise; historic preservation; and how institutions, big and small, are making plans to safeguard their treasures for the future. Stay with us.
Hi, Rodney. Welcome to Resources Radio. It's very nice to talk with you.
Rodney Rowland: Nice to be here. Thank you.
Kristin Hayes: Of course. Let's start with a little bit about you, and I wanted to ask if you can tell our listeners a bit more about your history with Strawbery Banke and how you eventually came to take up the environmental sustainability mantle there.
Rodney Rowland: I can. Strawbery Banke is very much a part of me—a part of who I am. I was a volunteer working here with my parents, way back in the 1970s. Later on, I took an internship here while I was still in college. And then, I was fortunate enough to get my first job here back in 1990. So, I've been at Strawbery Banke for over 30 years, held various roles, including object conservator for our World War II grocery store; to collections manager; and then eventually moving over to the facilities department, where I am now in charge of the 32 historic structures that we have on our nine-acre site.
It's very much a part of who I am and something I very strongly believe in. And I think a lot of that is because I have been here so long, and I also saw my parents toiling on the grounds of Strawbery Banke to make sure that it survived through many of the challenges that it has faced.
My most recent challenge is the sustainability of Strawbery Banke, in terms of keeping the water out. We're under siege from below and from above. And we're seeing impacts to our historic structures already that we've never seen before. We've lost some history, which we'll be talking about. I have picked up the torch of what's called our sea level rise initiative in hopes that we could get a victory against the increasing water levels.
Kristin Hayes: Okay. All right. Well, I gave an exceptionally brief introduction to Strawbery Banke, and you mentioned a little bit more about it as you were introducing yourself, but I'd love to get a better mental picture of the site itself. What is the museum all about, and what is its scope? You mentioned some buildings, some structures. There's clearly a lot to it. Can you tell us more about the site?
Rodney Rowland: Absolutely. Strawbery Banke is unique in the museum world. Many of your listeners may be used to things like Sturbridge or Williamsburg, which are what are called outdoor living history museums. They're basically a created village, if you will, of historic structures with streets and landscapes—historic landscapes. What sets Strawbery Banke apart is we are using an actual neighborhood that was first used by the Abenaki Native Americans before European settlement, and then was settled by the Europeans in 1623, because it has a lovely safe harbor. And they happened to find strawberries growing on the banks of the Piscataqua River, which is where we got our name, and what the town of Portsmouth was originally called by those settlers for the first couple decades of European settlement.
We're using this actual neighborhood—these buildings around it and their original foundations. So, as you walk the streets that have been here for hundreds of years and see the buildings that have been here for hundreds of years, each building is set to a different time period in the evolution of the neighborhood. And it gives you an idea of how this neighborhood in New England has evolved over 300-plus years of existence. So, that kind of makes us unique and special.
And the fact that we do all of American history. A lot of museums will pick a year or a decade or a few decades. We talk about how the Abenaki has used the site. We have a recreated wigwam on our site all the way up to a 1955 cold- water apartment and what was a duplex at the time. And then everything in between: a sea captain's home, a widow's home, a 1919 Jewish immigrant home. It's really fun to see how this neighborhood—and, sort of by default, how America—changed through time.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, that is really interesting. Just as an aside, I went to the College of William & Mary, which is in Williamsburg, Virginia. So, that is of course the mental image that I had. I'm completely fascinated by this idea of sort of a neighborhood across history. That does sound like quite an innovation, quite a thing to see.
Just a little bit more about the size: How many structures are we talking? What sort of acreage are we talking? How big?
Rodney Rowland: We have 32 historic structures on a nine-acre site. We basically take up one entire city block. We're surrounded by four city streets. There are a couple of new structures, obviously, that we sort of use as support, but there are 32 historic structures on our site. And all but four of them are in their original locations.
Kristin Hayes: Fantastic. All right. When you think about environmental sustainability at a historic site like this one, obviously we're going to get to the sea level rise issues, but I wanted to give you a chance to just reflect a little bit more broadly on the suite of issues that you are thinking about when you're thinking about environmental sustainability there. What's the range?
Rodney Rowland: Well, I think it's a very broad range. I mean, our focus right now is on water issues; sea level rise–related issues are the foremost. But as a member of a community, and a community of larger communities, we look at things like recycling, how we can limit our energy use, and how we can especially educate these particular issues to our public. We're in a unique situation, that we have an audience of over 100,000 people a year, all age groups—families. And what we can put out there for a message will get to people.
We partner with people like the City of Portsmouth, who have their own message about how you can protect and minimize stormwater. And so, when they wanted to have a way to give that message to the public, we said, "We can be your voice, because we have a big audience." We're kind of using ourselves as a stage to tell not only the things that are important to Strawbery Banke, but also some of the issues that are facing this community of Portsmouth and the larger community of the United States and the world.
Kristin Hayes: Interesting. Okay. Yeah, that's a really helpful grounding. But as you note, of course, the biggest issue under discussion today is the threats posed by climate change—in particular, rising water levels. And you and I actually corresponded a little bit before our recording today about what I found to be a fascinating article in the New York Times from a few weeks back about the Smithsonian museums here in Washington, DC, and the challenges that facilities and collection managers are facing as water levels rise and as flooding increases.
It sounds like Strawbery Banke is facing some of those challenges, too. Can you say just a little bit more about what you're seeing, what you're experiencing, and what you're likely to deal with in the future?
Rodney Rowland: I can, Kristin. I mean, you start with the basic fact that the oldest parts of New England, the oldest parts of America, the oldest parts of the world are on the coast. They're on the water because the people that lived there needed the water for transportation, and they needed the water for a source of food. And, as we know, a lot of those areas were later claimed waters—they were filled in by European settlers, by whomever. All of these places are now at the highest risk from rising sea levels.
Portsmouth, just by example, is on the beautiful Piscataqua River, but our nearest historic house is 450 feet away. If it's not directly impacted by flooding from the Piscataqua River, which it's not, what we're seeing is the river is now pushing that water underground and into the basements of our buildings, which of course have been there for 200, 300, 400 years. So, it's not unique to us. We just happen to have some incredible time-lapse photography showing it.
We are talking about it more and more and more to a bigger audience. But as you pointed out, the Smithsonian has now come out that they're having these issues. And there's also a museum in Jakarta that's having the same thing. Their maritime museum is under siege from rising groundwaters. And again, it's all related to being on the coast, where you see some of the most precious parts of our culture and of the world's culture. It's a problem.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, I did notice. I was actually up in Boston this past weekend, once again, and I noticed in the middle of a walk around central Boston that there was a line that I'd never noticed before—a line sort of drawn in the bricks, noting where the historical shoreline would've been in 1620. And I'd never seen it before, but we’ were sort of walking along, and I happened to look down, and there it was. I found it completely fascinating, because it was such a unique illustration of the reclamation of land that you're talking about and the ways that we've changed landscapes that might actually be making us more vulnerable now.
Rodney Rowland: Yeah. People don't think about it. There's a huge field in the center of Strawbery Banke, and a lot of people when they come to the museum think: “Oh, a big field—that must have been the parade ground.” In fact, it's a two- or three-acre tidal inlet that was filled in by the city of Portsmouth in about 1903. And it is certainly contributing to the issues that we're seeing today, because the tidal water is still coming in and out underground. Just because you can't see it doesn’t mean it went away. And so again, as it's being impacted more and more by storms and astronomical high tides, they just filled in that land with what they thought was good enough. And perhaps after all these centuries, it's no longer good enough.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Interesting. Another thing I wanted to ask you about, in this New York Times article about the Smithsonian, is they had some fascinating maps showing which of the Smithsonian facilities are likely to be most at risk where flooding risk is greatest. And I found myself wondering and looking at the footnotes, if you will, to see what data sources they had used, on what data were they basing these mapping exercises, and how were they getting that granular about understanding the risks to different facilities.
I wanted to ask you that question. When you, as the facilities manager, are thinking about the risks to different historical buildings and which ones might be most threatened, how did you begin to map that out in more detail? Obviously beyond what you're already seeing with your own eyes, but are there data sources that were available to you—local or national? I'm really curious how you begin to map that out.
Rodney Rowland: Sure. I mean, there's really two parts to this question. The first is that, if you watch the news at any given time, you see stories of flooding or you'll see weather reports that say we're expecting a flood tide. There's lots of work on the federal level and on the state level to understand tide depths and where areas of low elevation can be impacted as the tides change due to either storm surge or astronomically high tides or king tides. We're talking about surface flooding. So that's where the tide just comes over the wall, the bank, whatever it happens to be in your particular area and begins to impact areas that it hasn't impacted before or doesn't impact very often. There is quite a bit of data on that, because people have been studying it for decades.
Then you have to get to the other side of it, which is groundwater intrusion. So, the theory here is that bodies of water, whether it be the Atlantic Ocean or rivers, are under a higher amount of pressure—again, through astronomically high tides or storm surges—and that water is pushing underground and causing upwelling of the groundwater tables. Everybody's pretty familiar with groundwater, especially if they're on a well. What's happening of course is that this pressure is rising the water up, and now the lowest parts of their home—which is typically the basements—are entering an area where they're at risk. Even if they're not seeing water, it could be that the soils under their home are getting wetter and wetter more frequently. And so they're getting that smell of damp and these high humidity levels in their basement. And that's the other impact related to sea level rise.
And to your question, is there some data? Well, there are some projections, but it's very difficult to understand the impacts of groundwater because there are so many variables. And one of the things that we're going to have to do here, and what other communities are doing, is drill down some wells and install salinity and water-height instruments that will send real-time data back to a monitor so that we can see how the groundwater's moving over one or two years. That's a partnership that we're doing with the University of New Hampshire’s geospatial lab. They're going to buy the sensors and install them, and then they'll help us collect this data. And actually, we're going to output that data into our gallery space for our visitors to see, as well.
Kristin Hayes: Wow. That sounds very fascinating. I definitely want to talk a little bit more about the solutions, or the kinds of steps that you're taking, to make sure that you understand the problems and also ameliorate potential problems. But really quickly, I just wanted to ask first: Are there particular buildings in the collection of 32 buildings that you're particularly worried about at this point? Are there ones that you've been able to identify from either the flooding or the groundwater that you know you need to pay special attention to?
Rodney Rowland: Absolutely. Unfortunately, the oldest buildings we own are the ones closest to what was that tidal inlet—what was known as Puddle Dock. So, you have buildings like the 1795 Shapley Drisco House, the 1695 Sherburne House, the 1710 Peter Lowd House. These are all on what was the waterway. And they're seeing constant impacts from groundwater—and, to a certain degree, surface-water flooding as well. As you come up from that waterway, fortunately, elevation increases, and therefore, the impacts decrease. So, we do have that going in our favor.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Well, something I thought about a lot that's not unique, but certainly very relevant for a place like Strawbery Banke, is how place-based the history is, too. It's not like you can … well, I mean, I suppose maybe there are some of the buildings that you could move, as you know that there are some that are not in their original places. But what makes it so special is that you are taking this neighborhood that's been where it is for so long and building in place [on location] there. There's a very place-based element to it, which means that sort of just moving the collections or moving things like that would really lose a lot of the character of the site. So, in reality, with the challenges that you face, you really have to work in the ecosystem that you have. Is that a fair characterization?
Rodney Rowland: It absolutely is, Kristin. Everything in this site is very site specific. Like I mentioned, it's one of the things that makes us unique.
Our roads are in their original locations. What we find for fence lines, or privy outbuildings, or gardens are all found archaeologically, and they're in their same locations. If we were to pick up a building and move it, or elevate it, you have completely lost the context for which Strawbery Banke was created.
And indeed, Strawbery Banke was created through a Housing and Urban Development program. They were going to bulldoze the entire site and instead used historic preservation as a way to teach American history. So, they wanted to preserve the neighborhood as a way to teach history. We need to preserve that just like we do anything else.
Kristin Hayes: All right. So, you're not … we're going to keep Strawbery Banke just where it is. And you talked about some of the solutions—solutions might be more optimistic than perhaps I can claim. But nonetheless, you're looking for ways to understand what's happening, in order to address the challenges you're facing.
Beyond the monitoring program that you mentioned—the groundwater monitoring program—are there other types of data collection (or dare I even say solutions?) that you're considering?
Rodney Rowland: There are. When it comes to the surface water issues—and I should just expand on that a little bit. Strawbery Banke is pretty much like the bottom of a bowl, and we're located in the south end of Portsmouth. The neighborhood to our south is higher than us, the business district or the downtown district to our north is also higher than us, and everything drains down to Strawbery Banke Museum. So, we have a great issue with surface-water flooding, especially as we get these bigger torrential downpours.
What we're going to do with that is we're going to conduct what's called a master planning study to understand where that water's coming from, to understand how things like our huge visitor parking lot are impacting those problems, because it sheds a huge amount of water. We're going to look at the city stormwater system to see when it was put in, how big it is, and we're going to begin to look at ways that we can probably manage that surface water until such a time that the tide in the Piscataqua River goes out, and it lets us release that water into the river, because that's where it would go, anyway. That's sort of the surface-water approach.
How can we store that? Maybe rain gardens. Maybe we could create what was once a coastline—since this was actually a tidal inlet. Maybe we could recreate that somehow, and have those plants working to collect and store that water, rather than having encroachment on our historic properties. And then you look at each one of our houses individually when it comes to groundwater intrusion, and the severity of that groundwater impact dictates what we need to do. For an example, the Joshua Jones House, which is probably 1,000 feet from the banks of the Piscataqua River, is one of the heavily impacted buildings. But it is far enough away that the severity is not as bad as it is in the Sherburne House or the Shapley Drisco House.
The Jones House had a couple of problems. One, it had surface-water flooding coming through via the bulkhead—the historic bulkhead—which would act like a waterfall and fill up the basement. And then it had some minor groundwater intrusion. By simply changing the elevation of that bulkhead, we can now let the water pond around that structure and not impact the basement. Then we put in a commercial dehumidification system in the basement, which will trigger when humidity levels get over 60 percent and dry out the space much more rapidly than otherwise would happen. And that's been very successful. I’d say that building is pretty much set for now. As you get closer to the river, it gets a little bit harder.
The Lowd House is a beautiful structure that has a large center chimney. It used to have what was called a summer kitchen in the basement. That was where the original owners would cook in the summertime when it was hot. There was an open hearth that had been so compromised by decades of saltwater saturating the brick that we had to make the decision to remove it and not put it back, and instead put a granite base on the chimney. The granite does not wick saltwater. And so, we've preserved the rest of that chimney from further deterioration, but we have lost that piece of history.
As we go on to the Sherburne House and the Shapley Drisco House, which are even closer to the river, and seeing huge impacts on a monthly basis, you're going to find that we're going to likely lose more history. I would venture to say that, in the Shapley Drisco House, its basement will probably be filled in with concrete, and we will set that building on the pad. I think that's probably what we're going to have to do.
Kristin Hayes: Interesting. It sounds like it's a combination of some modern technology, like the dehumidifying system.
Rodney Rowland: Yep.
Kristin Hayes: Some combination of, maybe, is it fair to call it natural infrastructure? Things that would allow a recreation of natural ways of controlling water?
Rodney Rowland: Yes.
Kristin Hayes: And then maybe some, in grand terms, managed retreat, where some of these things that are not going to be able to be preserved as they are—they're going to be replaced with things that are a little bit different.
Rodney Rowland: That is a fair statement. As a museum, we try to adhere to the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation. And those standards have literally changed every year as the National Park Service has tried to grapple with the impacts of water on historic sites. One of the things that they have agreed with is that, if you need to lose a piece of history that really isn't visible, that has very little impact on the historic streetscape like a basement—that's okay to do. And I totally understand that, and I actually applaud those decisions, because we can't do a Band-Aid fix. We're really going to have to do something that's going to last, because this probably isn't going to get better before it gets worse. So, I think that's a good move.
Kristin Hayes: All right. Well, I want to end with a question about how you are navigating this territory. It's a very uncertain future. You've obviously put a tremendous amount of thought and care into thinking about Strawbery Banke. And I wonder what resources are available to you, to other folks like you, who are trying to navigate this uncertain future? Are there communities of folks like you who share knowledge and support each other? Are there funding sources available to take on some of these solutions? What's available to you to help you make sure this lasts?
Rodney Rowland: Well, I think one of really the nicest things that's come out of this maybe not-so-nice situation is that we have found some incredible partnerships. Partnerships that we never ever would've had as a historic preservation site, we now have because we're a historic preservation site that's at risk from climate change. Partnerships like from the state of New Hampshire, the Department of Environmental Services, a coastal adaptation workshop group that's in New Hampshire. These are all organizations that have been talking and preaching about sea level rise and climate change. And now we've joined their voices to explain and show what those impacts can be. So, that's really great, and those organizations do have money.
One of the great partnerships is with the city of Portsmouth. They get money from the Environmental Protection Agency to do various things around the city revolving around city infrastructure. And part of that funding has to be used for public outreach. The city of Portsmouth, of course, doesn't really have a stage to do public outreach, but Strawbery Banke does. And so, when they decided that they really wanted to begin to educate people on what stormwater is and how protecting it and minimizing stormwater is a good thing for the planet, they turned to Strawbery Banke and joined our efforts to create an exhibition called Preserving Strawbery Banke and the City of Portsmouth from Sea Level Rise.
They have a huge panel in there called, “Think Blue, What Can You Do?” And it really just explains that water that goes down that storm drain in the road is untreated water that's going into some body of water. So, be knowledgeable about what you're putting down in that drain; try to minimize it. Maybe wash your car on the lawn. Maybe put in a rain guard. And maybe have a rain barrel on your gutter and use that water to water your plants. Things like that.
So, that's a really great partnership. And then, of course, their funding helped us do our gallery exhibit, as well. That was really helpful. That exhibit is probably the third part of our sea level rise initiative, to just make sure that everything we learn in this process is publicly available and can be taught, because we're not going to be the only ones, and we aren't the only ones that are going to go through this. We want to be able to help others navigate the waters, if you will.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Quite literally.
Rodney Rowland: Exactly.
Kristin Hayes: Oh, fantastic. Rodney, this has been so interesting. I really appreciate your sharing a little bit more about the site that you obviously love very much. And just sort of setting the stage for what I imagine will only be more on the radars of folks who love to take advantage of sites like yours. So, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us.
Let's close the podcast with our regular feature, Top of the Stack. Basically, this is your chance to recommend any more good content with our audience. And I always feel it's important to note that you're welcome to recommend something related to what we're talking about, but you're also welcome to recommend something else that's of interest to you on a completely different topic, if that's what tickles your fancy. So, what's on the top of your stack?
Rodney Rowland: Oh, I'm very excited about this opportunity. So, very recently, I finished a book called White Pine: American History and the Tree That Made a Nation. The author's name is Andrew Vietze. That book is an incredibly unique way to look at American history through the eyes of the white pine, because, of course, the white pine was the reason that the settlers came here, and it was the reason why the king of England really didn't want to give up America, because all those pines were really helpful for his naval fleet and all the masts that they needed for those ships.
You had this incredible resource that was wanted by everybody. And so, from my perspective, of course, I'm looking at it through climate change and realizing that here, at the very beginning, as they clear-cut these enormous white pines until there wasn't a single tree left, literally, how that might have impacted where we are today.
And he doesn't just stop at looking at the colonial look at how the white pine was used, but he takes it up into the twentieth century, when humankind was trying to preserve the eastern white pine and farm it sustainably, for example, when it's then hit by an Asian disease called the white pine blister rust, which started to knock down the population. It's a really great read, especially when you think of how our history might be contributing to the topics that we're discussing today.
Kristin Hayes: Well, that's a great recommendation. Thank you so much.
Rodney Rowland: Sure.
Kristin Hayes: Well, again, it's been a real pleasure. And I hope to make it up to Strawbery Banke. That sounds like a wonderful site. So, I guess I'll see you up there.
Rodney Rowland: I hope you come. It's a beautiful spot, especially in the summertime.
Kristin Hayes: Fantastic. All right. Thanks, Rodney.
Rodney Rowland: Thank you.
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