A college class on the ancient Maya civilization upended all of Jon Marcoux’s well-laid plans.
In the mid-1990s, Marcoux was an economics and finance major at Vanderbilt University with his sights set on a career in business.
“I took an anthropology class to fulfill a general education requirement and it was all about Maya archaeology,” Marcoux said. “I fell in love.”
Marcoux discovered a passion not only for exploring the past but preserving it as well. He dropped finance, embraced anthropology and graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and economics.
He later earned a master’s degree at the University of Alabama and a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, both in anthropology.
Marcoux assumed his new role in July after serving for several years as an associate professor and the director of a similar preservation program at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island.
Marcoux said he was attracted to the respected program in Charleston because of its hands-on approach.
“The students are learning preservation skills, studying materials and how to research deeds. All of this happens within the context of real-world projects,” Marcoux said.
“We are all very excited about having Jon on board to take the program to new levels of excellence,” said Ray Huff, associate professor and director of the Clemson Design Center in Charleston. “Jon’s charge is to continue the program’s evolution predicated on a focus of conservation, documentation and preservation scholarship. His successful tenure in Rhode Island and his extensive knowledge of Charleston and the region’s history bodes well for his success and that of the program.”
Materials and their meanings
Classes are held at the Clemson Design Center in Charleston, which is part of the Cigar Factory complex – a stylishly restored factory and former cotton mill near the Ravenel Bridge. Up to a dozen students are admitted annually to the two-year program, the only graduate program in historic preservation in South Carolina.
Historic preservation has two sides – materials and historical research – and the program explores both, Marcoux said. Students study construction techniques, paint analysis, how materials decay and how to conserve or rescue them. They also learn how to research the history of a structure: who built it, how it has changed, and why it may be of historical importance.
“Historic preservation is not just about the material of the building but the meaning of the building to the people who lived there at the time,” Marcoux said.
The program attracts students from a variety of undergraduate disciplines, including architecture, history, anthropology and business administration.
“All of them have a passion for the past, for historical places or historical architecture,” said Marcoux, who grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut.
Historic preservation is a growing field and Marcoux said job prospects are plentiful. Graduates of the program have gone on to work for regulatory agencies and construction or architectural firms. “There are a wide variety of rewarding career outcomes,” he said.
Students in the program have the opportunity to connect frequently with professionals in the field. The faculty includes lecturers with distinguished careers in historic preservation, including Richard Marks, who owns a nationally known restoration company. Other faculty members include Craig Bennett, who founded an engineering firm specializing in historic structures; and Frances Ford, a conservator who focuses on historic interiors and cemetery restoration.
Apart from historic preservation, Marcoux’s passion is archaeology, focusing particularly on colonial interactions with Native Americans and enslaved Africans.
He studied Native-American archaeology in graduate school and wrote his first book on Cherokee archaeology.
“There are often no written records, so we have to create stories about those folks’ lives from their material remains – their houses, what they ate,” Marcoux said. “I always found that to be a neat challenge.”
He has led dozens of archaeology investigations in South Carolina and elsewhere. Marcoux specializes in using ground-penetrating radar at archaeological sites.
A few years ago at the Lord Ashley site, a plantation established around the time Charleston (then Charles Town) was founded in 1670, Marcoux discovered a treasure trove of artifacts underground. His finds included German stoneware and crystal stemware used by the wealthy and handmade earthenware used by Native Americans and enslaved Africans.
“It just looks like a pasture, but we were able through magnetic gradiometry to discover the remains of the trading post where Europeans and enslaved Africans were living together in tight quarters,” Marcoux said.
Marcoux first became familiar with the archaeology of South Carolina while working on his Ph.D. Employed at the time by a firm in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, Marcoux led several excavations around Charleston.
“I fell in love with the archaeology of the area,” he said. “I always hoped I’d have the opportunity to move back.”
Ideal for historic preservation
Charleston, with its strong sense of history and dedication to conservation, is an ideal place for students to study historic preservation, Marcoux said.
“Charleston is famous for having the first ordinance for historic preservation and zoning in 1931,” Marcoux said. “Historically, it has been very responsible in building.”
Yet, in many ways, historic preservation remains a race against time.
“Neglect always ends the same way – a structure eventually falls down,” Marcoux said. “Nothing lasts forever. Here in Charleston, flooding brings salt water into old brick, and once that happens, it’s a matter of time before that brick deteriorates.”
As more communities recognize the financial benefits of preservation, the field of historic preservation will continue to grow, Marcoux said.
“The economics of preservation work on a number of levels,” Marcoux said. “Adaptive reuse makes more sense than tearing structures down and rebuilding. Preservation and rehabilitation lead to increased property values. Charleston’s identity is closely tied to tourism, and tourism is tied to the city’s history. The architecture that’s here – the material connection to history – is a big reason that people love to visit and live here.”
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