An Interview with Frederick C. Williamson
Frederick C. Williamson was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1915. His family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, when he was 14. In 1941, Fred left the jewelry business in Providence to work for the United States Navy at Quonset Point Naval Air Station, where he advanced rapidly to become a supervisory management analyst and head of the Management Planning Branch of the Quonset Point Supply Department. In recognition of his outstanding record, the Navy presented him with its Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1954. During this period, Fred furthered his education through specialized courses at Brown University, the University of Rhode Island, and the University of California at Berkeley, and he has three honorary doctorates. He was founder and first president of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. In 1969, he accepted appointment by the state's governor as director of the newly created Department of Community Affairs. Later that same year he became State Historic Preservation Officer, a position he still holds. Among his many awards are the Louise Dupont Crowninshield award presented in 1998 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) in 2006.
On September 20, 2005, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission (RIHPHC) hosted a celebration in Providence on the occasion of Fred's 90th birthday. Along with friends and family, representatives of many state and national preservation and conservation organizations, led by the Governor of Rhode Island, paid tribute to the career of the longest serving State Historic Preservation Officer in the United States. On the following day, present and former colleagues sat down with Fred to talk about his experiences and contributions to the field of historic preservation. Present were Ted Sanderson (TS), executive director of RIHPHC and Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer; Eric Hertfelder (EH), former executive director of the Commission and NCSHPO; Tom Merlan, former New Mexico SHPO; and Elizabeth A. (Liz) Lyon (EAL), former Georgia SHPO who led the interview.
EAL: Tell us about your early years growing up in Lowell and Providence.
FCW: Let me start with having been born in Lowell, Massachusetts. My mother came from Beaufort, North Carolina. Her brothers were all seamen who contracted out on fishing vessels to fish on the Grand Banks. Mother married her childhood sweetheart, and her new husband contracted out on a commercial fishing vessel and, along with one of her brothers, went north to the fishing grounds. On the way back, they ran into a storm off Cape Hatteras, and the ship sank. My mother was distraught, and my grandfather decided to send her north to live in Providence, Rhode Island, because two other brothers and a sister lived there. While she was there, she was attracted to Lowell by its status and reputation as a leading cotton manufacturing community.
In Lowell, she met my father, who was from Prince George County in Virginia, and they raised a family of my two sisters, a brother, and me. We lived in one of those connected houses built originally for mill workers, but none of my family worked in the mills. My father worked for a man named Haines who ran the Middlesex Steam Laundry. Haines had an estate with a barn and horses, and my father took care of the place for him. I went there as a child and remember being carried out by him one time to a racetrack where he had a couple of racehorses. Father used to raise chickens, and people in the neighborhood remember that he also raised peacocks.
I had plenty of playmates in the neighborhood and we played a lot of ball games at a nearby field. We did the things that youngsters like to do, including sliding down Cogan's Hill in the wintertime. I also did a lot of skating. My father took me around, and I guess he was very proud of me because I learned on single runner skates rather than double. I was about six years old then.
EAL: So, you spent most of your younger years in Lowell. Were there any old buildings that you may have noticed as interesting?
FCW: Not to the extent that you could say it was the beginning of an historic preservationist. I do remember the downtown area where we kids would go Saturday mornings to watch the movies, which cost 10 cents. We liked cowboy and adventure movies. I could not get the 10 cents until I had finished my morning chores, one of which was to go up to the neighborhood bakery and pick up the baked beans. On Fridays, women would prepare their baked beans—everyone had baked beans on Saturday—and we would put the baked beans on our carts and take them up to the bakery, where the baker would put them in the brick ovens he used to bake his bread, and they would slow-bake all night. Next morning, we had to go pick them up and bring them back home before we could get our 10 cents for the movies. Although I do not remember the buildings, I do remember the atmosphere, the feeling that these were the things and places we enjoyed.
EAL: And, then your family moved to Providence?
FCW: Yes. My mother and father separated when I was a teenager, and I came to Providence to live with my Uncle Fred. I lived in a cottage on Central Avenue in East Providence, where I had visited when I was growing up. I lived and went to school in East Providence until my mother moved down from Lowell with my sisters and brother. She found an apartment in the Roger Williams housing project on Thurber Avenue in South Providence, and we all went to school there.
I later switched to Technical High School in the central city, but I had to leave before graduating. My mother was the only one supporting the family financially, and we needed to have some resources, so I became the man of the family. Since I had gone to work and was making more money than allowed in the housing project, we had to move. We lived for a while in an apartment in another area on the fringe of South Providence nearer the downtown area, and then we moved to Lippett Street on the east side. We lived on the second floor of a two-family private house.
I worked in different stores in Providence. One in particular, Baird North, was the largest mail order jewelry store in the country. I handled the shipping and mailing and saw to all the things that sales people did not have to do, including jewelry repairs, and I maintained contact with all of the jewelry repair businesses.
EAL: How did you happen to join the civilian work force for the Navy?
FCW: In September of 1941, I answered an ad I saw in the Post Office and went along with 25 or 30 other men to the Quonset Point Naval Air Station. After objecting to being herded off to an unknown site with no explanation of the work, I was allowed to meet with a very gracious Lieutenant Commander, who said that they had a maintenance unit in the airplane overhaul and repair department that needed help and that he would send me down there. I worked for about six months doing everything. It was a big place, like an aircraft factory, a small hangar and a big hangar where planes were repaired and overhauled. This was in the early days when everybody was trying to do what they could, it seemed, to make work while we waited for the schedules from Washington. A few months later the planes began to come in for maintenance and repair. There was a big storeroom with storekeepers and half a dozen or so young lieutenants who had just graduated from six months of training.
They all had jobs to do, and I ended up with Lieutenant Iverson (he became an Admiral later on), who had charge of all the storerooms. I told him that I had maintenance experience. I had worked for a retail store and knew about stocking and taking inventory. I asked him about the chances of being transferred to the storeroom. He said he would see what he could do.
I had a pretty good relationship with a commander. When he was on lunch, he would grab me and start talking, as there were things that went on there that he did not know about. We talked about many different subjects—worldwide subjects—such as the possibility of war. I think he influenced Iverson, and I was transferred from maintenance to the storeroom.
One day, a bunch of younger workers were horsing around, when the Chief Warrant Officer came in and saw that I was the only one working. He told them they needed some supervision, made me their supervisor, and instructed them to do what I said. That led to a job as supervisor for the whole shop stores and eventually to the front office. The shop stores officer to whom I, as a civilian, reported wanted closer communication with me, so over one weekend he had a whole crew of sailors move all my stuff to the front office. Looking at this when I came to work the following Monday, I remembered that when I had first come in to Quonset eight months earlier, I was part of the crew washing and waxing that office and here I was up there supervising half the office including the whole stock control group.
State Government Years, 1969-1985
EH: How did you become involved in state government?
FCW: All the time I was at Quonset working for the Navy, I was still doing community work. I became President of the Urban League, president of this and that, chairman of this and that, working on a lot of issues in the community. I also worked with the Chronicle, Rhode Island's black newspaper, and wrote a weekly column called "Sideglances." Frank Licht, a judge and a good friend, and I sat on the same committees and boards. When problems such as housing came up in certain areas, we would go there and discuss them with the people. Licht later became governor and appointed me director of the Department of Community Affairs, a new department that included planning and community development among its many responsibilities.
One day he called me in and said he had another job for me. "We don't have this one yet," he said, "but you are going to be the State Historic Preservation Officer." When I asked him what that was, he laughed and began explaining how important it was and that he would like to have someone there who could work with him.
EAL: Had you heard the term, "State Historic Preservation Officer," prior to that time?
FCW: Yes, but I certainly did not know much about it. Antoinette Downing headed the Rhode Island Historical Commission.(1) The first meeting I had with any of the Commission members, including Antoinette, was at the Parker House in Boston, where some of the early issues were discussed. The second one was in Lincoln, Rhode Island, where some brick mill houses were being restored. I made what seem now to be rather cliché statements about preservation in response to a question about whether they were doing the right things. Off the top of my head, I said some of the things that should have been done to preserve the historic features of the buildings. Antoinette looked at me and said, "Hey, that's my line." So, I said, "well, Antoinette, that's the way things should be," and she said "I know, but I didn't expect you to know that." I said that was how I felt about it, and she told me to continue to have those feelings.
EAL: Tell us about the College Hill neighborhoods and early urban renewal activities in Providence during the 1950s and 1960s that led to the influential 1959 College Hill plan.
FCW: I had no official position in those activities, as I was still working for the Navy, but I did participate in the community organizations that talked about them and complained about the proposed demolition of historic buildings that were part of our neighborhood. On the east side of the city, there were black neighborhoods all around the central core of Brown University. The neighborhood where I lived then is now occupied by the University Heights Apartments. It was a mixed neighborhood of houses, at least two churches, funeral parlors, doctor's and law offices, and a jazz club where nationally known musicians performed.
EAL: When the governor asked you to head up the new department and become the historic preservation officer, did the community activities in housing and the environment in which you were involved provide some background?
FCW: Yes, they did. I think being involved with some of the organizations in the neighborhood provided a background for understanding what was going on and for making some of the decisions later on.
Much of what I thought in those days, and I still do, was that the goal of historic preservation is really to establish an environment with a sense of place. Historic preservation for many was little old ladies in tennis shoes puttering around and that sort of thing. A good deal of what we did and could do was tied up with what people thought of historic preservation and whether they accepted it as a viable part of restoring and rehabilitating places.
EH: Can you tell us why you came to believe that the Department of Community Affairs was a good fit with historic preservation?
FCW: DCA had its own structure for dealing with the historic preservation organizations in the community, and it included them in its planning efforts. I felt this was a very good idea because of all the other programs we supervised for cities and towns, but I did not want historic preservation to get lost in the departmental bureaucracy. We maintained the separate identity of the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission. Through the funds we provided cities for professional planning services, we made sure that they looked at the value of historic preservation in their planning activities.
EAL: In 1970, you were involved in the controversy over the Brick Market in Newport and plans for a highway that called for the demolition of most of the neighborhood. Tell us about that experience.
FCW: I felt very uncomfortable about that road. It cut across the waterfront, destroyed the whole area—the ambience, the connectivity of it; there is a looseness about that whole area now that is not very comfortable.
Of course, the Federal Highway Administration and the State Department of Transportation were angry. A highway is an important thing to have. You cannot have a community without a highway, but where you put it can affect your entire feeling about a particular area. In so many cases, historic preservation comes up against important items for the public good, such as transportation, and you cannot say that's not important. But it is a question of which is more important at a particular point. Is that highway so important that we must throw away the historic character of the area? In this very early  Section 106 case, the controversy was about a road that would sweep around Newport from the 18th-century Brick Market and along the edge between the city and the water. Tearing down structures to build this road eliminated much of the early Newport waterfront. We had some influence in saving the Brick Market but the project had devastating effects on the neighborhood.
That is one example of the kind of obstacles and problems that we face almost every day. We must ask ourselves what is being destroyed and how we would feel without it being there. And, is there some way that a necessary item, such as a highway, can be built without destroying an area? Are there any alternatives? We cannot simply say we do not want it to be built if it is needed and there is money to do it. In some ways, it is the difficult question of how can we have our cake and eat it, too.
EAL: What other challenges and pressures did you experience?
FCW: There was a lot of pressure from those who had made it commercially and who felt that they had the power, as they still do today, to put their muscle into what they think will benefit their commercial interests. What I have been saying is that historic preservation itself cannot produce all the good things that people think are important. Preservation is simply the nuts and bolts in the rehabilitation of neighborhoods and in a sense, of people. When people live in nice areas they adopt the goodness of the area. We are facing similar economic pressures right now with the relocation of the World War II aircraft carrier, Saratoga, from Middletown across Naragansett Bay over to Quonset Point by a nonprofit organization. There is some industrial and commercial activity in the buildings at Quonset now, and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management maintains that the Saratoga project is not in the best interests of economic advancement there. Some people cannot see the benefit of a nonprofit, patriotic enterprise, but the governor has given the Saratoga organization two years to raise funds and develop a plan.
EAL: Do you explain such issues to antagonists in any different way today then you did then?
FCW: Well, things keep coming down to an either-or situation for some of the antagonists today who feel that it is all about money. That is why the historic preservation tax credits are now so helpful. Historic preservation provides resources that can accomplish the same, or usually better, results. We are more competitive now because we have the dollars-and-cents benefits of preservation to hold up against the alternatives. When you look at what is happening today in the rehabilitation of industrial neighborhoods and other areas of commercial properties, we can shout from the roof tops that we have been successful. Our success is more long-term and not necessarily dependent on the short-term results of typical commercial ventures.
EAL: It sounds as if you are saying that some of the same arguments that you used to face challenges in the very beginning are still valid today.
FCW: We have more of the public on our side today. People have become enthralled with what they see in preserved historic neighborhoods. We can point to a history of accomplishments that we did not have before. We have developed, and we continue to develop, facts and figures that are irrefutable. We are still on the right road, and we cannot give up but must keep moving ahead.
EAL: During this period in state government you became concerned that all aspects of the state's heritage were not being addressed, and so you helped found the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. What were some of the challenges you faced, especially regarding public attitudes within the historic preservation movement and the African American community? Were there unusual problems that you did not have with the state program?
FCW: I don't think I had too many problems, as far as the black community was concerned, although historic preservation was not necessarily on the front burner. First of all, the people involved in forming the society were not on the same track as the white community with regard to historic preservation. You have to be proud of who you are and where you are, and then the place you live becomes something valuable, and you want to maintain it. In establishing the Black Heritage Society, the question was: What do we have to be proud of? We needed an organization to sponsor activities that would counter that attitude, would encourage people to become proud of who they are. The Black Heritage Society fills that need.
EAL: As an officer of the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) in the 1970s, you were able to incorporate the organization and establish a staff and office in Washington. What were the obstacles to this important step in strengthening the organization, and how was this accomplished?
FCW: Well, it took many board meetings in the cash room of the Treasury Department Building in Washington. You have to think about what happens to people when they allow their own deficiencies to color their attitudes about things. Among the SHPOs, there was concern that, based on their experiences working in their own communities, they could not obtain funding for NCSHPO dues for a staffed office. We were telling them that historic preservation was like a faith that you believed in and followed. We all wanted success in historic preservation, and historic preservation was the same whether you are talking about Tulsa, Atlanta, or Boston. We had to work together. There was old-fashioned strength in having our own organization, and we all had to go down the same road together if we wanted to be successful. We were all subject to so many community pressures from one place to another, one set of officials to another. The idea was that out all the welter of "yes, no, maybe" we needed a dedicated group of people who could follow their own rules. Little by little, the SHPOs came on board despite their skepticism about money. But we needed the money just the same, and to come together and give examples that could be used in various states. Like all successful organizations, we needed the assets to make it happen, and we did that.
EAL: During the 1980s, you sat on the Board of Trustees of the National Trust. Tell us about those years.
FCW: Among many experiences as a Trustee, I was able to make a trip in 1982 to China with other preservationists to visit sites they were trying to preserve. We discussed at each place how the area fit into their urban planning. They were approaching historic preservation in the same way that we were in terms of the process. But the guides were self-conscious about some places, especially the housing sites, because they felt they cast a cloud on what they were doing. Yet, these sites were historic and represented how they lived, and we felt that it was important to show how these places were part of their culture. They seemed embarrassed, but we thought they were wonderful. The Chinese are very energetic as we once were. I wish today we had some of their energy and emotion.
EAL: You have been chair of the Rhode Island Historical Commission since 1995. Has the Commission's work changed over the years?
FCW: The program has become a more integral part of what's going on in Rhode Island, meaning that there is an acceptance of historic preservation. It seems that we have accomplished one of the early goals of tying historic preservation to development. It is no longer a question of whether to or not. I do not distinguish federal from state—the idea being that if it is in the National Register, we will work to preserve, and we do not ask why. People are ready to cooperate, whereas before they asked why preservation was necessary. Now it is taken for granted.
Philosophy and Process
EH: Do you have any thoughts about why you have been so successful in convincing people to do the right thing, in bringing out people's better nature and community spirit? I remember you going into meetings where people were shouting and waving their hands and being very passionate. You would come into the room and like Moses parting the waters, you calmed them down, and somehow they found a solution. Has anyone ever told you that, and do you have a strategy when you go into a meeting like that?
FCW: I don't think about how I feel about it, but I am concerned about how the people think and feel about what is going on. I cannot understand why some people do not support preservation. I have to figure out why they are on the other side of the issue. If I manage somehow to be, as you say, "Moses," I never think of myself that way. I don't think of the effect, but how the people are dealing with each other. I get so engrossed in the subject matter that if I begin thinking of myself as calming the waters I would never get anything done. At the end of those meetings, I never took the trouble to sit down and analyze how we managed to get to a happy ending or at least to one that would get the job done.
EAL: So, it was not a conscious strategy but a drive to focus on the issues at hand?
FCW: Much of my training came from working for the Navy, where one had to develop a "can do" attitude. I remember a terrific fire that destroyed the Engine Overhaul Building—a huge structure 1,000 feet long and about 400 feet wide. The building had to be completely reconstructed, and the commanding officer called me in, relieved me of my normal responsibilities, and said we had to get the building done in time to rehabilitate jet engines. Like other jobs I have been involved with, including historic preservation, I had never taken a course, but if that building was to be rebuilt in time to provide engines to the fleet, I had to know what I was doing. First, I had to find the blueprints of both floors and all the equipment. I went back and forth to Washington dealing with contractors, arranging for shipments, inspecting the shipments, and denying others that were not up to specifications. You do not do something like that on your own. You have to draw on the different information that everybody has, that they have been taught, always remembering that there is an overall objective and that all the little pieces put together produce the big piece. And if you do not know about the big piece, find the guys who know about the little pieces.
EAL: There were people at your birthday reception who said you had inspired them to go into historic preservation. What would you tell young people today?
FCW: I would tell them that there are many areas of interest in historic preservation. You can be an architect, a planner, or any number of things that can get you into the field. I think that if the story is properly told—not sure I can do that—many young people, as well as adults and professionals, might want to switch to historic preservation because it includes so many areas of interest. I think that once they know the story, a lot of young people are interested in historic preservation because it is more exciting and has more promise than many other types of jobs.
EAL: How important is it for young people to understand the culture of the country and the history of historic preservation? Should this be part of their education?
FCW: I hope that whatever courses they take in college offer an emphasis on historic preservation in some shape or manner because I think it can fit into any curriculum. The point is that the preservation movement encompasses our national heritage and goes beyond bricks and mortar. It expands our understanding of American culture.
EAL: How important do you think it is to continue to address the issue of diversity in the professional work force and in preservation programs and activities?
FCW: It is still important to tend to diversity. You should not cater to diversity at the expense of qualified people in the preservation workforce, and it is always good to hire or appoint people who have the proven skills, knowledge, and ability, which books often cannot teach. Diverse people should pay attention to what is needed, and there should be programs to provide them with the skills and knowledge that will allow them to be part of the big preservation effort.
In a sense, diversity is even more important these days when the whole world is looking at us. It has always been my personal goal to learn about and understand the place of African Americans in the history and making of America, how they were part of the early history and struggles, and especially the questions asked most recently about slavery.
EAL: Was it that feeling that led to the study of St. John's Lodge and the First Rhode Island Regiment of black troops during the Revolutionary War, and to the establishment of the commemorative park in Portsmouth, Rhode Island?
FCW: We now call it Patriots Park. Whether we called it that in those days I'm not too sure. There were several groups, including the Newport Branch of the NAACP and others, who wanted some physical representation of that early history of blacks in America, a place to talk about things that brought blacks together, a place where they could celebrate on holidays like Martin Luther King Day, and a place for tourists to visit. Their work led to the creation of Patriots Park [dedicated in 1976]. During this period, I was already doing some other things and serving as a member of other organizations. My interest in those days was in how African Americans were looked upon and accepted. It is important to understand the culture of America and its utilization of immigrants. I still believe what I said about the possibilities of historic preservation, especially with all of the immigrants coming to America now: "As the mosaic of the nation's people becomes more diverse, we are on the threshold of even greater opportunities to connect historic preservation to broader social, economic and cultural objectives that truly represent our full national heritage."
EAL: In a recent book, Bob Stipe has suggested that what we need is a special commission, a body of people outside of the established institutions, agencies, and organizations to come together to review the whole preservation movement, all of its programs, philosophy, structure, and focus, and to make recommendations. Is this the type of assessment you mean?
FCW: Yes, it is always good to look at yourself, turn yourself inside out and ask what am I about? Here we are talking about historic preservation programs, and it appears we are on the right track because we have been so successful. Well, that's fine, but how can we continue without someone trying to upset our apple cart? Whether we do this through a special commission or whether we have someone from each historic preservation group sit down and talk about why things are so good, we need to review where we are and what we are about. It is an excellent time to do it because we are not pushing for some particular piece of implementing legislation, even though we may be facing threats to what we have.
EAL: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?
FCW: Let's not forget that in these times we must take a hard look at where we are. We have accomplished so much of what we were trying to do years ago. I think that we have really established the environment that we thought we needed, but now we have to maintain it, not let it slip away. It would be nice to set up a conference to review where we are and what we can do to strengthen historic preservation for the future. We should not sit down and close the book, because the book is not ready to be closed yet.
1. Antoinette Forrester Downing (1904-2001) chaired the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission from 1968 to 1995 and was a nationally known author and preservation leader.