Shanon Miller got her first glimpse into the hands-on work of historic preservation while on a field trip Dr. David Woodcock, Professor of Architecture at Texas A&M University, organized for his course Introduction to Historic Preservation. Dr. Woodcock introduced the class to San Antonio’s Historic Preservation Officer.
Miller recalled telling her classmate after the meeting, “I want that job.”
Eight years later, Miller began work as Director of the City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation.
“Now I have it,” said Miller. “I didn’t know I meant it quite so literally at the time, yet here I am.”
Miller’s work to preserve the city’s rich architectural heritage and role in pioneering community-focused preservation initiatives convinced the Bush School to designate Miller the 2021 Outstanding Alumnus.
From law to lightbulbs
Miller enrolled in Dr. Woodcock’s class to fulfill an elective requirement while studying for her Master of Public Service and Administration degree with a concentration in Advanced Public Management at the Bush School. After graduating from the Western Kentucky University in December 1997, Miller was accepted by several prestigious law schools. She said she applied to the Bush School “just to have options.”
Miller had planned to obtain a joint JD/master’s degree in law and history, with the objective of teaching legal history.
“Then I decided at the last minute that law school was not the right path. I wasn’t as excited about it as you should be before starting out on something like that,” she said.
Miller enrolled at the Bush School in the fall of 1998. There, a colleague recommended Dr. Woodcock’s historic preservation course. Miller decided to take a chance on an experience outside her program of study.
During the first week of class, Dr. Woodcock engaged in an exercise with the students to help them explore their relationship to historic buildings.
“A lightbulb went off,” said Miller. “I didn’t even know this was a job.”
Historic preservation married Miller’s love of history and drive to serve her local community. Regardless of which city Miller worked for, she found a way to enhance its unique historical and cultural profile.
Miller first went to work as the Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Fort Worth, Texas.
“In some ways, I don’t really know why they hired me initially, but I think it worked out well for them and me,” said Miller. With Miller’s input and support, the city adopted its first historic preservation plan.
After three years in Fort Worth, Miller accepted a position as the Historic Preservation Officer in Franklin, Tennessee.
“Around the time I moved there, there was an election for the Franklin Board of Mayor and Aldermen that was largely based on historic preservation principles and wanting to control growth. So we had a lot of opportunity to do some innovative things,” Miller said.
For example, Miller helped to purchase a 200-acre horse farm and convert it into a public park.
“It was a place the community loved, and it was very iconic. Preserving that for the community, which now is a gathering place that the community loves—it’s why I got into historic preservation,” said Miller.
Another initiative involved restoring the eastern flank of the field where parts of the Battle of Franklin occurred during the Civil War.
“The eastern flank purchase was innovative because it was already developed land. Often the battles that happened in the Civil War were in more rural areas. In Franklin, it was already a community. We were able to develop public education and outreach opportunities that hadn’t existed before.”
Preserving San Antonio’s history through its people
In 2008, Miller moved to San Antonio to take up the position as Director of the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP).
“What’s unique about this role is that it’s a standalone department. As a department director, I report directly to the city manager’s office. It elevates the visibility of historic preservation work in San Antonio,” said Miller.
Having a seat at the table with other city directors allows Miller to exercise greater sway in the policy-making process. It also exposes the OHP to increased public pressure.
“People who work in government sometimes get the bureaucrat reputation, and not always in a positive way,” said Miller. “We do have to follow the rules. We have to issue approvals for work in historic districts, and sometimes that means we have to tell people no. But if we’re going to do that, it’s important that we give people the resources, experiences, and knowledge they need to be good stewards of their houses and their buildings.”
Miller has overcome the problem of local buy-in by implementing community-based development programs. She hopes that community members who participate in these programs will become more in touch with their local heritage.
“There’s no way to get anything done at the local level without community support,” said Miller.
One way the San Antonio OHP engages the population is through Students Together Achieving Revitalization (S.T.A.R.). Participants gain trade experience in building rehabilitation and maintenance while improving the condition of San Antonio’s historic architecture. Under the S.T.A.R. program, volunteers revitalized over one hundred and fifty properties.
Many of these properties house San Antonio’s lower income residents. According to Miller, houses constructed prior to 1960 provide a disproportionate number of affordable housing opportunities.
“It’s important that we reinvest in them and improve them versus tearing them down and replacing them. And that also ties into our trades training. Our apprentices are not just doing theoretical work in a shop. They’re actually working on affordable housing units in our city.”
Not even Miller can salvage every historic building. But demolition spews dust and debris into the air and contributes to landfill waste, representing a threat to public health. To counter this, San Antonio became the first city to sanction a deconstruction initiative out of the OHP.
“Instead of having [the houses] mechanically demolished and put into a landfill, they’re deconstructed so the material can be used in others, like an organ donor,” said Miller.
Building materials will supplement the OHP’s various preservation programs. The OHP is also creating partnerships with local universities to research material innovation utilizing old materials.
Other cities have similar deconstruction ordinances. But, according to Miller, “the thing that sets the San Antonio initiative apart is that it’s being directed by the historic preservation office. Often they come from an environmental or sustainability-type office, or even solid waste. And all of those people are involved in ours. But really, it’s the historic preservation that is pushing it because it is a cultural heritage issue in addition to all those other things.”
Preservation as public service
In every city where Miller served in historic preservation, she has transformed its historical architecture into functional places of community building and sustainability. Her success is due in part to principles she learned at the Bush School.
Former Bush School professor Dr. Robert Durant introduced one of these concepts, called “backward mapping.”
“Instead of looking at the tools in the toolkit, we take the problem and work backwards,” Miller explained. “We’re trying to get at the root causes of situations and address them rather than just doing the obvious short-term solutions.”
When it came to the problem of vacant buildings in San Antonio, Miller used backward mapping to determine how to approach the owner of each property. “Every tool doesn’t work in every situation,” she said.
As a result, the city developed a program that facilitates moving vacant and underutilized properties back on to the tax rolls. Since the program started, over 700 properties no longer fall under the vacant building ordinance because they have come into compliance or are no longer vacant.
Miller also found ways to apply her Bush School education in nonprofit management to support preservation. Now she serves on the board of Power of Preservation Foundation (PoP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting hands-on, workforce-driven preservation programs and developing future preservation advocates.
In 2018, PoP acquired a 1906 mansion and transformed it into a learning lab for university students and tradespeople. The house is set to earn San Antonio’s first-ever residential Zero Carbon Certification from the International Living Future Institute.
“Historic preservation is not only cultural sustainability,” said Miller. “It’s environmental and economic sustainability as well.”
San Antonio’s historic sites drive tourism and industry, contributing to a large part of the city’s economy. Sometimes, cultural heritage clashes with the push toward modernity. Historic preservation helps mitigate the negative effects of this shift.
“It’s not that historic preservation is about freezing in time. It’s really about managing change in those neighborhoods,” said Miller. “If somebody who lived in a house when it was first built came back today, we will have been successful if they can still recognize their house.”
Miller remembers her reason for working in historic preservation when she deals with the variety of interests—from neighborhood communities who resist change to developers who seek to expand.
“It has to be about what the community wants,” said Miller. “I often joke that if everybody is a little bit unhappy, then you’re probably doing something right because it means you’re not too far on either side.”