Patricia Miller: Preserving the Golden Age

“You’ll never make it as an artist;  be a lawyer instead.” 

So the TV cliché father figure would tell this to his son, hoping he’d pursue a more practical line of work. The reality is that there are many jobs that deal with art on a daily basis. Patricia Miller is a shining example.

Miller was a fine art major as an undergrad. Through her studies, she became very familiar with bronze casting. During college, she performed conservation work in Chicago on public park sculptures. Miller switched her focus to architecture after undergrad, and worked with old buildings, which led her to her current occupation. She is now the chief conservator of the Preservation Society of Newport County.

The Preservation Society exists to help maintain 11 historic mansions in Newport, RI. Among these are famous names such as The Breakers, The Elms, Marble House, and Rosecliff. These houses were made in the late 19th century for wealthy people that lived and worked in New York, so they could come up to Rhode Island in the summer and get a break from the city air. Several of these houses were owned by the Vanderbilts, the richest family in America, during parts of the Gilded Age. Eventually, the various owners of these historical mansions let them go, because they were very difficult to maintain, and the taxes on them were also quite high. Years later, in the 1940’s, the residents of Newport organized efforts to restore and preserve these historic residences. Now, they are maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County. The Society conducts year-round tours through the mansions. As the most popular attraction in Rhode Island, they get 400,000-500,000 visitors per year.

 In a recent presentation at Colby, Patricia Miller spoke about her role in the Society, and their mission. The Society is responsible for the examination, documentation, treatment, preventative care, research, and education of the Newport Mansions. Each mansion is a work of art in and of itself, and must be cared for. As the buildings age, they tend to fall apart, and it’s the role of the Society to keep them in working condition. There are also countless historic artifacts that were part of the mansions that must now be cared for. Additionally, they are also looking to install central temperature control in these buildings, which presents a large challenge. It is the role of the Society to undertake these duties. 

Art is an everyday part of Miller’s job, particularly the restoration and maintenance of works within the mansions. The wealthy owners of these mansions could afford to get just about anything they wanted, and as a result, there are beautiful collections of art in the Newport Mansions. Miller worked with people all around the world to help restore and hang a tapestry that belonged to the Vanderbilts. Much of the work that is done in the mansions has to do with retaining their beauty and ensuring its lasting capability, so the world can benefit from it.

Climate change has had a profound impact on the Newport Mansions. Some of the historic properties are damaged by rising tides, and Miller must be on alert during particularly risky times, in case artifacts need to be moved out of one of the mansions. The Society takes frequent climate data measurements in Newport, which have illustrated over time the effects of climate change in RI. They are helping to facilitate a new discussion about climate change.

To quote Miller, “if you have that desire in figuring it out, understanding why, even a little bit of an investigator attitude, and you find that that’s how you get interested in things, I do a lot of that. It’s not always a straight line to the finish.” To the art majors and the prospective art majors, or even history majors who have some interest, conservation could be the right path for you to take. As the world’s buildings age, they will need to be taken care of, and you might find yourself one day fixing up what was once the greatest mansion in the country.