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Xanterra’s Historic Preservation Crew

Xanterra’s Historic Preservation Crew

Written by: , September 28th, 2022
Categories: People

Preserving the Past

We spoke to Darren Kisor, the manager of the Historic Preservation Crew (HPC) and two of his lead craftsmen, John Diem and Rich Henderson. In the course of these three conversations an incredible sense of enthusiasm, pride, and devotion rung loudly in their comments. The HPC are not simply people who have carpentry, masonry, or other mechanical skills. These folks do have those talents, but also an undeniable sense of responsibility to and for the structures, the park, and the American people who ultimately own these buildings.

Before and After of Pergola at Old Faithful Inn

What is the Historic Preservation Crew and why do we need them?

There are more than 800 structures assigned to Xanterra in Yellowstone. Of that, about two-thirds are historic structures that are the responsibility of the HPC. Perhaps the most well-known, and a favorite with the HPC team members, is the Old Faithful Inn. In addition to being 118 years old, it’s an icon, credited with being the inspiration behind the concept of rustic park architecture.

Like the Inn, all historic structures represent the times they were built. In some cases, they serve as great examples of the tools, technology, and architectural influences of their day. They are akin to hands-on museum pieces that deserve respect and care. Attention to detail is critical when performing repairs and maintenance on these structures. Part of the responsibility of the HPC is to ensure that the materials, hardware, and even the screws, are representative of the structure’s original era. For example, Phillips head screws, while otherwise unnoticeable, would be out of place for repairs in the Old Faithful Inn since they were not produced until the 1930s, well after the Inn was built.

It is noteworthy how recurring sentiments are shared by the talented team of HPC workers. In reality, what they share runs deeper than simply themes. What they have in common is a strong commitment, or better yet, devotion to maintaining, protecting, and preserving the incredible historic structures that have been put in Xanterra’s care.

In a sense, these crew members are physicians, responsible for the care and long-term health of the iconic buildings in the world’s first national park. In fact, Rich compared one of the primary philosophies of preservation work to a physician’s oath, “First, do no harm.”

Before and After of Purlin at Lake Lodge

You know your work is good when no one knows you did it!

Darren noted that a goal of the HPC is to do good work in a way that no one would notice. When they make repairs, the crew strives to do it in a way that the finished work looks like no work was done at all. To accomplish this, the HPC needs to understand the history of the building, have the correct materials, the right tools, and a strong attention to detail.  For this, building-specific Historic Structures Reports serve as critical resources for each building.

In some cases, the original materials came from the park. It might have been logs and stone originally harvested from a nearby location. In a place that is dedicated to preserving the natural resources, this can create challenges for the crew. Darren noted that the original logs in the Inn were from virgin forest, and those trees tended to be far more dense and longer lasting than newer growth trees. So, while materials may not always meet the exact specifications of the original materials, the HPC knows what will work and how to work with them.

The spectacle of the tools and the work

There are cases where today’s tools and technology don’t fully meet the needs of historic repair or update work. Certainly, a chainsaw is much faster and easier than a two-person cross-cut saw when it comes to cutting logs. Darren explained that newer tools are critical to the job, but the older tools are often used to put the finishing touches on the work. Darren proudly noted that when the crew breaks out the vintage gear, the visitors will often gather in groups to watch and chat.

Darren Kisor and John Diem

Darren and the Historic Preservation Crew do what they do out of a love for the historic structures that Xanterra is privileged to maintain. When asked, Darren shared that while he wants the work itself to go unnoticed, he also wants our guests and staff to know there is a team of skilled individuals devoted to keeping these structures, “in good shape and as close to their original look as possible.”

John Diem finds reward in how his work today connects him to his own family’s past. “My grandfather was born in 1893 and worked construction. He did a lot of his work during the time many of the park’s structures were built.” He wants to be sure that his work honors those workers that came before him. And in another 50 to 100 years, when the next generation of HPC craftsmen see his work, he hopes they recognize it as well done and worthy of the building.

Rich Henderson takes similar pride in the work.  “HPC work is the most meaningful thing I can do that gives back to the public” he says. This is a collective belief of the HPC, that the historic structures in Yellowstone are owned by America and deserving of the highest level of care and commitment.  This devotion to the structures is what binds the HPC staff.

Baluster at Old Faithful Inn

Who’s your favorite child?

When asked, Darren, John and Rich all noted the Old Faithful Inn is hard to beat as their favorite historic structure. But Darren also notes a few buildings that are part of the National Park Service care. They include the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center and the Lake Ranger Station. In the big picture, there are no wrong answers. Each historic building in the park is a treasure with its own unique personality and beauty.

When asked about favorite projects, Darren and John noted the replacement of a two-story staircase that leads to a place known locally as “Wuthering Heights.” They proudly noted how it was all done with hand tools and when finished, looked like it had been there forever.

For Rich, it was a repair on a small staircase baluster that had been accidentally broken by a guest’s luggage. The broken piece was a unique branch with a deer antler shape.  Rich and a co-worker searched the woods, and as luck and commitment would have it, they found a similar shaped down branch and made the repair. The work even passed the scrutiny of the Pacific Northwest Historic Preservation Field School during a visit and tour of the Inn.

Mark Defazio, Jake (Jacob) Callicott, Rich Henderson, Simon Moore, Mike Yanus

What makes a great HPC team member?

HPC work is not for everyone, but for some, it’s quite rewarding. According to Darren, a keen attention to detail is critical for this kind of work. Certainly, strong carpentry and, if possible, masonry skills are also very important. And while not critical to performing the specific work, people skills are good too, as this is a small team, and as mentioned, when working out in the public, our visitors are very interested and love to engage with them.

John shared that he feels a good HPC craftsman must enjoy learning, believe in preservation, and possess patience. He and his colleagues are very particular and focused on quality work.

Rich likes the work because “every day is different.” Every project has its own challenges. As Rich shared with the baluster project, “We will always strive to repair, before we replace, though In some cases, we are replacing the irreplaceable and when done correctly, no one will even know it was done.”

Sam Taggert and Nisar Akbany

Meet the Historic Preservation Crew

This talented crew is currently located at various properties around the park. We’re pleased to introduce them, with our thanks for their great care of our wonderful historic buildings.

Gardiner/Mammoth/Canyon Crew

Darren Kisor, HPC Manager, Gardiner (28 years)

John Diem, Lead Craftsman, Gardiner (16 years)

Lake Area Crew

Sam Taggart, Lead Craftsman, 2 years)

Nisar Akbany, Lake area (1 Year)

Old Faithful Area Crew

Rich Henderson, Lead Craftsman, Old Faithful area (6 years)

Jacob Callicott, Old Faithful (1 year)

Michael Yanus, Old Faithful (1 year)

Mark Defazio, Old Faithful (1 years)

Simon Moore (1 year)

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