October 29, 2022 | Last updated Sep 12, 2023

Get to Know Your Friendly State Preservationist

– Jessica Tebo

Jill Dolberg, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer


You might be wondering what a preservationist even is. And before you ask, it’s not someone who enjoys canning fruits or vegetables nor is it someone involved in cryogenics. A historic preservationist is someone who works to support the preservation of old buildings and artifacts. These people are professionals who serve their communities by educating and helping people to use historic resources in creative new ways. 

Jill Dolberg is the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer for History Nebraska and a preservationist. She loves her job and her work is inspired by her passion for history, architecture, and, most importantly, the people that give meaning to these historic places. A job in historic preservation can mean a lot of paperwork and regulatory work, but there is certainly a fun side. I interviewed Jill to learn more about those moments that excite a preservationist: getting to see the inside of a closed-off building, listening to people tell about their local histories, and seeing a once-forgotten old building get a second chance.

 

What is the most surprising thing you have learned about old buildings while working as a preservationist?

Two things: We know that human beings have an impact on places through wear and tear but buildings actually do better when people are living in them and using them regularly. A building’s well-being is tied to people paying attention and noticing things like leaking pipes or a hole in the roof. The next thing is that there is no such thing as “maintenance free” fixes for buildings. When you own a property, half of what you are doing is staving off entropy.

 

Wyuka Cemetary, Lincoln, NE

How long have you been a preservationist?

I think that I was born a preservationist! There is something in me that is a rule-follower and I want to take care of places so other people can enjoy them. On a trip to Spain, I visited the Alhambra and was deeply impressed by it, but I was also appalled by people who were crawling past the ropes and disrespecting the building. 

I finally learned what preservation was in 1994 through an internship with Ed Zimmer—I spent a summer researching the graves in Wyuka Cemetery. It was amazing to see how a local place can be so connected with national history.

 

What inspired you to become a preservationist?

Travel. My father was handicapped so we didn’t go skiing or to the beach. But my father loved to visit historic places—places where things happened. He instilled that appreciation in me. There are places where history really resonates and you can feel it while you are there—you feel a connection that you can’t get from a book. At the time, I didn’t have the right vocabulary to describe it but I felt it. ​

 

What is the most interesting thing/story/place you have encountered while traveling the state of Nebraska?

One of the first trips that I went on after starting my job at History Nebraska was to Scottsbluff. There was an apartment building that had been turned into a bed and breakfast. The owners entertained us with a ghost story that was so believable. I remember the people that I have met while traveling across the state more than anything. I am most inspired by the people that I meet, especially those who have plans for old buildings and who can bring a building back from the edge. ​

 

What accomplishment from working at History Nebraska are you most proud of?

I am really proud of the things that I have done that will linger. I first started working with the Nebraska Historic Resource Survey and Inventory and oversaw over 17 different county surveys—those will last. I have also written over 50 different National Register nominations. I feel a personal connection to the places that I have written nominations for, it almost feels like I am a 1% owner of the properties. 

 

As a preservationist, what are the types of things you notice that make your friends and family think you are crazy?

I am forever noticing the little details that tell me if a building has been changed. If someone offhand comments about a beautiful old house, I will immediately notice some of the historically inappropriate work done to it. You come off as being critical sometimes or a purist. 

When I was looking for a house with my husband, we went to 80 showings because I was adamant about having original windows and features.

 

If you had an endless supply of and money/time and no restrictions, what preservation-related project would you love to take on?

The things that I worry the most about are those that you can’t adequately prepare for like floods or earthquakes. I worry about a beautiful church in Assisi, Italy—if an earthquake came it would shake that place apart. I would love to put a bubble around some special places that would protect them from natural disasters. ​

 

North Platte Depot

If you could go back in time, is there a particular building/structure that you would like to see or save?

At this moment it might be Notre Dame because that wound is so fresh. For a more local example, I would have loved to see the train depot that once housed the North Platte Canteen. The community’s identity is so tied up with the Canteen—it is sad that the building is no longer there

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About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
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