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PYSK: Debbie Sheals

Architectural Historian/Historic Preservation Consultant

AGE: 48

JOB DESCRIPTION: My work divides into two main categories: research and documentation of historic architecture, and assistance with planning rehabilitation projects for historic properties. The research and documentation category includes architectural and historical survey and writing National Register of Historic Places nominations. In the rehab category, my job is to help property owners plan rehabilitation and restoration projects that will preserve important historic features of their buildings. The two categories often overlap when historic preservation tax credits are involved; government regulations require that properties using that program be listed in the National Register and that all work meet recognized standards for rehabilitation. My job includes filing the required applications and documentation for property owners who wish to use those tax credits.

YEARS LIVED IN COLUMBIA: 40 (except for two years in St. Louis in the 1980s)


EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in housing design and master’s degree in cultural heritage studies (historic preservation) from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Graduate work focused on American architectural history.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Advisory board member and past president of the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation; past chair and founding member of the Columbia Historic Preservation Commission; member of the Canopy Committee for the Columbia Special Business District; Member of the Columbia Public Building and Finance Committee.

PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND: Worked in architectural drafting after I completed my undergraduate work, and worked on my first historic rehab project in Soulard, in the City of St. Louis. I worked for several years doing freelance drafting for new houses, and while in graduate school I also served on an architectural survey team for the East Campus neighborhood in Columbia. I took my first consulting job shortly before finishing my master’s degree in 1993 and have been working in historic preservation since then. Writing the National Register nomination for the East Campus neighborhood was one of my first consulting jobs.

A COLUMBIA BUSINESSPERSON I ADMIRE AND WHY: I have to give you two: Tom and Scott Atkins. I have had the pleasure to work for Atkins Investments on several projects and have been highly impressed. They are sharp businessmen and, more importantly, good people who care about their community. They hire smart people and treat everyone who works for them with courtesy and respect. The first time I worked for them was on the rehab of the Atkins City Centre, which is now a showpiece in downtown Columbia. That rehab project has had a major impact upon how preservation is viewed in Columbia; they showed it could be done, and they were a delight to work with throughout.

WHY I’M PASSIONATE ABOUT MY JOB: I’ve been interested in historic architecture for as long as I can remember, and I feel very lucky to be able to make a living doing something I love. One of the best things about this job is that every project is different, and I learn something new just about every day.

IF I WEREN’T DOING THIS FOR A LIVING, I WOULD: I have often thought that landscape architecture would be a great thing to do, as long as someone else did the heavy lifting! I love working in my perennial garden and enjoy watching a garden develop over a number of years; it must be the historian in me.

BIGGEST CAREER OBSTACLE I’VE OVERCOME AND HOW: Historic preservation is not the most lucrative career one could choose. For the first several years I was in consulting, I had to work a part-time job to supplement my income from preservation. That changed as I gained experience and became better known, and the creation of Missouri Historic Preservation Tax credits in 1998 also created a much stronger demand for this type of work.

A FAVORITE RECENT PROJECT: I’ve been working off and on for the last three years on the commercial and architectural history of Downtown Columbia. That project just culminated in the recent listing of a National Register Historic District downtown, which includes just over 100 buildings. What fun to work on the commercial core of my own hometown! (Much of my work is in other cities.) We could never have listed that many buildings in the area if property owners on Broadway had not made the important decision to remove the concrete canopies. With that change, the great historic facades are visible, and downtown once again reflects its long commercial history.

WHAT PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THIS PROFESSION: It is incredibly rewarding but full of special challenges. A strong educational background and a scholarly approach are essential, even when one is simply planning a rehabilitation project.

WHAT I DO FOR FUN: Gardening and bike touring. I’ve ridden a “century loop,” which involves 100 miles in a single day, at the last two MS 150 charity bike rides here in Columbia (a benefit for multiple sclerosis).

FAMILY: I’ve been married for 20 years to Bill Sheals, co-owner of Murry’s restaurant, and have two children. Joe, 18, is a freshman at MU, and our daughter, Anna, is 13 and an avid soccer player.

FAVORITE PLACE IN COLUMBIA: Downtown! When I moved out of a home office several years ago, it was really just chance that I ended up with an office in the downtown area. Now, I cannot imagine being anywhere else. What a vibrant and delightful place our central business district is!

ACCOMPLISHMENT I’M MOST PROUD OF: Having some small part in the end of the canopies downtown. Ever since I was in college and saw a photo of Broadway in a textbook as an example of “what not to do,” I’ve daydreamed about seeing them come down.

MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW THAT I: Spend a couple of afternoons a month baking desserts at Murry’s. I did it almost full time when I was in college, and I still enjoy the work.

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