The Cleo and James Marston Fitch Thesis Grant was established in 2001 through an endowment by the estate of James Marston Fitch (1909-2000). It is given annually to a Columbia University Historic Preservation student to cover expenses incurred during research for their Master’s thesis.

2020 Grant Recipient

A former United Nuclear Corporation building near Church Rock, New Mexico.

Sarah Sargent
“Reclaiming the Fugitive Dust: Preserving and Interpreting America’s Forgotten History of Nuclear Contamination”

Radiologically contaminated sites differ from other heritage places in that the inherent permanence of their materiality creates an imperative for their preservation on a massive timescale. This is cultural heritage at its most crucial, for if our society forgets about the dangers that radioactivity poses – if the message Do not dig here does not translate across centuries – then beings generations ahead of our own will be put at risk.

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

How can preservationists engage in the highly conflicted realm between remediation, destruction and the preservation of significant structures? How can radiologically contaminated places be interpreted in such a way that this history is not forgotten? This work explores a series of three case studies (Uravan, Colorado; West Orange, New Jersey; and Ottawa, Illinois) that illustrate how radiologically contaminated historic environments have been treated during the EPA Superfund cleanup process. The regulatory and policy processes (including Section 106 review) that have led to these preservation outcomes are reviewed and analyzed with an eye towards the lessons learned that could be applied to these unique preservation challenges.

In many cases historic buildings have been demolished to protect human health, but the case studies examined in this thesis show that the tension between remediation and preservation is not intractable. The risk from contamination should always be considered, but it appears that the demolition of radiologically contaminated historic structures is by and large a bureaucratic, legal, and social issue, not a strictly technical one. Because of this, as historic preservation professionals we may be able preserve more historic built fabric than we currently realize. The case studies discussed in this work also highlight the importance of community activism in ensuring positive preservation outcomes, and suggest that one of the crucial ways of better integrating preservation in the Superfund remediation process is through improved Section 106 compliance. Even when radiological contamination is so extensive as to require a building’s demolition, there are many ways to ensure that this crucial history becomes part of broader public memory.

Grant funding provided by Preservation Alumni assisted with cost of travel and field investigation that were necessary to complete the research. 

Past Fitch Grant Recipients


Shivali Gaikwad, “Living with Water: Adaptation Processes, Heritage Conservation and Conflicting Values”


Tonia Sing Chi, “Building Reciprocity: A Grounded Theory of Participation in Native American Housing and the Perpetuation of Earthen Architectural Traditions”


Cheng Liao, “Rethinking the Vernacular in China: Understanding the Dynamics of Social Transformation and the Evolution of Rural Architecture”


Alberto Sanchez-Sanchez, “Behind the Ecce Homo: Rural Development Policy and the Effects of Depopulation on the Preservation of Spanish Heritage”


Laura Groves, “Is there a Role for Preservation in a Favela?”


Emily Barr, “Pressing Issues: In-Kind Terra Cotta Replacement in the 21st Century”


Myun Song, “Wireless Sensing for Reinforced Concrete Structures and Concrete Repair”


Lorena Pérez Leighton, “1930s American Steel Houses: Modern Artifact or Traditional Dwelling?”


Susan Shay, “Cultural Landscape as Foil in Political Struggle”


Christine Huh, “The Bush Terminal Model Lofts and Early Reinforced Concrete Buildings on Brooklyn’s Waterfront; Their Significance as Industrial Heritage”


Susie Jackson, “Natural Extractives as Wood Preservatives”


Takushi Yoshida, “Machine Aesthetics in Architecture: Adaptive-reuse of Grain Elevators in Buffalo as an Industrial Landscape”


Deborah Baldwin van Steen, “The Architecture of Calvin Pollard (1797-1850)”


Michael Caratzas, “Cross-Bronx: Preserving a Significant Urban Expressway and Its Megastructure”

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