Invoking a pot of gumbo in an analogy seems a sure sign that Richard Silverman has naturalized during his three years in New Orleans. A historic architect working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA's) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, when Silverman considers his work and the broader aesthetic of New Orleans, it goes far beyond bricks and mortar ... or weatherboards and wrought iron.
"The most important thing is what we call the tout ensemble. It's not just an individual piece of architecture; it's about how the whole thing works together, almost like a big pot of gumbo," Silverman says. "What makes New Orleans unlike any other city in the United States is that it is not just the architecture—but we have the interplay of the music, the food, and the architecture. We're trying to retain a way of life here."
History and historic buildings would begin to take a hold on Silverman during his years on UVM's campus. In a high school, a trip from his home in Memphis brought him north and through Burlington. With one look, he was sold that UVM was the college for him.
Several courses through the Historic Preservation Program found Silverman exploring his surroudings. "We walked out of the textbook and into the state's history," he recalls. "The Champlain Valley was our classroom. We could see 18th-century Neo-classical churches, Greek Revival farmhouses, mill buildings along the Winooski—those things you learn about in books, many of them are still there in Vermont. Where else can you do that?"
Silverman would go on to earn master's degrees in both architecture and architectural history, leading to a sixteen-year career and a wide variety of projects. Currently employed by URS Corporation, Silverman works with FEMA on historic architecture issues related to the agency's $1.79 billion Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The work carried out through the grant is designed to prepare Louisiana to withstand future disasters. Focused on New Orleans, Silverman oversees the work on historic structures in a city that boasts 25 historic districts, the highest concentration in the U.S.
"My goal in working with these buildings is to have the lightest touch possible when retrofitting them so that you may not even notice," Silverman says. "A positive outcome would be for someone to see these buildings years from now and not know that we did this work, but appreciate that they are still here."
For Silverman personally, having a role in the city's rebirth will likely be the capstone of his career. "To be able to work in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita ... I can't think of a more culturally enriching place to work and see the results of it."