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Preservation Virginia CEO to retire this fall

A portrait of Preservation Virginia CEO Kostelny
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Preservation Virginia CEO Elizabeth Kostelny is photographed on Wednesday, June 12, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

Elizabeth Kostelny has been with the organization for more than 30 years.

Preservation Virginia, founded in 1889, was the nation’s first statewide historic preservation group. It owns and operates six properties in Virginia, including Historic Jamestowne and the John Marshall House in Richmond.

This fall, after more than three decades with the organization, its CEO, Elizabeth Kostelny, will retire.

Under Kostelny’s leadership, Preservation Virginia transformed Historic Jamestowne and advocated for the protection of Pine Grove Rosenwald School, an early-20th century Black school house in Cumberland County.

VPM News Morning Edition host Phil Liles spoke with Kostelny about her career and the future of historic preservation in Virginia.

Phil Liles: What were some of the challenges in preserving the historic site of Jamestown?

Elizabeth Kostelny: It was a very pleasant park-like setting. It had the 17th-century church tower and the Memorial Church. But there was little else going on, on that site. And in 1994, taking a great leap of faith, we started a project called the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. It was led by William Kelso, an archaeologist, to find the remains of [the] 1607 James Fort.

Some people thought we were crazy. Everybody knew it had fallen into the river, that the James River had eaten away at the banks. And within the first year, we found 75,000 artifacts that dated to the first quarter of the 17th century, so we knew 1607 James Fort still existed. That project remains and it continues to reveal amazing discoveries about the interactions between Virginia Indians and the first settlers. And later, the arrival of Africans.

Visitors can come and actually stand at the edge of an archeological excavation, talk to the archaeologist as they work and see the discoveries that are coming right out of the ground. They're new discoveries that expand our understanding of what's happening. That's been a great lesson for us as an organization, is history is not something stagnant and locked on a page. But as you have archeological discoveries, as you uncover a new document, you start to get a more broad, expansive picture of history.

With climate change, is there any concern with Jamestown Island?

There's great concern at Jamestown Island with climate change. We see that more and more frequently with heavy rainstorms, sea-level rise, and in fact, we've launched a project called Save Jamestown to address exactly those things.

Archaeological sites that were dry 30 years ago, now have water seeping into them. That water is eroding those archaeological artifacts, particularly burials, and we're losing information.

The first step in our project is to excavate the most vulnerable areas, so we can capture that history. And then look at ways that we can reduce the impact through berms and pumping stations, and solutions like that to buy us 75 years of time — when there might be more interventions that might be known.

We can excavate the artifacts and we can put them in a museum, but standing in that very spot where people struggled and people persisted can't be replaced.

With whomever is selected to take your position, what do you hope that that new individual will do for our historical sites?

I think that they will start to look at some of these contemporary issues like climate change, the need for affordable housing in urban and rural areas. What does it really mean for historic preservation to be successful in the next two decades? I think that's what this new person will bring to the position.

Phil Liles is VPM's morning news host.
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