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NMSU associate dean travels across the western U.S. to help preserve national landmarks

For many engineers building things is a draw to the profession, but for Sonya Cooper preserving structures is her passion. Cooper, associate dean of academics at New Mexico State University?s College of Engineering, spent the fall semester on sabbatical developing treatments to stabilize, preserve and restore landmarks for the United States National Park Service through the Vanishing Treasures program.


Walls of ruins at Fort Union National Monument.
Sonya Cooper, associate dean of academics at New Mexico State University?s College of Engineering, traveled across the western United States during her fall semester sabbatical. She worked on a wall stabilization project of the ruins at the Fort Union National Monument near Las Vegas, New Mexico. (Courtesy photo)
Woman sitting at a desk.
New Mexico State University College of Engineering Associate Dean of academics Sonya Cooper recently returned from a sabbatical where she spent the fall developing preservation plans for the United States National Parks Service?s Vanishing Treasures program. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

?Not many engineers have the opportunity to work on historic preservation projects. Engineers typically are drawn by nature to new construction, new projects. I love preservation because it?s more challenging I think,? said Cooper, a civil engineer.

According to the National Park Service, ?the Vanishing Treasures Program supports the preservation of traditionally-built architecture in the Western United States, facilitates the perpetuation of traditional skills, and promotes connections between culturally associated communities and places of their heritage.?

The Vanishing Treasures program was created in 1998 and focuses on traditional architecture in the American West.

?The National Park mandate is to preserve and protect ruins,? Cooper said. ?As an engineer we are trained to make sure buildings and structures don?t turn into ruins. To say to an engineer to preserve and protect a free-standing wall that was not designed to be a free-standing wall, it was designed to be part of a building envelope that has a roof to protect it and foundation to keep it from settling, that?s a challenge.

?Preservation allows people to visualize our history versus looking at a photograph. Anything we can do to keep that history alive in the present, in my case through engineering, then we are giving the general public a better understanding of their history,? she said.

Cooper, who in her 22-year career at NMSU had not taken a sabbatical before, discovered this opportunity through her partner, Jean Fulton. During a project with the National Park Services and Cornerstones Community Partnerships, Fulton, a preservationist, suggested Cooper to the Vanishing Treasures historic architect after he mentioned the program was in dire need of an engineer.

During her sabbatical, Cooper traveled to four states. In New Mexico, she developed treatment plans for the visitors center at the White Sands National Monument, wall ruins at Fort Union National Monument and Alcove House Kiva at Bandalier National Monument.

She worked on the Painted Desert Inn at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona along with a lighthouse, warehouse and community center at the Kalapaupa National Historic Park and the battleship mooring quays at the Pearl Harbor Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Hawaii.

In Texas, Cooper is providing treatments for the Mission San Jose, Mission Espada, Mission San Juan, Mission Concepcion and historic aqueduct at the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.

Additionally, Cooper developed treatments for the Joshua Tree National Park in California and Bents Old Fort in Colorado but did not visit the sites.

?The sabbatical was wonderful because you are traveling to all the most beautiful places in the country?our national parks,? she said.

After visiting and evaluating the landmarks in the fall, Cooper is finishing reports and treatments for the sites. She plans to continue to volunteer with the National Park Service and hopes the community understands the value of the landmarks.

?I want people to realize there is a purpose and a reason to keep our historic structures alive. We have many wonderful historic buildings in our state, and a lot in this town,? she noted.

National landmarks are not the only important structures to Cooper. She is on the board of the Amador Hotel in Las Cruces.

?Structures have amazing history within the walls that they provide so I want to get the word out to contribute in some way and help save these fascinating historic landmarks.?