Q&A WITH PETER BORGEMEISTER ’69
Passion for Preservation
Architect Peter Borgemeister specializes in historic restoration.
For the past twenty-five years, Peter Borgemeister has preserved some of New England’s most iconic historic buildings, including the Narragansett Towers and Block Island’s Southeast Lighthouse. Now that he is retired, he has set his sights on Clark Memorial Chapel.
Tell me about your journey after graduating from Pomfret.
After graduating from Pomfret, I started at Rhode Island School of Design to study architecture. But frankly, I wasn’t emotionally ready for college. I took a break and began working as a self-employed carpenter. After thirteen years, I realized that wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to be an architect — it had always been my goal. I went back to school and finished my education in 1986 with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. I completed my internship, passed the exam, and received my Rhode Island and Massachusetts architectural licenses in 1994.
What areas of architecture did you specialize in?
I have spent the past twenty-seven years focused on two areas. The first is adaptive reuse or reusing an existing building for a new purpose. There are a million things that can be done with old manufacturing facilities. An example would be taking a factory and converting it into a school, nursing home, or housing. My other specialty is historic preservation. I find that work most gratifying because I’m preserving something valuable from the past for future generations.
What sparked your interest in rehabilitating buildings for low-income housing?
When I was at Pomfret, my eyes were opened to social justice concerns. I know that I'm very privileged and I've always had plenty. Reverend Tom Hanson would gather a busload of students and take us to Hartford to tutor kids. The experience of working with people who did not have the same privilege as I did had a lasting impact on me. Reverend Hanson was a pivotal person — he really awakened our social consciousness.
What drew you to historic preservation?
At a very young age, I was fascinated by history and architecture. When I was six years old, we lived in West Granby, Connecticut. While playing in the fields where there were once farmhouses, I would find these little dumps that people had created. I used to dig around and find ink bottles, rusted iron hardware, and wonderful clay tobacco pipes. I had a little museum in my bedroom where I displayed my treasures.
Is there a project you are particularly proud of?
The most significant building I have worked on is the Narragansett Pier Casino in Rhode Island, known as "The Towers." I helped restore the thick granite stone walls and assisted with designing the new modern windows. The new windows had to look like the original ones and be energy efficient. I've also done work on two significant lighthouses — the Beavertail Lighthouse in Jamestown, Rhode Island, and Southeast Lighthouse on Block Island. Prior to restoration, the lighthouses didn't have sufficient waterproofing. I came up with various techniques that diverted the water away from the building and prevented the destruction of the masonry structures.
What is your dream preservation project?
My dream project is to help preserve the beautiful buildings on the Pomfret School campus for posterity — specifically Clark Memorial Chapel. I had some wonderful spiritual experiences in that building as a student. Reverend Hanson’s messages on social responsibility permeated throughout the Chapel during his tenure — they meant a lot to me, and I've lived by his word throughout my life.
There are plenty of alumni who support the academic and athletic programs. That's wonderful and important, but I know what it takes to preserve the Chapel and feel compelled to speak up. I want to continue the wonderful work of Ben Morgan — I consider myself the new Chapel champion. I am working with Director of Facilities Brenda Bullied and her wonderful team to help restore, sand, and varnish the crypt doors. Many people love the Chapel and have had very intense spiritual and musical experiences in it. I'd love to help develop a preservation plan to maintain it long into the future.
I understand you also played a role in some other recent renovations here on the Hilltop. Tell me about that.
Early last summer, the School Building's gorgeous cupola was taken down to make repairs. After its condition was fully assessed, it was determined that it needed to be completely rebuilt. I met with Brenda and recommended that a rain shield be installed to help prevent future water damage. I've always loved the Town of Pomfret and this campus in particular. It is a unique treasure for the community and the State of Connecticut, and I'm so happy to play a role in its preservation.
Now that you are retired, what personal projects do you look forward to tackling?
I want to get back to my first love — sculpture and stone carving — that I developed under the instruction of Alice Dunbar, beloved former Pomfret art teacher. A piece that I carved as a Pomfret student is still on display in the du Pont Library, which is a real source of pride for me. I have thought about writing a book about my preservation work, and even considered blogging. I might blog about the projects I have been a part of, along with the topic of mental health, which is incredibly important to me. I want to live for another twenty years or so; there is still a list of things I want to do. I may never get to do all of it, but I look forward to trying.