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Alumni Spotlight: Elyse Marks

Elyse Marks studies the façade of a historic building, inspecting the walls for cracks. Hundreds  of feet below her, the city streets of New York buzz, a distant blur. Tethered to the side of a skyscraper, Elyse scales a window many stories above the ground, trusting her harness and ropes.

Selfie portrait of young woman in harness on side of building, street is very far below

Elyse Marks at work.

“I always get a rush of fear and excitement every time I go over the roof parapet of a new building – it is an incredible experience,” she shared. “The first time I went on a scaffold I remember being terrified the whole time, but at the same time I found it exhilarating. Over the years it has actually become one of my favorite parts of the job, because it means I get to see the city from a very unique perspective that not that many people get to experience.”

Elyse received a bachelor of architecture from LSU in 2010 with a minor in architectural history. She received a master of science in historic preservation from Columbia University in 2012. From there, she has worked in several architecture and engineering firms within the New York City area that specialize in the restoration and rehabilitation of exterior building enclosures. She is now Project Manager / Studio Head at CANY Architecture + Engineering, DPC. Over the past five years, her work has mainly been focused on exterior façade restoration of historic and landmarked buildings within New York City.

So far she has worked on several historically significant buildings in New York City, such as The City Bank Farmer’s Trust Building, The Plaza Hotel, The Coty Building, The Crown Building, and The Flatiron Building.

Bird's eye view of NYC, figure suspended from rope

Elyse at work inspecting historic building facade

“Contributing to the history of these significant structures has been a great honor to me, not only as a lover of architectural history with a passion for preserving the iconic New York City skyline, but also because it is extremely satisfying to see a project come to completion,” she said. “I know that I have participated in some small way to furthering the life of an existing building so that it may be appreciated by future generations.”

Her journey towards a career in preservation started when she was an undergraduate. “About three years into the architecture program, I started to realize that although I loved the freedom and creativity of designing new buildings, I wasn’t as in love with the idea of how much waste is created by new construction projects, not to mention the displacement within cities that can come from new development,” she said. “My grandmother was an antique dealer, and she instilled in me a great appreciation for antiques and historic buildings.”

Woman repelling off building, tiny cars below

On the job at 31 West 57th St., NYC.

For an undergraduate assignment at the LSU School of Architecture, students were tasked with designing a building of their own choosing, and Elyse asked a professor if she could pick an existing building on the proposed project site and create a new use. “It was my first exposure to the concepts of restoration and adaptive reuse,” she said. “Though at that point my understanding of the field was limited, the experience planted a seed in me and I began to look into alternative architecture careers outside the realm of new construction.”

“I was set to graduate in 2010, during the height of the recession,” she said. “I knew I wanted to pursue a master’s degree, but was unsure about what field of study would be best suited to my talents and interests. A teacher whom I greatly admire and respect advised me to look into Columbia’s historic preservation program. After a visit to the campus in the fall of 2009, I began to realize how many career paths could be open to me. Once I was accepted into the program and began attending classes, I was exposed to so many other people with different backgrounds who felt the same way I did towards restoration and historic buildings.”

“When I discovered the world of restoration, it was the first time I envisioned a career path for myself where I could provide a significant contribution to society.

Projects generally begin when building deterioration is noted, posing public safety issues. Elyse and her team conduct a comprehensive building investigation, visiting all roofs, terraces, balconies, setbacks – “every nook and cranny of the building.” For the parts of the building that can’t be accessed on foot, such as the exterior façade, investigations are typically conducted via rope access, which must be performed by a SPRAT or IRATA-certified rope access technician. As a SPRAT-certified rope access technician, Elyse is able to gain access to all areas of a building to perform close-up inspections, with the purpose of identifying and evaluating deteriorated components of the structure’s façade. Once she has highlighted the issues in the building that need to be repaired, they start the construction document phase and finally the construction phase. As a project manager, Elyse oversees entire construction jobs from start to finish.

Elyse has received recognition as a female succeeding in a formerly male-dominated field. Last year, she was the subject of a weekly career profile as part of a series published by Madame Architect, an online platform profiling and celebrating women in architecture from different generations, countries, and corners of the industry. “I was interviewed on such subjects as how I got my start in architectural restoration, my path towards becoming a licensed architect, and on my experiences with trying to successfully navigate a male-dominated industry.”

Row of smiling women in hard hats

Female team members featured on The Today Show (Elyse on left)

She was also recently featured on The Today Show, along with several of her female colleagues, on her experiences as a SPRAT-certified Level I rope access technician. When performing exterior facade inspections, she is able to gain access to all areas of a building to perform close-up inspections, with the purpose of identifying and evaluating deteriorated components of the building façade. From there, she can develop a repair scope to address the deficient building conditions before they become hazardous.

“One of my proudest moments was finishing the first full facade restoration campaign where I was involved in every step of the process from initial investigation through closeout,” she said. “Being able to witness and have a hand in bringing a beautiful historic building back to its former glory was a revelatory experience for me – it really confirmed that I had chosen the right career path and that I could see myself doing this kind of work for a long time.”

Woman scales building side, river and NYC skyline in background

At 475 Main Street, NYC

New York City may seem a world away from Louisiana, but Elyse said she always knew that she wanted to go to LSU, and it ultimately led her to the “city that never sleeps.” “What it really came down to was picking a field of study that was both interesting and challenging to me, which is where LSU’s Architecture program came into the picture,” she said. “After visiting as a senior in high school and falling in love with the welcoming and diverse atmosphere of the program, as well as the passion of its teachers and students, I knew it would be a good fit for me.”

“My architecture degree was invaluable towards giving me a head start when I got to Columbia and started the graduate level curriculum,” she said. “Because my LSU professors had given me a strong foundation of knowledge on building systems, structures, and architectural history, I already understood the fundamentals of building and design – so it wasn’t like I had to start from scratch, as many of my classmates did. Since I already knew how to use AutoCAD and understood the major concepts of building and construction, I could skip some of the basic first year course load and take more advanced and interesting courses.”

Elyse enjoys the challenge and variety of work. “One of the things I love most about my job is that it always looks different from day to day,” she said. “I’m typically running about 10-12 projects at any given time and they each come with their own distinctive challenges. I spend around 75% of my time on construction sites coordinating work that can range from roof replacement projects to full-scale façade restoration jobs, so the work is rarely ever monotonous or predictable.”

Geometric pattern of windows on building side, small figure repels down rope

She always has the opportunity to learn something new. “Inevitably, during the course of the building investigation phase or while performing the actual repair work, we will come across some unique structural condition or uncover a design flaw within the building’s walls that has caused unexpected deterioration for which we must then design a new repair solution,” she explained. “These unique design solutions require deviation from our standard repair details, and I love the problem-solving aspect of being forced to re-work a typical detail to fit the needs of the project.”

Though her particular focus is in the preservation of historic buildings, there is actually much more to the field of building restoration than meets the eye, Elyse explained. “Though the opportunity to work on these well-known buildings has been important to my career, I would have to say that many of the smaller, less ‘impressive’ buildings I have worked to restore have provided me with more opportunities to learn more about various repair trades and methods of restoring various architectural elements than I ever expected. At this point in my life, I am still acquiring new skills and advancing my technical knowledge almost every day. In that way, I would have to say that every project has defined my work in some small way, which I am sure will continue to be the case throughout my career.”

“My career thus far has been a world away from what I even knew was possible when I started out, and I am so grateful for that!” She shared.

“While in architecture school, I had a hard time envisioning the type of career I wanted to have because I figured out pretty early on that I was not particularly inspired by the traditional career path of new construction, so I worried about how I would find my place in this industry,” she said. “In fourth year, we were assigned to read Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This book really opened my eyes to the importance of investing in the existing built environment, and from there I just never looked back. The evolution of my career path has been organically driven by my primary interests in history and in the continued preservation of our existing building stock for future generations to enjoy.”