The flair q&A

Emily Majer

Deep in the heart of any old home or structure is a story. And those who care for, nurture and revive these vintage dwellings are the storytellers. Enter Emily Majer, master innovator, renovator, nature lover, local historian (ask her anything!) and - in between all this - Tivoli, New York's Deputy Mayor.

Tell me about your business or specialty.

My company, White Clay Kill Preservation, specializes in historic window restoration. But I am a fool for old buildings, so I also do condition assessments, historical research dossiers, project management, and any activity that entails crawling around in spidery spaces. I also serve as the Deputy Mayor of the tiny village of Tivoli, New York, as well as being the municipal historian for Tivoli and the town of Red Hook. All of these activities mesh together to contextualize the built landscape, and hopefully assist decision making in individual renovation/restoration projects, as well as informing community planning undertakings.

How'd you get to where you are now?

I had the good luck to grow up in a string of houses that got older as I did. First, a Manhattan brownstone built in 1894-95, then a Charlton, New York center-hall federal farmhouse from 1801, and I spent my middle and high school years in Litchfield, Connecticut in a classic center-chimney New England village home that dated to 1785. That experience, along with frequent family visits to Old Sturbridge Village, Colonial Williamsburg and countless other sites of “ye olde” gave me an early understanding of, and appreciation for, the charms and challenges of historic structures. I came to this area in 1990 to attend Bard College and immediately felt like I had found my forever home.

What surprises you in your work, now or in the past?

I am endlessly surprised by the creative solutions and tricks of the trade from days gone by that I come across when exploring old homes—hooks fashioned from branch crotches, tin cans hammered flat to patch mouse holes gnawed in the bottoms of doors, wooden spools reused as doorstops, and all manner of purpose-built tools for tasks that no longer exist. Also when I find things that are evidence of the lives lived in historic structures — marbles that rolled under radiators a hundred years ago, decorative hat pins wedged between floor boards, rub marks around a door latch due to two centuries of fingers, and stair treads worn thin by generations of feet — I love these signs, this proof of our shared experience within a place.

To use my own house in Tivoli as an example — my family is the sixth since 1842 to live in our house. Each family has altered it to reflect their needs, as well as the fashions of the times — more rooms to accommodate more family members, Victorian details, 20th century miracle materials (i.e., asbestos and aluminum). By looking at old deeds and census records, I can see who built and later renovated the house and whose hands touched the door knobs and banister. I know their names and where they are all buried. I find it comforting to know that I am one of many stewards of this property, not the first and not the last. One of the things I really like about studying history is that it puts things in perspective. There is so much emphasis now on the importance of the individual, so much pressure to assert one’s significance and singularity – history reminds us that we aren’t all that.

Any other interests or pursuits (big or small)?

I enjoy long walks in the woods with my wife and our dogs, murder mysteries set in northern climes, hand splitting firewood (especially black locust), and farm pond fishing.

What drives you crazy?

As I get older, I am finding that fewer things can really whip me into a froth. If I have to pick one thing I’m going to say…rigid adherence to ideology and lack of critical thinking.

Who inspires you? (it can be anybody you know, or don't know)

Mother Ann Lee (Shakers founding leader), James Starr Clark (pivotal figure in Tivoli's origin), William Matthews (the great social reformer, Red Hook NY) and Eleanor Roosevelt.

You're a trailblazer - what are some career highlights to date?

The Hudson Valley is so rich in history and historic resources! I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really outstanding preservation professionals – it’s a really collegial community. The White Clay Kill team has worked on many National Register and National Landmark properties, which is great fun, and it feels good to be part of preserving a place that has been recognized as having historical significance. But it is equally (and maybe even more) personally thrilling to – in the process of the project – discover the relative significance of vernacular structures, and to help their current stewards understand the larger context of their home.

Words of wisdom or thoughts?

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.


Emily Majer is owner and operator of White Clay Kill Preservation, a renovation consultancy helping to preserve the spirit, integrity and history of older houses, with a focus on window repair. After a childhood spent in old homes - a 1910 brownstone in Manhattan, 1801 farmhouse in Saratoga County and a 1785 colonial in Connecticut - arriving in the Hudson Valley to attend Bard College felt like a natural progression. Settling in to Tivoli, New York after graduation, Majer had the good fortune to learn from a cadre of renovators and restorers at work in the northern Dutchess and Columbia County area (ground zero for early Dutch, German and English architecture). She earned a Masters of Science in Historic Preservation from the University of Massachusetts, combining two of her passions—hands-on adaptive use of old structures, and a Nancy Drew-like zeal for research. Her thesis project, a Historic Structure Report on an 18th century Red Hook farmhouse, was featured in the Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture newsletter (Dec. 2015). Majer is the Town Historian of Red Hook New York, a member of Historic Red Hook Board of Trustees, and serves as the Deputy Mayor of the Village of Tivoli. These positions inform her conviction that historical narrative is a valuable community building tool, that knowledge of the past strengthens the bonds of place and time and enriches our lives.

(published 2023)