February 15, 2024

English major

from Hayes, Virginia

Driven by a passion for historic preservation, English major Drake James '24 recently used his summer internships in construction to explore this career path, beginning his journey as a contractor apprentice in historic restoration.

Drake James standing outside a construction siteDrake James ’24 and his father, Clayton James ’91, have quite a lot in common. They’re both Hampden-Sydney men, inspired by the Colonial-era architecture of their native Gloucester, Virginia, with keen interests in historic preservation. For six years, Clayton was president of Rosewell Foundation, one of the first properties in Gloucester and a key player in Colonial American economy. It was this early exposure to historic buildings that planted a seed in Drake’s mind that historic restoration may be the career path for him.

Following his father’s footsteps all the way to the Hill, Drake declared English as his major to make use of his strong writing abilities, but he has pursued history electives at every turn. Through Colonial America (HIST 211) with Lecturer in History & Core Cultures Kylie Hulbert and Civil War and Reconstruction (HIST 214) with Elliot Associate Professor of History Matthew Hulbert, Drake gained a deeper understanding of construction methods. This newfound knowledge fueled his passion for historic buildings and inspired Drake to pursue an internship in construction to gain a base understanding of the business and technical skills needed for a career in historic building preservation.

Drake was encouraged by Philip “Randy” Randolph ’81 to reach out to Robert Ottarson of Ottarson Construction because of Ottarson’s experience in historic residential property projects. Ottarson asked Drake if his interest was in construction or business, to which Drake replied, “The way I see it, I need to learn how to build before I can run a building business.”

In the summer of 2022, Drake’s journey as an apprentice laborer began. As he proved himself on job site after job site, he began to assume greater responsibilities and greater understanding of the collaborative nature between the labor and business sides of the construction industry. He returned as a contractor apprentice to Ottarson in the summer of 2023 to continue learning.

“Some days, I was putting on boots and swinging hammers with other workers to get the job done by the deadline,” Drake said. “Other days, I was putting on a coat and tie and working directly with property owners or potential clients, negotiating contracts and allaying concerns. Both roles are vital to the success of a building project.”

Ottarson employs a specialized crew for historic projects, and Drake took full advantage of his time working with this crew to learn as much as possible about the time-intensive, detail-oriented world of historic restoration. In the summer of 2023, Drake worked on three historically significant properties in the Tidewater region. His personal favorite was Burgh Westra, a Gothic Revival-style estate built between 1842 and 1851 that served as a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

a pier under construction on the Tidewater coast“Burgh Westra was one of those estates that has witnessed so much complicated history,” Drake explained. "We completed a variety of projects, including foundation work, attic renovations, and the addition of a gazebo. Yet, many tasks, from matching paint colors to selecting the appropriate type of brickwork proved to be complex because of the need to be historically accurate. It was preciously these challenging aspects that I always appreciated.”

Over time, Drake's interest in the business side grew stronger as he investigated acquiring his contractor's license. Upon learning that Virginia does not issue individual contractor's licenses, he established his own business, Shorewood Construction LLC. This entailed fulfilling tax obligations and managing the limited liability corporation to qualify for licensing exams. While involved in labor tasks, he simultaneously prepared to acquire the Virginia Class A Contractor License. This process included completing an eight-hour business law course and passing Virginia's general and advanced exams. Upon obtaining approval, Drake could then focus on specializing in historic preservation, gain additional experience in Virginia, and look toward the future.

After obtaining his Class A Contractor License, Drake had the chance to reflect on his experiences in his experiential learning Internship Compass course (INTR 395) led by Elliott Professor of History Caroline Emmons. Through various assignments, the course seeks to provide students with opportunities for personal reflection, to gain insights into intellectual growth, and to develop a vision for life after graduation. As a result, Drake gained valuable insight from his coworkers, who enlightened him about strategies to succeed in the contracting industry, which he shared with his classmates in the beginning of the 2023 fall semester.

“It was clear that Drake is passionate about historic preservation and really excited to work in the field,” Emmons said. “By the end of the summer, I was excited to hear he had acquired his Virginia Class A Contractor License, and I really enjoyed hearing about his experiences, watching him grow, and seeing him pursue his passion.”

Moreover, Drake considers the most valuable aspect of his experiences to be understanding the realities of the professional world and preparing for life beyond the gates, saying, “The exposure to being responsible for tasks that have real-world implications and doing what you need to do to get the job done—it changed the way I lived, studied, and approached life overall.”

Looking ahead, Drake envisions relocating to Charleston, South Carolina—a city with a deep appreciation for historical preservation—to further his career in historic restoration. He encourages his peers to discover their passions and seize opportunities as they arise. "Don't hesitate to pursue something you're passionate about," Drake said. "I began by swinging hammers, and now it's evolved into a fulfilling career path for me. It is a matter of experiencing as much as you can." Drake's journey exemplifies the possibilities that unfold when passion meets determination, reminding everyone that the sky is the limit.

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