For decades, Maire O’Neill Conrad has dedicated herself to her craft and to the historic preservation of agricultural buildings in the Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley area. The volume and impact of the MSU architecture professor’s work have not gone unnoticed, particularly by the Montana Historical Society.
O’Neill Conrad will receive the John N. DeHaas Memorial Award for Outstanding Service to Historic Preservation from the Montana State Historic Preservation Office of the Montana Historical Society in a ceremony on Jan. 18 in Helena. The award recognizes her projects, education and training contributions to Montana’s historic preservation. She is one of five recipients statewide to receive a historic preservation award.
“A lot of the work that I’ve done, especially with the documentation of agricultural buildings over the last 20 years, I couldn’t have done without incredible commitment from my students over time, and their efforts have been invaluable,” O’Neill Conrad said, acknowledging the hundreds of hours her students will put into a single project. “It’s a symbiotic relationship between something I’m very interested and devoted to, but also I couldn’t have done it without my students.”
Since arriving in Montana almost 30 years ago, O’Neill Conrad has focused on vernacular architecture — building traditions that grow out of a local culture, locally available resources and the local climatic conditions.
Ralph Johnson, the director of MSU’s School of Architecture, who recommended O’Neill Conrad for the award, said he can’t imagine a more qualified person to win the award based on her professionalism and devotion to historic preservation.
“Maire’s contribution to the history of the people and places they built in Montana is one that illustrates the unique role that research plays in support of the land-grant mission at MSU and the School of Architecture,” Johnson said.
In her graduate elective courses, O'Neill Conrad teaches students to draw, applying national Historic American Buildings Survey guidelines for recording buildings with accurate documentation drawings. Johnson added that she has led group tours around the Gallatin Valley for those interested in the stories behind some of the historic buildings.
“I'm excited for her because there are a lot of awards people win, but this one is really appropriate for her efforts,” Johnson said. “She loves the work, does an exceptional job at it and deserves the award.
O’Neill Conrad said she was drawn to vernacular architecture of agricultural buildings, an uncommon area of study, because it combined her loves: architecture, the outdoors and farming. She lives on a farm outside of Bozeman and raises horses.”
“I’ve gravitated toward it naturally because it brings together my interests,” she said. “What I know about raising livestock and crops and so on really helps me out interpreting some of these buildings and helps me know what kind of questions to ask like, ‘What kind of livestock inhabited this kind of building?’ or ‘What type of feed did they keep in here?’ That is not a very common combination of interests for an architect, so I realized I’m probably the person to do this.”
One of O’Neill Conrad’s biggest contributions to the School of Architecture, which is in the College of Arts and Architecture, is her courses’ focus on historic documentation drawing techniques. Her historical preservation course focuses on the social, cultural and economic lives of early rural Montanans revealed through the structures they built. It also teaches students the proper way to research and document those buildings.
She has had numerous students take home awards in national and international architecture-related competitions, which she said has become a longstanding tradition with the school over the last 25 years. An award MSU students have repeatedly received is the Charles E. Peterson Prize, given by the National Park Service's Heritage Documentation Program. The award recognizes the best set of measured drawings prepared to the program’s standards, and MSU students were awarded in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018.
Upon submission, the students’ drawings become part of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., O’Neill Conrad said. So far O’Neill Conrad’s students have complete sets of drawings of 13 buildings in the Historic American Buildings Survey, which has requested all of the documentation drawings that O’Neill Conrad’s students have produced at MSU during the last 20 years. As a result, 81 more Gallatin Valley historic agricultural buildings will be recorded in the National Archives.
O’Neill Conrad is the first recipient of the John N. DeHaas Memorial Award, which is named in honor a former architecture professor from 1951 to 1980 who was an advocate for historic preservation.
O’Neill Conrad is a double graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, receiving her bachelor’s in 1981 and her master’s in 1985. She is a licensed architect in California and Montana, has served on the board for the Bozeman Historic Preservation Advisory Board and currently serves on the Montana Board of Architects and Landscape Architects and the national Vernacular Architecture Forum