LI Board Member, Skyline Council leader Allison Toonen-Talamo reflects on being named a top emerging preservation leader in 2020

November 19, 2020

Allison Toonen-Talamo, a member of the Landmarks Illinois Board of Directors and Landmarks Illinois’ young & emerging professionals committee, the Skyline Council, recently received the American Express Aspire Award presented by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Allison and her two fellow 2020 Aspire Award Recipients were honored October 29 at the virtual National Preservation Awards Ceremony during the National Trust’s PastForward 2020 Online conference.

The annual Aspire Award calls attention to emerging preservation leaders who have an impact on the local, state and national preservation community. Allison, who lives in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, joined two other women this year in receiving the award: Zulmilena Then, president and founder of Preserving East New York in Brooklyn, New York; and Melissa Mortimer, historic preservation planner at Southeast Tennessee Development District.

Allison works as an Associate II for the Architectural Engineering team at Klein and Hoffman in Chicago. You can often find her on scaffolding high above the city’s streets, examining exteriors of historic buildings — daring experiences she beautifully shares on her Instagram page. She has a Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Structural Engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology.

In addition to serving on numerous board and committees, including the Evanston Community Lakehouse and Garden, Allison is a member of the Association for Preservation and Technology (Western Great Lakes Chapter) and the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois, and she serves on the Preservation Engineering Technical Committee for APTI. Allison also formerly chaired the Skyline Council of Landmarks Illinois where she proved to be a dedicated and effective leader as well as a passionate preservationist that Landmarks Illinois is proud to have as a supporter.

Below, we asked Allison to share more about winning the Aspire award, what motivates her to work & volunteer the long hours she does and how she inspires other young people to do the same.

LANDMARKS ILLINOIS: What was your reaction to hearing the news that you would be receiving the Aspire Award? And who did you first share the news with?

ALLISON TOONEN-TALAMO: I still remember when I got the call from Katherine Malone-France of the National Trust. While she was talking, she kept asking if I was still on the line because I was at a loss for words. I was in utter shock when I got the news, and I was trying to process the whole thing. I still am in shock that I was one of three recipients for the award. I also called my mom right away to tell her the news, then I texted my closest friends and family members. I think everyone was processing the news just as I was, and we didn’t fully grasp what this award meant on a bigger scale as a professional.

LI: The National Trust says the Aspire Award “recognizes emerging preservation leaders who demonstrate innovative thinking and achievement in advancing historic preservation in their local, state or national communities.” What does it mean to you to be an “emerging leader?”

ATT: When I hear “emerging,” I think of a challenger, influencer or a doer — a person who is trying to make a positive impact to their community. Many people who know me know I will find a solution to a problem. If someone or a team is struggling with growth, finances or ideas, I am always there to help in any way I can. I also like to think I have the ability to kick start a person’s interest in preservation. I ask them to reflect on a specific place that is close to their hearts — a place they cherish or have fond memories of. Perhaps it is a place they “got their start” either professionally or personally. Remembering your roots is key to preservation.

LI: Do you feel emerging leaders like you are important to progress the field forward? And if so, what can you offer the preservation field?

ATT: Yes! I constantly hear our industry is dying off. There are not enough people to assist with restoration-driven projects and our trades are becoming scarce. As someone who is still fairly “young” in the industry, I believe it is critical for current young professionals to start engaging with the next generation through education and mentorship. I believe the work I do today is not for me, but for the next generation. I may not see the majority of the projects I work on come full circle in my lifetime but that is okay. In addition to making sure historic buildings I work on are safe, my work is to give space for the community to grow into, to keep a piece of heritage intact and help provide opportunities for future job growth.

(PICTURED: Before & after the restoration project at the Lansing Hangar. Courtesy: Allison Toonen-Talamo)

LI: During the virtual awards ceremony in October where you were honored, the National Trust highlighted your project to help preserve the historic Henry Ford Hangar in Lansing, Illinois. Why was this project special to you?

ATT: The project at historic Henry Ford Tri-Motor Hangar was one of my “aha” moments. It was when I realized I wanted to pursue a career in building restoration as either an architect or structural engineer. I went from an undergraduate architecture student to a structural engineering graduate student to becoming an intern with the Department of Urban Planning for the Village of Lansing, where the Ford Hangar is located. With this project, I was able to grow into the shoes I am in now as a professional. Plus, being able to watch the hangar serve multiple roles for the local community makes me feel I was able to give back to those who live near and experience the place.

An experience that reinforced that feeling (and one that really tugged on my heart strings), was when years later I was riding in an Uber and learned the driver was from Lansing. We talked about the Ford Hangar and, at a red light, she turned around and told me how much saving the hangar had helped the community.

LI: What motivates you to do the work you do – to put in the long hours at your day job, give your time to multiple volunteering efforts, serve on committees, boards, and more?

ATT: Love and passion. I love what I do and I never get tired of it. Sometimes work will get very hectic with deadlines and at times overlaps with a major event with one of the organizations that I either serve as a member on or hold a leadership position for. Yet I know the stress is temporary and I just need to make sure to get enough coffee. I also have many points in my career where I am learning something new and I want to be diligent to get all the steps right for a project to be successful, and that is why I put in the long hours. I want to be a better professional to do well at my firm, but also to be a better leader in the field.

(PICTURED: Allison on a job site. Courtesy: Allison Toonen-Talamo)

LI: What impact do you hope to have on the preservation field on a local and national level?

ATT: My goal is to influence and inspire other like-minded individuals into this amazing career field. I also want encourage people to figure out what their mark on this world will be. Preservation can be a part of a number of industries, and I want to show how if they 1). Have a story 2). Love their heritage and 3). Want to pay it forward to their community, then they can be a part of the preservation field. You do not need to study architecture or structural engineer, necessarily, to do preservation work. You just need the desire to give back to your community.

LI: What is your advice to other young professionals striving to succeed in their careers?

ATT: Don’t pigeon-hole yourself. Challenge yourself, learn to diversify your education and career and find mentors from different walks of life. I originally wanted to become a naval fighter pilot, and the day before basic training, I moved to Chicago to study architecture and engineering instead. But my military experience taught me so much: how to be disciplined and how to present myself. The more you expand yourself, the better off you will be.

Also, set goals for yourself every 2-5 years. Matthew McConaughey once said, “See yourself as your own role model.” Think about where, who, how you want to see yourself in five years, and if you do not hit that mark, learn from your experiences and keep going. Life is constantly moving and adjusting, remember that. Just go for it. The only person holding you back is yourself!

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