Instead of the Southern Part of Heaven how about the Southern Part of Nowhere Special

History. For some, the mere suggestion of the topic instantly glazes over the eyes and makes the lids heavy. It's a fact that most of us have been taught history the wrong way. But the past can be a very interesting tool if you know how to use it. Through peering backwards one can discover who we are and it can be an important tool measure the future.

My job is to try and save Chapel Hill's historic places, which is no easy task. There are special buildings, homes, fields, and rocks in this town that embody a past that makes this town unique and downright cool. They are the physical manifestations of our history. But trying to appeal to the "better angels of our nature" about the importance of preserving history often falls on deaf ears. Chapel Hill is certainly progressive but it is not progressive about saving its past.   

I submit for discussion an ordinance the Preservation Society is trying to persuade the Town of Chapel Hill to adopt. Simply put it states that if you tear down a historic structure then you must wait 48 months before you rebuild another structure. No harsh fines, no stopping demolition, no hot irons, it just makes you wait. It's a new ordinance adopted first by Apex, then New Bern, Wake Forrest, and the Mecca of preservation planning, Cary. The ordinance has worked in Apex where it has forced developers, looking for a quick tear down-build up project, to really weigh the cost of tearing down a historic home vs. the time they would have to wait.

Is this ordinance that outrageous? Certainly, some people think so but I suspect they've got blueprints hidden under their bed. The other SNAFU part of this ordinance is defining what is a "historic structure" is. After thirty years and over $70K the town has never officially adopted an inventory. We've got several inventories, historic districts (local and national), a published reference book, Town and Gown Architecture (available for sale at the Horace Williams House, wink!) but Town Council has never blessed a single list.

In your mind, you probably thought the list would only be made of up of big, old houses on East Franklin Street. Well those would be on my list but I'd also add those homes that teach us how the not-so-rich folks lived like the Altemueller farmhouse on MLK Blvd. It's a common 19th century farmhouse that, due to destruction of others like it, is now becoming an uncommon rarity. Or how about the slew of funky tucked away Modernists houses from the 1950s that demonstrate just what kind of hotbed Chapel Hill was for young, futuristic architects. Certainly St. Joseph's Church should be listed as one of many that could help tell the African-American and Civil Rights story of this town. It certainly needs some preservation thought as it trembles in the shadow of Greenbridge.  

But the appeal of history's higher meaning may still fail to move some. So I would like to poll readers on the practical aspects of historic preservation.

I'll boil my thoughts down to a few points:

  1. The look and feel of Chapel Hill attracts people, businesses, students, and companies. The town's "feel" and reputation keeps the economy healthy.
  2. Historic areas and homes could be used to attract heritage tourism that could help Chapel Hill develop a new, alternative revenue stream that is pretty green.
  3. Ecologically, the embedded energy in these historic homes is pretty sizable. Destroying these homes and rebuilding would mean more landfill space and more damage to the environment during the new construction. The greenest house are the ones already built.
Thanks in advance for your feedback. I hope you can help support historic preservation not only for what it means to the identity and history of Chapel Hill but how can it play a role in building our future. Not to mention preservation takes lots of forms, such as We're Still Here (and Moving), the Rogers Road exhibit at UNC, and the Preservation Society. We're all just trying to save a place for the past in the future. Come out on Oct. 8 to town hall and support preservation. 


I'd like to see us protect areas, like the Midway Business District, that have historical and cultural significance instead of just structures. I'd also like to see the Preservation Society extend into Carrboro and protect small areas, like the neighborhood below the cement plant (brain burp--can't remember its name) where the structures aren't worth much from an architectural perspective but the history of the community has significant meaning to the larger town.

I think you are referring to "Tintop"Cam

Ernie,Seems like B&Bs are one tool to hold on to some of the buildings - grand and humble - that might not be otherwise viable.  Perhaps as important, I think they offer the friendly experience that Chapel Hill is known for.  I can't think of another college town I've visited that doesn't have them.  Do you think it's important that we allow them and if you do, what can we do about it? 

That's what we called them in DC in the 1990s. I worked in a building that was built after the Chicago Fires by someone who lived through them. It was historic and it was a pain to get anything done, because of the "Little Old Ladies" but I am so happy to have worked there. As an IT guy, it was annoying and quirky, but it was charming and somehow - as a non-profit  we were able to still get everything to work. I don't buy this stuff that Historic Preservation and Business cannot exist.I feel lucky that I got to work in such a cool structure - even if it did have 4 feet of concrete between every floor. We need to do everything we can to preserve our old places. This call to arms is well-justified and hopefully not too late. 

Thank heavens that we have Ernest to speak up for helping Chapel Hill retain the appearance of Chapel Hil! By saving buildings we are saving touches of the past, tempting future residents to wonder about the history of the buildings, the history of our town. Chapel Hill actually has a history yet it seems we want to throw it aside. Of course business and preservation can mix and do well. The most interesting places I've lived had all sorts of professional offices in old buildings, not strip malls. What a great idea to reuse the buildings on the Autmeuler property rather than level them! Do we have a Historic Tree Preservation Society? There are some magnificient trees on that property too. The example of trees being bigger than the structures they shade seems to be disappearing fast.

also it makes sure that the deveolpers are there for the long haul. 

to think that just because something is old that it's worth preserving!  Not that many buildings or places have actual historical or esthetic significance.  I don't want to live in a museum of outdated & quaint ideas that celebrate the past.  Cities & towns constantly tear down and rebuid; it's how places evolve to meet the needs of their current & future residents.     

It seems to me that "historic preservation" often means "maintain the status quo". On the other hand, yes, redevelopment often means turning a quick buck. The truth, as they say, is often in the middle.There are something like seven layers to the ancient city of Troy. As the anonymous poster pointed out above, cites must tear down and rebuild over time to accomodate their citizens....hrmmm. Nevermind, I was going to try to make this a balance piece, but I'm going to throw in with Anonymous. There's a reason I don't like Chapel Hill. It's called gentrification. "Historic preservation" is just another euphemism for it. But that's fine, I guess. If the powers that be of Chapel Hill and other "historic" places want to maintain their places as museum pieces, then so be it. The rest of the world, however, will progress and move on.And I say all this as a future architect and urban planner. As much as I might be initially disturbed by the loss of some architectural piece of history, ultimately contemporary needs have to be met. If "historic preservationists" had existed for the past 2000 years, egads! we'd all still be living in rock piles. We have museums for a reason.Okay, one bit of balance to end: yes, a nice mix of styles and histories makes for a pleasant walk about town. Anyone who's visited European cities knows this. But then I'd have to get into the discussion about density and mixed use and how Americans seem pitifully disdainful of both despite the obvious advantages... [Addendum:]

I love Paris and so little has been changed.


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