Life Lessons: Dan Morrill
At 82, the embodiment of historic preservation in Charlotte aims to build something new
THESE DAYS, Dan Morrill works in a quiet first-floor bedroom in the 88-year-old Eastover home where he and his wife, Mary Lynn, have lived since 1967. Surrounded by books and antiques and warmed by a gas log fireplace against the far wall, Morrill leans forward in a gray recliner as he taps away at his laptop on a chilly late January afternoon. “We have three bedrooms upstairs, but it’s always good to have a downstairs bedroom,” he remarks, “especially when you get old.” He’s 82, a lifelong North Carolinian, and his old-school Old North State accent takes that last word, drops it an octave, and draws it out for emphasis: ooooollllllld.
Morrill sticks with his commitments over decades. He’s the longest-tenured faculty member ever (51 years) at UNC Charlotte, and for nearly a half-century has been Charlotte’s undisputed expert on and leader in historic preservation, an area that fast-growing Charlotte wouldn’t seem to embrace. But Morrill says there’s more of it in town than people think, and he recently left behind a position he’d held for 46 years—director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, a county agency—to tackle preservation via the nonprofit route. Last year, he and a friend started Preserve Mecklenburg (wepreservemecklenburg.org), a 501(c)(3) organization that raises donations to try to preserve properties like the John and Idella Mayes House at 435 East Morehead Street in Dilworth, a Victorian-era gem that Preserve Mecklenburg may pick up and move if it means saving the house.
We sat down with Morrill to discuss the new nonprofit, his departure from the Landmarks Commission, his years in an often frustrating field, and the state of preservation in Charlotte. His words have been edited for space and clarity.
THIS IS ONE THING people really get wrong: They think everything gets torn down in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. I’ve heard that for 50 years. It’s not true. If you look at NoDa, Fourth Ward, Optimist Hall, all of these places, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is alive with preservation. But a lot of people still just don’t get it.
I THINK MOST PEOPLE, when they think of a historic place, they think of a sort of intact urban center. They think of Charleston, Savannah, Pensacola, Annapolis. Whereas, here in Charlotte, the center city is dominated—except for Fourth Ward—by skyscrapers and glass towers and all that stuff, and therefore it doesn’t have that sort of image. Much of what is going on as far as significant preservation in this city is in some of our early 20th-century suburbs: Wesley Heights, Wilmore, Myers Park, Elizabeth, Plaza Midwood, those kinds of places.
I WAS BORN IN CHARLOTTE, but as an infant, I moved with my parents to Winston-Salem. I don’t know if you know about the Moravians and Old Salem. It was a German-based organization in the 18th century, and they were very organized, and they did not bury people by nuclear family. They buried people by gender and marital status and age. All the little girls were buried together, the little boys, the married women, the married men—and all the stones are the same. I had relatives buried there because my mother was from Winston-Salem, and we would go down when I was a child at Easter to scrub their graves. When you’re a kid, and your parents take you, with a brush, to scrub the graves of your ancestors, that’ll give you a sense of history.
HOW DID I GET TO CHARLOTTE? Pure happenstance. I got a Ph.D. in history at Emory University, and I happened to get a job in 1963 at what was then Charlotte College, which morphed into UNC Charlotte. Purely the luck of the draw.
EXCEPT FOR SOME ISSUES of gender and ethnicity, Charlotte really hasn’t had a fundamentally new idea since the 1880s. It’s boosterism. We want to be a New South city. We want to be a big place. We want to be progressive. We want to show that even though we’re a Southern city, we can be a big dog in the pack. That really started in the 1880s with the textile industry and a very interesting man, Dan Tompkins, who came here in 1883. He championed boosterism, economic growth. He was a social Darwinist: We either move forward or we slip backward. There is no resting place with progress. We’ve certainly seen changes in ethnicity and gender, but really, it’s simply to give more people access to boosterism. Charlotte’s always trying to “get there.” It’s dominated by money, dominated by commercial and industrial enterprise. It’s a businessperson’s town, and it’s been that way ever since the 1880s.
HISTORY IS NOT THE PAST. History is the present looking at the past. So it’s constantly changing. What’s valuable one day, venerated one day, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be venerated later.
IN 1974, I became a consultant with the Historic Landmarks Commission. Historic preservation is much more vigorous, larger, and more diverse than it was then. The initial experience was basically picking out Old South, imposing buildings like plantation houses and trying to ensure that they were preserved: Hezekiah Alexander House, Latta Place, Rosedale, which is up on North Tryon Street. Very elitist, sort of the old, traditional concept that preservation was picking out beautiful, old buildings. Now, it’s very different, understanding that everybody’s history is important, be they rich, poor, middle-class, white, black, whatever; that we need to be more inclusive in what we preserve.
THERE’S NO QUESTION about the fact that preservation is a losing proposition, because all you do is delay defeat. Everything’s going to be destroyed. It’s just a matter of time. The market drives everything. With something like the Mayes house, all the market factors are against it. It’s on an extremely valuable piece of land. Taxes paid on that land are based on what’s considered highest and best use, which means, get the most intensive development you can according to existing zoning. When you’re doing something that does not easily make money? Tough. Tough.
I’D SAY THE MOST IMPORTANT THING I’ve learned is that you cannot expect people to work against their economic self-interest. You’ve got to make preservation make economic sense to people.
THE PRIVATE SECTOR has two great advantages over the public sector. Because the public sector is spending taxpayers’ money, understandably, there are a lot of procedural things that you have to do. The law requires that you be very, very meticulous with the expenditure of taxpayers’ money, so you cannot move fast. You can’t respond very effectively to an emergency. Preserve Mecklenburg doesn’t spend taxpayers’ money. We spend money that we raise, and therefore we can move very fast. I mean, I could make a deal with you this afternoon. Preserve Mecklenburg is a baby. I think we’re going to survive. But we’re all-volunteer, and we need donations. Any money we make is just going to be used to save more stuff.
I THOUGHT IT WAS NEEDED. I was the one who initiated the idea because I felt that I had pretty much accomplished everything I could with the Landmarks Commission. And I knew being the age that I am—I’m so damn old; I’m 82—you know, how much time do I have left?
I’VE NEVER BEEN ONE TO REGRET. I’m just glad that I have my challenges, but I can still function. I’ve got about five canes around the house here. My brain’s still good. I still have my faculties. So I’m just glad to be, as someone told me, in the arena. I have no desire to spend my life fishing and playing golf and watching football games on TV.
YOU MIGHT ASK, “What’s it like being 82?” It isn’t a damn bit of difference from being 50. You’ve got to get up in the morning. You’ve got to decide what you’re going to do. You’ve got to brush your teeth. You know, life doesn’t come prepackaged. As long as you have your health, you’ve got everything.