Charlotte’s preservation history is Dan Morrill’s legacy

06/28/2014 4:29 PM

06/28/2014 4:57 PM

He’s been the face of Charlotte’s historic preservation movement for 40 years, developing an evangelist’s passion to prevent the region from obliterating its past.

But that’s not what brought Dan Morrill to Charlotte.

He arrived in 1963 to teach European and Russian history at what was then Charlotte College, which had two buildings and 900 students. He was 25.

On Monday, after 51 years of teaching, researching and watching the campus blossom to 161 buildings and more than 25,000 students, Morrill will retire as UNC Charlotte’s longest-serving employee. He is now 76.

He hadn’t planned to stay so long.

But a side career – the one he’s most known for – unfolded as he watched the city wreck its architectural history to make way for its New South skyline.

In the classroom, Morrill was once named teacher of the year, infusing heart, muscle and drama into history. But in his preservation work, he gave history lasting impact and molded his legacy.

“I had dreams of teaching at UNC Charlotte for a few years and moving on to a more prestigious academic institution,” Morrill said. “But my career went through a metamorphosis when I got involved in the preservation movement, and I became completely immersed in the community. It’s been such an enrichment to my life.”

A solitary figure

His work has enriched Charlotte’s story.

Since 1973, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission – Morrill has been its only consulting director – has designated 354 local landmarks throughout Mecklenburg County, more than any other county in the state. “All of them are due to Dan’s work,” said Lynn Weis, the commission’s outgoing chairman. “Not out of ego, but a sincere interest in saving the past before it disappeared.”

They include old homes and commercial buildings, the last trolley car to run in Charlotte in 1938 and a rock as big as a two-story building. Each is recorded in impeccable detail and added to the landmarks commission’s website.

The commission – with the help of Mecklenburg County commissioners – started a revolving fund to buy important structures and sell them with protective rules. Worth $6.5 million, it is the largest publicly financed fund in the country.

Tuesday, county commissioners are set to present Morrill with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, among the state’s most prestigious civilian awards, for his preservation work.

In this booming city, Morrill often seemed a solitary figure holding off the tide of progress.

“In every community, there are a few far-sighted people who believe that knowing stories of the community is a value, that things built by previous generations are a value,” said Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South who worked with Morrill in the early 1980s. “Charlotte, because of its go-go energy with lots of new people and lots of new money, was a place where that message found a hard time gaining traction.

“Dan was a leader in convincing Charlotte that it has stories of value to tell.”

‘Cultural geographer’

Morrill was born in Charlotte but moved with his parents, James and Helen, to Winston-Salem when he was 1. With its Moravian influence and restored Moravian village of Salem, that city taught him that buildings can tell stories.

“I’ve always been interested in the built environment. Not so much in the style of a building ... but why do humans build buildings the way they do and what are the factors that influence what they build,” Morrill said. “I’ve been a cultural geographer of sorts.”

He graduated from Wake Forest with a history degree in 1960 and a year later married Charlotte native Mary Lynn Caldwell, whom he’d known since they were children.

They moved to Atlanta, where Morrill earned a master’s degree in Russian history from Emory University. He’d finished his classwork for a doctorate in the same subject when Robert Rieke, a former Emory professor and history chair at Charlotte College, invited him in January 1963 to apply for an opening.

He was the only candidate.

The Morrills moved that summer. His first office was a former snack bar and when he rolled back from his desk, his chair naturally drifted down a gradual slope to the middle drain. He taught and wrote academic papers as he worked on his dissertation. He got his doctorate in 1966.

That year Linda, their first of two daughters, was born. Four years later, Mary Dana arrived.

One day, Ed Perzel, a colleague in the history department, approached Morrill, alarmed that much of Charlotte’s urban center was getting torn down. He knew Morrill had the same concerns. The two put together a before-and-after slideshow and in 1972 went on the civic group circuit preaching preservation.

“Charlotte was hell-bent on becoming a modern New South city and was tearing up all of its architectural history,” said Perzel, now retired and living in West Jefferson in Ashe County. “Everything was threatened. We took the point that we ought to stop and think a little and try to preserve a little history.

“Tourists don’t come to new cities. They come to cities with a contrast of old and new.”

Overcame hurdles

About that time, Charlotte architect Jack Boyte was leading an effort to start a historic properties commission to organize and govern preservation efforts. It needed a consulting director and Edgar Love, a Charlotte lawyer, approached Morrill and Perzel.

“Dan took the ball and ran with it. He’s still running,” Perzel said. “It gave him a whole new outlook on life in applied history. Instead of sitting in a library and looking at dusty manuscripts and writing articles ... Dan liked to appeal to the public and get the public involved in history.”

Morrill ran into obstacles everywhere – including colleagues at UNCC, critical that his preservation work would detract from his academic work.

Perzel said the department chairs approved of the work, but other professors didn’t understand it.

“They didn’t particularly value what Dan was doing,” he said. “But actually he did a lot more for history.”

Morrill was perfect for the job. He’s a performer: He sings. He’s acted in plays. He plays the ukelele. And he can work crowds like a politician – ever patient to explain the value of preserving history.

“He faced hurdles at every corner, but in his very gentle, persuasive way, he just made it happen,” said former Observer editor Jack Claiborne, who used a weekly column about Charlotte’s past to champion much of Morrill’s work. “Dan just felt that the past was worth saving.”

Remembering ‘Three miracles’

Claiborne said Morrill created “three miracles” in his preservation work.

The first was Fourth Ward uptown, a once-elegant neighborhood in steep decline in the early 1970s. Others started the revitalization before Morrill got involved.

But Claiborne said Morrill gave the effort strength, bringing a state consultant to assess what structures were still left. His commission designated the ward a local landmark.

The second miracle was the landmarks commission and its revolving fund. The fund rose from the rubble of a Masonic Temple uptown on South Tryon Street, torn down in 1987.

As Morrill led protests one day, a banker approached him. “He said, ‘If you love that building so much, why don’t you buy it?’ ” Morrill recalled. “That got me thinking that we needed money to take preservation in this city to a new level.”

The fund has become a model for other communities, said Ramona Bartos, the state’s historic preservation officer.

The third is Trolley Car 85, Charlotte’s last street car to run before it retired the system and switched to buses in 1938. “Charlotte’s history was so intimately tied up with the electric street car,” Morrill said. “I felt we needed to add to the city’s collection of artifacts an operational street car.”

They’d found 85 dismantled in 1987 in Huntersville. It was being used as rental property and had been condemned. Morrill bought it for $1,000 and lobbied for donations. The commission raised $250,000 in private funds to restore it.

It ran from Atherton Mills in South End to Seventh Street uptown until 2005. It drew support for the eventual light-rail line.

One more rescue

Now Trolley 85 sits in a CATS maintenance facility, waiting for Morrill to rescue it again.

Last February, he suffered a heart attack and decided to retire from UNCC. But he’s not giving up his side job. Instead, Morrill and wife Mary Lynn (he credits her for much of the preservation success) want the car back on the tracks, running through the west side on a rail right-of-way along Stewart Creek Greenway.

“It faces hurdles,” Morrill said. “But that car has been transformative before and it can be again. Some people like to save things because they’re pretty, but it is so much more meaningful when they tell stories. They give us knowledge about yesterday and hope for tomorrow.”

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