No more battles. Longtime evangelist for preserving Charlotte history calls it a career

Dan Morrill, who has been the face of the movement to preserve Charlotte’s history for nearly half a century, is retiring as the consulting director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission next month.

Morrill will be succeeded by Jack Thomson, the county said in a release. He is the executive director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County.

Morrill, who has been at the helm of the group since the 1970s, will retire effective Dec. 9.

As Charlotte has forged its future and built gleaming skyscrapers, Morrill has fought to maintain many of its iconic structures. Sometimes, it’s a losing battle. Landmarks like the Coffee Cup restaurant and the once-grand Hotel Charlotte have been demolished over the years to make way for planned developments.

Residents often lament that Charlotte tears down its history, but Morrill said there have also been many battles won.

He worked with the commission to process more than 330 properties in the county for historic designations — more than any other county in the state. They range from mills to historic estates.

And in a growing city, he said, some change is inevitable.

“Losses are remembered more than victories, because they hurt more,” he said. “And it’s true that many things have been torn down. But that’s the nature of life.”

An ‘evangelist’

Morrill joined the faculty at UNC Charlotte in 1963 as a history professor. He retired in 2014 as the longest-serving faculty member at the university.

That’s where Ed Perzel and Morrill met in the 1960s, and the two received a grant to give presentations on Charlotte’s history. Around the same time, Perzel said, the county was interested in establishing a preservation group. Morrill stepped up to the job.

“I always thought he should’ve been an evangelist: he really can convince people of anything,” Perzel said. “In a way that’s what he was. He was an evangelist for historic preservation.”

Local historian Tom Hanchett first came to Charlotte in 1981 to work for Morrill and help survey some of Charlotte’s oldest neighborhoods like Dilworth and Plaza Midwood. Though today they’re some of the most desirable parts of town, that wasn’t always the case.

“Neighborhoods like Dilworth or Elizabeth, which were pretty much written off by the powers that be, are still around because of that passion and that research,” Hanchett said.

Morrill also helped change the perception in the city of what constitutes history, Hanchett said.

“When I came to Charlotte in 1981, people could not understand why a historian might be in this town,” he said. “Because they assumed that all history was Colonial.”

But the commission has worked to preserve everything from farmhouses to the Grace A.M.E. Zion Church ⁠— the only surviving religious structure from the once-vibrant African American Brooklyn neighborhood, bulldozed in the 1960s and ‘70s in the name of urban renewal.

Perhaps Morrill’s most far reaching-impact, Hanchett said, was his effort to bring back a historic streetcar.

Trolley Car 85, Charlotte’s last running street car, was found dismantled in Huntersville in 1987, the Observer reported. Morrill purchased it for $1,000 and the commission raised $25,000 to restore it.

The streetcar ran from South End to uptown until 2005. It helped garner support for the light rail.

“Dan’s genius is connecting people with their history, which connects people with a sense of possibility,” Hanchett said.

Morrill helped bring back Streetcar No. 85, which ran from South End into uptown. courtesy of Steve Mersch

‘Economic sense’

As real estate becomes more valuable, the city’s historic sites are at risk. Even if something is designated as a historic landmark, the commission can only delay demolition for up to a year.

Morrill helped set up a revolving fund for the commission that has helped preserve more than 50 endangered properties. The fund has about $3.9 million at its disposal, Morrill said.

And Morrill and the commission have turned to another strategy to combat the development pressures on historic buildings: deed restrictions.

This year, Morrill co-founded Preserve Mecklenburg, a nonprofit that works to secure options to purchase historic buildings. Once the group obtains an option to purchase, it works to find a buyer that wants to preserve the property and adds deed restrictions that ensure it will be preserved.

Preserve Mecklenburg bought an option to purchase the Victor Shaw House, a historic property on Mecklenburg Avenue, after the owner applied for demolition. The group has found a prospective buyer and hopes to save the house. Courtesy of Dan Morrill

For instance, the group recently secured an exclusive option to purchase the historic Shaw House in Plaza Midwood, which was slated to be torn down.

Morrill plans to continue his work with the organization in his retirement.

“You’ve got to find a way that it makes economic sense to save those old buildings,” he said. “Otherwise they’re going to go.”

Thomson, the incoming director, said he views preservation as a form of economic development.

“As preservationists, it’s not our goal to arrest development and save every single thing that’s out there or chain ourselves to bulldozers,” he said. “The goal is to have good conversations in the community about the important places. And those conversations can sometimes be challenging.”

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Danielle Chemtob covers economic growth and development for the Observer. She’s a 2018 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and a California transplant.