Rewriting history – salt magazine

It’s an exceptional cultural contribution to the state, matched probably only by curator and historian Catherine Bishir, the author of N orth Carolina Architecture, her encyclopedic catalog of design. Between the two of them, Howard and Bishir have created an elevated atmosphere for appreciating the role architecture plays in the lives of all North Carolinians.

Howard has done that by placing himself squarely on the front lines of historic preservation. He prepped himself for his career by attending UNC-Chapel Hill, with a double major in law and urban planning. When he graduated in 1978, he headed straight for the organization now known as Preservation North Carolina.

“I took a part-time job first, and within another month or so, I was executive director,” the Durham native says.

His background in law provides dual benefits. Clearly it’s influenced his organizational abilities. But it also informs his contention that preservation is mostly about real estate. “Not a day goes by without my looking at a contract,” says Howard. “It’s a way to get to the point — a way of thinking, where you get rid of the extraneous thoughts.”

Howard was instrumental in developing PNC’s formula for success. He inherited a revolving fund for the acquisition of properties from an earlier organization, then expanded its use. He matches up potential owners or developers with projects, and motivates them with the application of state and federal historic tax credits. Uses of the renovated buildings often create jobs, while enhancing tax bases with historic properties used in new ways.

It’s a process that requires vision, patience and expertise in connecting the dots of who should be involved with each project. “His mental Rolodex is very deep,” says landscape architect Rodney Swink, a senior associate at PlaceEconomics who’s known Howard for more than 30 years. “And he has the ability to suggest a number of possibilities for a building.”

“He’s an innovative leader on how to get preservation done,” says Ellen Turco, chair of the Wake Forest Historic Preservation Commission. “The old model was to create a nonprofit to save buildings, raise money locally and turn the building into a museum. But every building with value can’t be a museum — so how can it be a hotel, a restaurant or a living space?”

Wilmington-based architects designed it, and slaves and freedmen built it, which broadens its appeal to a wide base of visitors. “It connects people to history and the community,” Howard says. “It’s a huge asset — 30,000 people go through it every year, and there’s programming of significance. It’s inclusive and tells the full story of the site of the (1898) Wilmington Race Riot. It was talking about that well before it was comfortable to do that. It talks bluntly about slavery and what it meant.”

After the Civil War, the mansion became home to the Freedmen’s Bureau, while Wilmington’s thriving black middle class began to grow and prosper. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court ruling in Plessey versus Ferguson validated the concept of “separate but equal.” It was a step that encouraged the establishment of Jim Crow — and much more.

The day before the 1898 riot, owner John D. Bellamy had gone to Congress to retrieve his family home from the Freedmen’s Bureau. He succeeded, and his descendants would live in the home until the late 1940s. In 1993, PNC took title to the Greek Revival house and initiated its restoration, following up on the former slave quarters in the 2010s.

Howard calls the Bellamy a major success, with PNC raising more than $2 million for it, excluding operating funds. Beyond renovation, they’ve made overt efforts toward mending social fences. “We tried with Bellamy to do things to get both whites and people of color into the same place to communicate and to get to know each other,” Howard says. “There was an opportunity to do that with the full restoration of the slave quarters. We did this early on, and it’s an important part of what we do.”

“Most of Raleigh’s historic districts were built over a period of decades — house-by-house, owner-by-owner. Thus, unlike modern subdivisions, they contain numerous styles and sizes, and it is this richness that gives them their character. They are mosaics, made up of many distinctive parts. No one style predominates, so it is not useful to prescribe stylistic limitations.”

Howard had modulated the controversy for public consumption. “He was using the crisis as a teaching moment for a well-accepted way that historic preservation was understood by the National Park Service, the current best thinking in the historic preservation community,” says Cherry. “The result was wide public pressure on the city to join with us in our legal situation. He was absolutely critical in our defense.”

Ask Howard about his most important achievement at PNC, and he’s quick to bring up the topic of state historic tax credits, which have been used on more than $2 billion in property. PNC established them first in 1993, reinstated them in 1997 and later expanded them from residences to industrial and utility buildings. “That’s how all these mills are being renovated,” he says. “We were the ones who testified and wrote the original language. They’ve gone way beyond what we remotely imagined when we got this started.”

When the General Assembly abolished them in 2015, Howard initiated a plan to reinstate them in 2016 — and succeeded. “Myrick has had to re-educate a whole new group over and over, that they’re not only to benefit the wealthy, but have had as big an impact on small and middle-size businesses as anything the legislature has ever done,” says Steve Schuster, principal in Raleigh’s Clearscapes. “The economic development they spur has a profound impact across the state.”

The underlying lesson of historic tax credits is that they’re not just about preserving old or historic buildings — though certainly they achieve that — but that they’re effective economic development tools for big cities and small towns alike. And Howard is their most effective advocate at the legislature. “He’s been willing to plow that same field repeatedly,” says Schuster.