Executive Director’s Blog

Small Buildings Can Have Big Stories

June 20, 2017
Posted June 20th, 2017 by maryalbro and filed in Executive Director's Blog

By Guest Blogger, Myrick Howard

Most preservationists would agree wholeheartedly with these two statements:

  • Small buildings are often the toughest to preserve; and
  • Historic buildings provide a tangible link to our past.

When you lose a historic building, you also effectively lose its stories. Thus, all too often, the stories of “regular folks” get lost because small buildings are not treasured.

For several decades, Preservation North Carolina (PNC) has used its Endangered Properties Program (a revolving fund, by any name) to save many small properties. At the Edenton Cotton Mill Village, we sold 57 mill houses with preservation covenants, and at Glencoe Mill Village, we sold 31 more! We restricted the size of additions to 30% of a house’s original size. Descendants of mill employees were so grateful for our highlighting working-class history that small mill museums were established at each location to dig deeper.

In East Durham, we again worked with small houses built for mill workers. There we explicitly touted the virtues of small houses:

  • More affordable to own and operate
  • More environmentally sustainable
  • Consistent with the small household size (1 or 2 persons) that make up more than 60% of American households
  • Good starter homes for Millennials, who are going to dominate the work force by 2020
  • Attractive for downsizing Baby Boomers

We like to think of small houses as “workforce housing” for another generation.

PNC doesn’t just work with small houses. We worked for more than a decade to save the 660,000 square foot Loray Mill in Gastonia, a landmark of Southern labor history. To put its enormous size into perspective, the six-story mill has two acres of roof.

The Loray story is well known. The 1929 Loray strike is featured in history books, magazines, graduate courses, plays, poetry, television shows, etc. The University of North Carolina’s largest digital history archive is about Loray, thanks to recent collaboration with PNC. But, we felt that our business at Loray wasn’t done with the sale and $50+ million renovation of the mill.

The nationally-significant National Register district includes nearly 500 mill houses (four of which are shown above), and the neighborhood was hemorrhaging badly. With a PRI from The 1772 Foundation, we are working in the Loray Mill Village, where most of the houses are between 800 and 1100 square feet, conducive only to one-bedroom floorplans. Our goal is to sell a total of forty houses there by 2022. Small mill houses are integral to the story of Loray Mill, which would be so much less evocative if only the mill survived.

Most recently, a very different convergence of buildings and stories came our way.

Four times we’ve moved our Headquarters Office to save a highly endangered building, and we’re looking to do it again. We are currently downtown in a four-story commercial building, only a block from the State Capitol. Its renovation by PNC and a local foundation helped catalyze the renaissance of Raleigh’s main street, so our mission has been achieved.

For several years, we’ve been looking for another “poor dog” that needed love, and we found not just one, but two: the homes of Willis Graves and Rev. Plummer Hall in Oberlin Village.

The story of Raleigh’s Oberlin Village has nearly been lost since so many of its buildings have disappeared. Established as a freedman’s community around 1870, Oberlin ran about twelve blocks. By 1880, the town had about 750 residents, mainly former slaves. Many went on to remarkable careers.

For decades, Oberlin was a thriving community with churches, schools, businesses and homes, but it has been largely wiped out since the 1940s by a shopping center, highway project, urban renewal, public housing, and recent development. Out of several hundred Oberlin structures, only 34 remain. Sadly, it’s a common story with tragic racist overtones.

Willis Graves House

The Hall and Graves Houses are two of only five Oberlin structures individually listed in the National Register. The Graves House, which looks like a large Queen Anne-style house, only has 1,400 square feet.  The six rooms are modest, and ceiling heights are relatively low.   It’s as if they shrunk the house, so it still looks impressive from the street. The strong street presence of these exuberant Victorian houses belies their modest size. They vividly tell remarkable post-Civil War, up-from-slavery stories where former slaves optimistically embraced the importance of hard work and education as the means to provide a better life. Due to the continuation of centuries of racism, that path was not easy, but they and their descendants overcame relentless obstacles with remarkable achievements.




Francis Dent, Edward Swan, Orsel McGhee, Willis Graves, Jr., & Minnie McGhee

Born into slavery, Willis Graves was a brickmason. His son, Willis Graves, Jr., went to Howard University School of Law and became a major Civil Rights attorney in Detroit. He worked with Thurgood Marshall on a US Supreme Court case that invalidated racially restrictive covenants. Grave and Marshall are shown in the photo to the left with the McGhees, the defendants in a Michigan racially restrictive covenants lawsuit that was merged with a similar Missouri case (Shelley v. Kraemer) and resulted in the landmark US Supreme Court decision. Another son, while getting a Master’s Degree from Cornell, was the first initiate into Alpha Phi Alpha, now the largest and most prominent African-American fraternity; he moved to Harlem at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance. A grandson was appointed by President Kennedy to head Voice of America in Latin America.



We didn’t know these stories until we started working to save the two houses as our future headquarters. The National Register nominations are bland and incomplete, having been done pre-Internet. We now are working with Graves descendants spread all over the country to unearth more – for their edification and ours…and ultimately for history.

We’ve only scratched the surface. The preservation of these two modest houses will have significant and inspirational educational value as these stories are told and new information uncovered. Further, these highly visible houses will help tell the remarkable story of Oberlin. Without PNC’s direct property intervention, these important houses – and their stories – would be lost.

Small houses may have outsized stories. We’ll never even learn about these stories unless we first save the buildings.


For 39 years, Myrick Howard has been President of Preservation North Carolina. He’s still in his first job.  To learn more about PNC’s work, go to www.preservationnc.org.








Is heaven in Iowa?

April 7, 2017
Posted April 7th, 2017 by maryanthony and filed in Executive Director's Blog
Photo credit:  Seed Savers

In 1863, a three-year-old Irish toddler named Elizabeth Donnelly left County Leitrim. It is unclear whether she was accompanied by her parents, both children of farmers, or if she was orphaned and sent to live with relatives in America.

What we do know is that roughly a third of Leitrim had died either from starvation or disease or had left to make a life in North America in the years prior to Elizabeth’s emigration. The organism Phytophthora infestans caused widespread potato blight in 1845, which in turn propelled an unsustainable food system into the catastrophic Great Famine.

British land rule already had fractured Irish farmland into smaller and smaller parcels, which forced many farmers into a potato monoculture as it was a crop that provided both enough calories to feed a family and enough money to pay rent to British landlords. When a large percentage of the potato crop failed, the situation quickly became precarious. British rule did not allow the Irish to hunt or fish.  Relief was nonexistent.  There was no seed bank to improve biodiversity.

Landlords evicted already-starving tenant farming families into crowded workhouses, where cholera and typhus found ideal conditions to further the tragedy. It was not unusual for a corpse to be found with a green mouth, as desperate citizens attempted to fill their bellies with grass.

What Phytophthora infestans and British rule had started wasn’t the final chapter of the tragedy—about one third of the “fortunate” ones who attempted emigration died on what became known as “coffin ships,” overcrowded and barely seaworthy, with disease an unwelcome passenger.

The Irish toddler, Elizabeth Donnelly, is my great-grandmother. In considering the circumstances by which her family, and mine, came to be here in New England 153 years later, it strikes me that awareness of agricultural politics and the importance of genetic diversity to our food supply are not lessons we have fully learned. In an echo of 1841 Ireland, our food system is dangerously lopsided, tipped very heavily toward industrial farming practices and national farm policies that favor genetically engineered soy and corn monocultures.

There is hope, seeded by another immigrant.

112 years after my great-grandmother left Ireland, Diane Ott Whealy and her husband, Kent Whealy, sat at their kitchen table in Missouri and thought about Diane’s great-grandparent, who had emigrated from Bavaria to Iowa in the 1870s. He brought precious cargo in the form of seeds: ‘German Pink’ tomato and ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glory.  From these two varieties, Diane and Kent started a living collection that would grow to more than 25,000 seed and plant types, as well as a community of more than 12,000 members.

Their non-profit, Seed Savers Exchange, now is headquartered on 890-acre Heritage Farm in northeast Iowa, a magical place that has been accurately described as the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark wrapped into one. Heritage Farm actively promotes seed distribution to not only safeguard genetic diversity but also remember the stories of how these seeds were grown, saved, and passed down through generations—family treasures far more valuable than gold, treasures that we now know could have saved a million Irish lives.  They may yet save many more. The magnitude of their efforts is yet to be fully understood and is, to my mind, of biblical proportions.

Why does their work to preserve biodiversity in the form of heirloom and open-pollinated plants matter? These climate-ready varieties have the ability to adapt and regenerate themselves year after year. These seeds (and tissue cultures or other plant materials, depending on how a plant reproduces) have the power to withstand unforeseen pestilence and plant disease, climate change, and habitat limitations, even as they increase the diversity of flavors offered at the dining table. (www.seedsavers.org)

Consider this alarming twist: our current farming system heavily favors genetically engineered seeds. About 170 million acres of genetically engineered crops were planted in 2013.  Farmers are beholden to the corporations who control the seeds.  Their seeds are terminal—one year and done. Because of these modern “improved” farming techniques, we have lost 75 percent of edible plants varieties— and plants make up over 80 percent of the human diet. We are vulnerable in much the same way we were when immigrants like Grandpa Ott and Elizabeth Donnelly arrived in this country so long ago.

Seed Savers’ critical dual mission is to preserve genetic diversity and the living histories of each variety—the DNA within each seed contains its own rich and breathtaking memory of immigration, family farms and gardens and recipes. Take a look at the ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon, ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato, and ‘Mayflower’ bean. They are beautiful, historical, and delicious. They are also the antidote to genetically engineered crops and treacherous farm policies. These seeds are tiny, robust foot soldiers in the war against future famines. This is historic preservation of the most urgent type, and I can say without exaggeration that there is not a more important historic site I have visited in my 14 years at The 1772 Foundation.

Twelve years ago, my 10-year-old son Jack (Elizabeth’s great-great-grandson) and I made a pilgrimage to Heritage Farm to meet Grandpa Ott’s descendants. One line from the movie Field of Dreams kept running through my head—when Shoeless Joe Jackson appears on the Iowa ball field and asks, “Is this heaven?” and Ray Kinsella answers, “No, It’s Iowa.” To Elizabeth Donnelly and Grandpa Ott, their descendants, historians, environmentalists, and all who eat, Heritage Farm is heaven.


Photo credit:  Seed Savers


Thinking Big & Bold: How the Kendall Foundation Is Transforming New England’s Food System

March 2, 2017
Posted March 2nd, 2017 by maryalbro and filed in Executive Director's Blog

Originally posted to Exponent Philanthropy’s PhilanthroFiles blog

In late summer of last year, Andy Kendall put foot to pedal on a Trek bicycle in Portland, Oregon. Forty days and 4,000 miles later, he rolled into Portland, Maine. At the 1772 Foundation, we were not surprised to learn of his feat: a two-wheeled version of the significant accomplishments he has made at the Boston-based Henry P. Kendall Foundation. Though established in 1957, this foundation crackles with the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of a start-up company.

Five years before the cross-country trek, Andy and his staff began to put pedal to the metal to meet monumental challenges in the New England regional food system. We have been following Kendall’s success with great interest as he exemplifies what we believe are the best qualities of effective, dynamic philanthropy.

UMass dining hallOne of the best examples of Kendall’s impact is at UMass Amherst where the foundation is behind a bold transition, made possible by one of the many strategic food system grants they have made throughout New England. This campus has a total food budget of more than $21 million. With help from the Kendall Foundation, they have made a firm commitment to sourcing food thoughtfully, using local whenever possible, with back-up defaults to regional sources and those using “sustainable, humane and organic sources.” This effort resulted in a 38% increase in local sustainable food purchases by the largest university in Massachusetts.

This project and others funded by Kendall exemplify the aspects of dynamic philanthropy that we try to emulate:

Food VisionVision with a strong footing. Recognizing the merits of, and providing support for, a report entitled A New England Food Vision, Kendall Foundation embraced the vision of “50 by 60” (from Food Solutions New England). That is, by 2060, 50% of New England food will come from New England. This document is a thorough, pragmatic look at what it will take to reach that goal in terms of acres of farmland, types of food, dietary requirements, etc.

Understanding systems dynamics. Andy and his team went into the field and sought to fully understand the entire system. In the Vision, this includes production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste return. Kendall believes that both visionary grants (top-down grants with a bold vision for the future) and reality grants made “in the trenches” (bottom-up grants) are necessary and inform each other.

Harnessing the for-profit market. Food systems change cannot be sustainable or financially feasible without working at the speed of the market and involving for-profit players. With a full understanding of the system and the players, Kendall was able to become what Andy calls a “catalyst organization,” one which could work within the ecosystem of all the players, while bringing the nimble, flexible, unbound nature of private philanthropy to connect the dots.

Immersion, connection, and flexibility. Andy and his team understand from their research where there are gaps and opportunities that can be addressed, where introductions need to be made, convenings organized, funds leveraged, and case studies developed. Smaller, experimental “orientation grants” were made to test assumptions and get to know the players. These grants helped the foundation understand the issues and the landscape more thoroughly in the early “research and development” phase. As their depth of knowledge and experience grew, larger grants were made to strengthen the system as a whole. Recognizing the value of philanthropic dollars as “risk capital,” Kendall was willing to make informed grants in potential, eschewing the “safe bets” to focus on the creative, emerging spaces where new ideas were being nurtured, developed, tested and where higher risks and complexity may have deterred more traditional funders.

Understanding the multiplier factor. Kendall is willing to make the riskier grants in order to pave the way for other foundations to fund food systems efforts. The dining service investment at UMass will have a major ripple effect: Colleges and universities spend $5 billion on food purchases each year. Through a grant to the Real Food Challenge (20% of food “from local, fair, humane and sustainable sources” by 2020), Kendall is leveraging their impact. Kendall reports, “Since 2012, 18 colleges and universities in the Northeast have taken the pledge. This translates to more than $10 million in university spending directed at local, sustainable farms and food businesses, up from $2 million three years ago.”  

Andy and his colleagues at the Kendall Foundation are striving for excellence using the best practices of dynamic, catalytic philanthropy and have made major, measurable gains towards a sustainable New England food system as a result.

Some of the most compelling quotes in philanthropy come from Tom Tierney, co-author of Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results. My favorite is from an interview he gave to Huffington Post: “In philanthropy, excellence must be self-imposed. And no one achieves excellence without pushing themselves on the fundamental dimensions of strategy, execution and continuous improvement that underpin the best philanthropy.” Kendall Foundation has pushed themselves on these fundamentals, and we seek to be as energetic, thoughtful, thorough, creative, and bold as they are. We may not hop on a bike in Portland anytime soon, but we can strive to make our journey as important as theirs.

The most powerful word in the English language is…

December 7, 2016
Posted December 7th, 2016 by maryalbro and filed in Executive Director's Blog





This past spring, I joined a group of friends to cycle the Natchez Trace Parkway, 444 miles from Nashville to western Mississippi.  On day 2, we arrived near Florence, Alabama and stumbled on Tom Hendrix, an older gentleman who has dedicated the last thirty years of his life to building an incredible meandering stone wall through a peaceful woodland – a monument to his great-great grandmother, Te-lah-nay.

As a young member of the Yuchi tribe in the early 19th century, Te-lah-nay was part of the what we now call the Trail of Tears, a forced 1,000-mile march westward of native people to Oklahoma, a painful chapter of ethnic cleansing in American history and more accurately described as a death march. Andrew Jackson’s  Indian Removal Act of 1830 “re-appropriated” millions of acres for use by white settlers by nullifying any native right to the land and banishing wave after wave of original people to an unfamiliar world. Though thousands perished on the freezing cold trail, Te-lah-nay survived the brutal trek.

Te-lah-nay believed she would die anyway, living so far from all she loved and one day simply walked out of her camp to return home to where her heart still lived, near the singing Tennessee River.  Against all odds, and despite deadly conditions, she succeeded in walking for five years until she arrived at her beloved homeland.

Te-lah-nay’s great-great grandson, Tom Hendrix, built the wall we saw in Alabama as a memorial to her – one stone for each step she took to come home.  It is a very, very long wall.  This sacred space has become a place of sanctuary for many.  People from all over the world send stones to add to the wall, which has a mystical, otherworldly quality to it. Even my sweaty, bike-geared group -mostly scientists- fell into hushed voices while meandering around the woodland gardens that surround this unlikely memorial to the sanctity of home.

Many miles north, and much less remarkably, the cottage above has belonged to my family for four generations.  We have fished and paddled and swum the waters, watched a thousand sunsets, spent time with dying parents, celebrated birthdays and babies and tended broken hearts and occasionally limbs.  It is the heart of our family life.  It is home to us.

Everyone has such a place, and we can become truly heartsick when removed from it.

Ask anyone and they will tell you about the place that nourishes them.  Where is your sanctuary- that particular special spot where it all makes sense? As Maya Angelou wrote in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

There is not a single building or place that the preservation or conservation worlds care about that does not mean home in some way, to someone: a place of worship like the First African Meeting House in Boston, Thoreau’s cabin, a lighthouse in Maine, a row house in Baltimore, an old movie theater, a family farm.  A place for which one would make sacrifices to return, like Te-lah-nay.

I worry that the field of historic preservation too often “re-appropriates” properties and sites to fit one version of history and that we too often miss the organic, native connection between heart, home and place. Perhaps we have become too academic – floating too far away from the hearts of most people and loftily telling them why “this place matters” when there are others who can tell us so much more about why it does matter, why it is home, to them.

Breathing Lights

October 10, 2016
Posted October 10th, 2016 by maryalbro and filed in Executive Director's Blog

For one sparkling minute each night, skyscrapers, tugboats, hotels, a yacht club and police cruisers send a blinking goodnight message to sick kids inside a children’s hospital. A gesture that began with a single light six years ago has become a nightly display along the Providence River — and a highly anticipated ritual — inside Hasbro Children’s Hospital.” ~ Matt O’Brien, Boston.com

The messages are exchanged each night at 8:30 PM – four flashes “Goodnight Hasbro” come from as far as a church group in East Providence, 2 miles away.

The return message from the kids is two flashes- “Thank you.”

The real message- we haven’t forgotten you.

Check out the full story by Matt O’Brien here- it will make you a happier person.

Just a few days after this story was published a captivating piece on a public art installation came out in the Albany Times Union, “The Art of Bloomberg-funded Breathing Lights.”  Like the lights flashed between Providence and the children at Hasbro, lights come at dusk on in old structures in Troy, Schenectedy and Albany- a coordinated effort to bring attention to dark, abandoned buildings and disenfranchised neighborhoods. From 6-10 each night through November, using a Breathing Lights map (www.breathinglights.com) you can visit these neighborhoods and see this art installation in person.

Amy Biancolli’s article about this project is so beautifully written, I encourage you to read it in its entirety at: http://www.timesunion.com/living/article/Biancolli-The-art-of-Bloomberg-funded-Breathing-9611606.php?cmpid=fb-desktop

Here is a snippet: “On Locust near Chestnut, a gathering of adorable clapboard homes breathe in companionable silence. According to (artist Adam) Frelin, the team worked hard to find L.E.D.’s that echoed the incandescence of occupied homes, and their efforts paid off: the light beaming from within is warm and human, asking poignant questions in the darkness. What happened inside these houses? Why are they empty? Where did everyone go?

The lights humanize as they illuminate. In North Troy, the neighborhood around River Street has several lit structures, including an enormous, 20-window building on 7th Avenue and a tiny white clapboard house covered in vines on 6th. On River, sitting at the intersection with Smith, sits an empty shop with a winking storefront. Imagine the bustle that once marked that corner.

My friend once told me she knew her marriage was over when she returned home from a business trip late one night and the porch light was not on, again.

It’s a little thing but it’s everything, isn’t it?

Perhaps this is why this project is so special. Amy writes “Art always invites us to see, but good art challenges us to see in a new way — to notice something that’s been squatting in plain sight all along. Most of the buildings in “Breathing Lights” are just such ignored and invisible objects. Many are ramshackle houses that most of us, if we’re being honest, drive past with a blind eye. We turn from their weathered faces in the same way we look past the homeless. We’d rather not see them, so we don’t see them at all.

That’s why we should shine a light on, and for, them- sick children, old buildings, disengaged family. It is so easy to look past them, to leave them to the dark.

It’s a simple but profound gesture- leave a light on.  The breathing lights remind us, and them, that they are not forgotten.

Yet to Come: The Most Important U.S. History Makers

September 4, 2016
Posted September 4th, 2016 by maryanthony and filed in Executive Director's Blog

 The L'Enfant Trust_side by side

Home for a future history-maker? photos courtesy of the L’Enfant Trust, Washington, DC

There is some serious stuff going on right now in the world. Racial tensions, Zika virus, an angry election, unsustainable energy demands, environmental degradation and climate change happening much faster than we thought it might.

And on a much smaller and more selfish level, I had my own challenging stuff this week. The first day of my vacation landed me in the hospital for major emergency surgery. (Because, vacation.)

These forced groundings – snowstorms, airport layovers and hospital visits- do have a benefit.  They allow time and brain space for serious reflection. (And this one also came with narcotics, so I took some bad pictures of the historic homes on Friendship Sreet from my window. Because, still vacation.)

Reflections on my work at the 1772 Foundation always point back to the 1772’s focus on historic properties redevelopment programs: preservation that puts people and community at the forefront and values entrepreneurial approaches to saving buildings and neighborhoods.

We focus on this area at some expense to more traditional architectural and historic gems, since our limited funds must be used in a highly strategic way to make an impact in an underfunded field and we can’t fund it all.  It is fair to say that a significant percentage of 1772 money is diverted from some of the more classically important and beautiful historic buildings to this redevelopment work, and it is something we constantly question and reevaluate.

My grounding gave me time to question and reevaluate and I was reminded of a simple truth: so much of the great arc of U.S. history is yet to come. To stand firmly in 2016 and only look backward- at buildings and historic figures fixed in the past- is to ignore this elementary but profound fact.  It hasn’t all been done yet. We have astonishing challenges before us- as difficult and as critically important as the American Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, etc. We need spirited, brave, innovative leaders to take us into the next 240 years.  Perhaps our preservation work should always be focused on the future.

The efforts of our future leaders deserve to be nurtured in rich and vibrant communities; in places and spaces that cherish indigenous character, beauty and history but still leave room for revolutionary new growth and the great and good history-making that will take root in these incubator spaces.  This is people-based preservation; the very type of preservation on which we focus through our historic properties redevelopment funding.

So, my narcotic-filter hospital window pictures of the historic homes turned out to be meaningful to me. During my forced grounding, I reaffirmed my belief that we need to save these neighborhoods and communities for the history-makers yet to come- those who will create new sustainable energy methods, who will teach us how to be kinder to each other, and who will find cures for disease and global warming. Because that is what preservation is really for- to provide an enriched environment for the history yet to come.