He’s rescued 900 buildings to save NC history. Meet the N&O’s Tar Heel of the Year.


In a scene near the beginning of the 1997 movie “Titanic,” our heroine, Rose, peers out of a submarine surveying the ship’s wreckage to see through the murky water the corroded, but distinctly curlicued, metal grate of the double doors once leading to the First-Class Dining Saloon.

The broken ship has sat on the ocean floor for 84 years. But instantly, in the character’s mind, it’s 1912 and a pair of white-jacketed waiters swing open the gleaming doors to welcome Rose into the elegant Louis XVI-style room with its ornate columns, arched ceiling and elaborate plasterwork, in all their original glory.

Maggie Gregg believes something like that happens behind the eyes of her longtime boss, Myrick Howard, every time he crosses the threshold of a historic building that Preservation North Carolina has been summoned to try to rescue. Howard sees past the fallen chimneys of the 1800s farmhouses and the collapsed ceilings of the century-old schools and envisions, instead, what the structures used to be and what — with a little love and creative financing — they might become.

“He has such an enthusiasm and an ability to convey that vision,” said Gregg, who has been the Eastern regional director for PNC since 2016. “People naturally get excited about what he’s proposing, because he’s so excited and believes in it so much.”

For 45 years, J. Myrick Howard braved chiggers, mosquitoes, flea infestations, scorched roof rafters, rotted floor joists, recalcitrant land owners and unsympathetic zoning boards for the sake of saving nearly 900 structures that tell the stories of North Carolina. He’s The News & Observer’s 2023 Tar Heel of the Year, an annual honor that recognizes North Carolinians who have made a significant impact in the region and beyond.


Howard was born in 1953 in Durham, the second son of a career machinist for American Tobacco. Growing up, his family lived with his grandmother in the rock-solid home his grandfather had built in a working-class neighborhood using bricks salvaged from an old tobacco warehouse.

After graduating from Durham High as a National Merit Scholar with a four-year scholarship from American Tobacco, Howard went to Brown University for two years before transferring to UNC-Chapel Hill for an undergraduate degree in history.

He moved straight into grad school for double degrees in city planning and law, heading for what he expected to be a career in environmental law.

But along the way, he took a class in historic preservation and, “I got the bug,” he says, which prompted a professional detour that wasn’t as wild a turn as it might first appear. Some of the same statutes apply in both settings.

Meanwhile, from the 1950s through the 1970s, his hometown had undergone the same kind of “urban renewal” that happened across the country with the help of federal Housing and Urban Development and transportation grants. While aimed at updating aging infrastructure and encouraging economic growth, urban renewal nearly always resulted in the destruction of lower-income neighborhoods and business districts, with residents getting displaced and buildings being bulldozed. Often the structures were replaced with highway bypasses, such as the Durham Freeway, or their former lots were simply left empty.

Much of Durham’s African American community of Hayti was razed during that period, along with businesses and institutions that made up the Howard family’s daily life. Down came the school where Howard’s mother had worked as a secretary. Down came the car dealership that had kept his father on the road. The drug stores, the barber shops, the clothing stores and shoe shops, down, down, down, down.

Howard also recalls going with his father as a young boy to watch as one of the mansions of the Duke family — founders of American Tobacco — was demolished. They weren’t there to mourn, Howard says, just to observe as something that had once stood so proud was brought to the ground in someone’s notion of progress.

By the time he heard a UNC professor talk about the need to save the buildings that connect people to the past, Howard intuitively understood that buildings are part of the fabric of a community.

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