Rewriting History: Myrick Howard and Preservation North Carolina deliver new life to old buildings

For more than 40 years, Myrick Howard has dedicated his life to the preservation of North Carolina’s architectural heritage.

It’s an exceptional cultural contribution to the state, matched probably only by curator and historian Catherine Bishir, the author of North 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.

It’s the only job he’s ever had. When he arrived, PNC was a one-person shop in Raleigh. Today it stretches across the state, with 12 full-time employees in offices in Raleigh, Greenville, Durham and Shelby, and a number of part-time employees in Wilmington.

All the while, PNC has earned consistently high marks on the national stage. “Preservation North Carolina is the envy of the country,” says Raleigh architect Frank Harmon. “Even Virginia doesn’t have anything like it. He’s extraordinary.”

Howard is also modest as he goes about the business of saving our historic buildings. “It’s a matter of principle that the organization is not about him, but about the preservation of North Carolina,” Harmon says. “There’s this incredibly valuable history of his work, and this very creative genius about it.”

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.”

PNC — he calls the organization an “animal shelter for historic buildings” — favors action over talk. “We try to find people to take over these buildings,” says Howard. “We’ve done over 800 with direct connections, and there are hundreds of others that we’ve helped out over the years.”

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.”

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(Salt Magazine, September 2018 issue)