Bring back the passion

In the natural evolution of a nonprofit, sometimes you need to get back to where you came from.

For members of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, that means letting go of a little professionalism and returning to their scrappy, volunteer roots. And it just happens that the society lost its first-ever paid staff — Director Harry Weiss — to another part of natural evolution this spring: He left the organization to pursue similar work with a for-profit company, Public Interest Projects.

“It’s an appropriate time to redefine our goals,” says longtime Preservation Society member Rich Mathews, who represents North Carolina on the National Trust for Historic Preservation Board of Advisors. Weiss, he explains, professionalized what started in 1979 as an all-volunteer group of dedicated folks who loved saving old buildings. Weiss, who was hired in 1991, “engendered respect from segments of the business community that either ignored us, years ago, or saw us as stand-in-front-of-the-bulldozer radicals,” says Mathews, recalling such famous lost battles as the Society’s attempt to save the Coleman House, at the head of Montford, and the Plaza Theater, where Pack Place now stands.

“Harry is extremely knowledgeable in preservation,” agrees society board member Delores File, who joined the group when members were fighting to save the Pearson House (now the Richmond Hill Inn) in the 1980s. “He was a consistent source people could go to, and that’s what we needed. [Weiss] networked with lenders [and other business leaders] in the community to educate people on what preservation is and how it benefits the community.” Then she pauses; it’s not that File has been disappointed with Weiss’ work over the past decade, but that she misses the group’s early volunteer spirit. “One of the fun things about the society used to be that we always worked together, even when we didn’t agree. I would say, now, let’s bring back the members into the organization.”

Mathews agrees, explaining, “Harry has taken us to a point. Now it’s time to move forward. … Many of the [longtime volunteers] feel the society has to re-energize the membership and bring back the passion of preservation.”

An old love

A passion for old buildings was what brought the Preservation Society’s founding members together.

“I was upset about houses being torn down [when] they could be fixed up,” says longtime Montford resident Mary Jo Brezny. She wanted to see Asheville’s oldest neighborhood preserved. But, not satisfied with help from official circles, Brezny complained about the situation to a friend — Martha Absher, then editor ofThe Arts Journal.

Absher ran an ad announcing a meeting of people who shared Brezny’s passion — and a new group was born. Montford resident Betty Lawrence was a member of The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County from day one. Among the new organization’s first successes, she says, were persuading the state to recognize Montford as a historic district, getting local government leaders to create a Historic Resources Commission, and pressuring the state to establish a regional office in Asheville for the Division of Archives and History (which administers the federal Historic Register program, among other functions). “We figured we’d be ignored by the state if we didn’t [get a local office],” says Lawrence.

Another crucial venture was the first local survey of historic structures, recording the location and status of pre-eminent buildings all over the county, such as the Zebulon Vance birthplace in Reems Creek, City Hall in downtown Asheville, and the Richmond Hill, near the French Broad River. (A few years later, the Preservation Society turned the survey into a book, Cabins and Castles.)

But there were also hard lessons to learn, including one that determined the Society’s future: losing the battle to save the Coleman House.

Society member Bob Orr — now a state Supreme Court judge, but then the group’s de facto attorney — had managed to talk to all 29 or so Coleman heirs, urging them to preserve the historic structure. The Society had paid for and completed a feasibility study for using it as a restaurant and was working on getting loans to follow through on the proposal. But just when group members thought they’d won, the house was torn down to make way for the Peddler Restaurant — despite oral agreements with the developer, according to Lawrence.

“The Society learned you can’t just do stuff on a handshake,” comments Weiss.

The next step

If passion wasn’t enough to save old buildings, was money the answer? The Society didn’t have much: At times, it limped along on an operating budget of $3,000 a year, File says. Their first office was an old, windowless supply closet in the Battery Park Hotel; the president did much of the work out of his or her car; and there was no paid staff, she recalls.

So the Society sponsored historic-home tours, rummage sales and gala balls (usually held in rundown structures that were in danger of falling to the wrecking ball — such as the S&W Cafeteria, Seely’s Castle and the Pearson House). Society members would shore up the premises as best they could. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing: “The city electrical inspector [came] by at 3 p.m. the afternoon of the ball [at the S&W], saying we couldn’t [hold] it. [Local architect and Society member] Robert Griffin talked as fast as his silver tongue could go, the inspector relented, and the ball went off without a hitch. Nearly 500 people attended that one,” remembers Lawrence.

The Society also held regular meetings and special programs on preservation-related topics, often at Pack Library, File explains. These meetings, programs and early projects involved everybody and were fun and informative, she continues, waxing nostalgic.

But in order to be truly effective, the Society needed more.

Orr persuaded First Federal Savings and Loan of Hendersonville to donate the Gudger House to the Society, Lawrence recounts. Society volunteers — including former state Rep. Marie Colton — put their own time and labor into fixing up the place, adds Brezny. The proceeds from selling the renovated house to Pisgah Legal Services formed the core of the Society’s new revolving fund. With that established, the group could intervene when an old building was threatened by destruction, buy it, and then arrange to sell it to someone who was as keen about preservation as Society members were. That’s how the Society saved both the Pearson House and the Manor Inn during the 1980s.

When board members for the Baptist Retirement Home on Richmond Hill Road planned an expansion that meant demolishing the Pearson House, the Society stepped in. The 12,500-square-foot Victorian mansion was built in 1889 by Congressman and diplomat Richmond Pearson, notes File. “We worked on [that project] for four years, some members putting up their own money [to keep things going]. But it was well worth the ‘save,'” says File, whose husband was also involved in the project (“He was a CPA, and everybody loves a CPA as treasurer”).

After much wrangling, group members persuaded the retirement facility’s board to sell them the doomed building for $1. The catch was, the house had to be moved 200 yards downhill. “We jacked it up on steel beams and rolled it down the hill,” says File, as if that had been the simplest thing in the world.

“We had this [common cause]: to preserve the architecture of Western North Carolina,” she reflects.

Changing times

But there were more obstacles to overcome.

“By the time we rescued the Manor [in 1987], we were exhausted,” Mathews recounts.

Brezny agrees: After 10 years, “[some of] the original … volunteers … were getting burned out.”

And, File points out, “We could only handle one building at a time. … For the four years we worked on Richmond Hill, it was a big part of our lives.” Her husband was retired and had the time to spare. But times were changing, and many founding volunteers had less energy to contribute to the Society’s day-to-day mission, File explains.

An anonymous enabled the Society to take another major step — hiring its first full-time, paid staffer. That’s when Harry Weiss, who had been active in preservation projects in Savannah, Ga., came on board. “All of us breathed a sigh of relief [when he] was hired. We all said, ‘Finally! We can have a life again!'” recalls Mathews.

“I remember when the [position] was announced, I came up and talked to people all over North Carolina about [the group],” Weiss recounts. “Hands down, they all said it was the most effective … in the state — scrappy and willing to take on anything.

“It was a bit daunting. Here was an organization that had accomplished great things. There was a lot to live up to. … But [the Society] wasn’t sustainable at the level they were working,” says Weiss.

Rising to the challenge, he became instrumental in the Society’s behind-the-scenes work: helping homeowners save their old houses; consulting with renovators on the best way to preserve a historic structure and retain its original features; assisting developers and renovators who wanted their new buildings to blend with the historic character of areas such as Biltmore Village, Montford and Albermarle Park, says current Society president David Holcomb, praising Weiss.

“For every property [the Society] buys, we probably work with 100 [behind the scenes],” Weiss reveals. “Most people are not aware of the networking and information the nonprofit provides in the community.”

The 21st century

Ironically, professionalizing the Society also curtailed its members active involvement, File observes.

Around the same time Weiss was hired, she recalls, the Society board was enlarged to assume much of the fund-raising work formerly handled by the core volunteers. Member meetings seemed to become more irregular, and there was a decline in member events — such as the programs once held monthly at Pack Library — File continues. On the other hand, she admits, “I don’t think, in this day and age, [the Society] could go back to being an all-volunteer organization. People don’t have the leisure time they used to. … For a nonprofit to survive, you need a [paid] executive director.”

Holcomb speculates: “Harry was so capable, some members may have become complacent. [And] the members didn’t have another crusade to latch onto. That’s what keeps an organization going, sometimes.”

“It’s easy, when you have [paid] staff, for volunteers to do less — especially when you’re a little weary,” observes Maggie O’Connor, Asheville’s historic resources director. “If [the Society] wants to go back to more volunteer involvement, they need a director who can cultivate that. [This] is an opportunity for the Society to redirect itself.”

Many group members agree, but they’re quick to point out how much Weiss accomplished during his tenure — stressing that they want to maintain the level of professionalism he brought. “He’s made preservation more visible to the community — and to the business leaders,” Brezny remarks. “But it’s time to redefine our mission.”

“The new director will probably be more aligned to member services, such as tours, programs and education,” says Holcomb. “Let’s get back to a lot of the [member services] that are warm and fuzzy,” he offers, lightheartedly. “But let’s keep the nuts and bolts that Harry put in place. Let’s keep the revolving fund going.”

Both Holcomb and Mathews dream of the day when the Society could hire even more staff: an executive director with real-estate and other technical expertise, a membership/program coordinator, plus office staff. Says Holcomb: “If you have a vision for something, the reality comes to be. You don’t have to think small.”

Mathews adds, “We’re the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. But we haven’t yet made inroads into the small communities in the county.” Many historic structures — and old farms — are worth saving, he continues, mentioning efforts to preserve In The Oaks, a historic bed-and-breakfast in Black Mountain, as an example.

“One of the biggest preservation challenges of the future is not so much in the towns as in the rural parts of the county,” Weiss agrees, calling attention to an enlarged mission of preserving whole landscapes — including farmland, open space and ridges.

Brezny concurs, suggesting that the Society review its original survey of historic structures in the county and then, perhaps, form links with preservation groups in rural communities. “Let’s see what’s there, and find out whether we can help other [groups].”

Through all the changes, however, the fundamental mission hasn’t changed. As Lawrence says succinctly, “We just have to keep on saving buildings.”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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