When I first started as a volunteer with Knox Heritage 15 years ago, I didn't know how preservation worked or why it worked. I just knew I loved old buildings, neighborhoods and downtowns and thought everyone should. It was instinctual. I'd been raised in Mobile and our residential historic districts are beautiful places. While I was growing up, the downtown was still mostly abandoned after 5 o'clock and on weekends, but that made it the perfect place for a teenager to wander around and soak up the architecture created during times when the Spanish, French and English flags flew over the 300-year-old city. I didn't know why it was all still standing and didn't even think to ask that question. It was there and it was gorgeous and it was the thing that defined my favorite hometown.
After spending time living in Tuscaloosa, Athens and Atlanta, I landed in Knoxville in 1991. I immediately fell in love with Market Square and tried unsuccessfully to live in what is now the home of Rita's. So, I began looking for a historic house in a neighborhood near downtown. I was surprised by how under appreciated the older parts of town were, but didn't mind that quite so much when it allowed me to purchase an 1893 house - which I later discovered was designed by George Barber - for around $50K in Parkridge. But as my personal restoration project progressed, my attention was drawn to the larger issue of Knoxville's historic core. I was sure we were on the verge of a turnaround for downtown and the neighborhoods around it - it only took about 13 years longer than I thought it would.
During those years I didn't know what I didn't know. I knew historic buildings, places and neighborhoods were important, but I didn't know how to prove that to people who doubted their value. I didn't understand how to do that until I found preservationists in other places who'd figured it out. Suddenly, I understood the breadth of what was possible and had access to the tools I needed to get it done. It was one of the most exciting periods of my life. It was made possible by the folks at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the many opportunities they gave me to meet people who shared my passion and who were putting preservation to work in new and creative ways.
After 18 years in East Tennessee, I've discovered most people have some sort of an instinct for preservation. Many of them are passionate about their heritage and the places that define them and their communities. Now all they need are the tools to make it all work - whether it be sparking new life on Main Street or preserving the rich landscapes that make this one of the most beautiful places in the world to live.
Once again the National Trust for Historic Preservation has provided an opportunity for East Tennesseans to learn the tools of the trade. Funding through their Partners in the Field program has allowed Knox Heritage to revive regional preservation efforts and jump start the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance. The Alliance will host a regional preservation conference this Friday and Saturday in Townsend and leading preservationists from across the country will be there to share what they know and how it can be applied in our region.
One of the most successful preservationists in the country and a dear friend of mine, Myrick Howard, will share how North Carolina has saved hundreds of endangered historic properties and Amy Potts with Preservation Kentucky will provide strategies for rural heritage preservation. Patrick McIntyre, director of the Tennessee Historical Commission, and Dr. Carroll Van West, director of MTSU's Center for Historic Preservation, will be on hand to share their wisdom and experience. Plus, Metro Pulse's own Jack Neely will speak at the Friday evening reception about Market Square's long-standing connection to the region.
The two-day conference is a rare opportunity to meet other preservationists from across the region and gain the knowledge needed to preserve the buildings and landscapes that define East Tennessee. And it's cheap - only 30 bucks for both days and that includes all conference sessions, the reception, lunch and more. So, visit East Tennessee Regional Preservation Conference for more information and a registration form.