By Melissa Mortimer
Melissa Mortimer was one of the recipients of the 2020 American Express Aspire Award.
My first memories of preservation go back to driving to my grandparent’s house in Missouri as a kid. The trip from Tennessee took our woody minivan through Cairo, Illinois, where for 31 years, we watched the slow decay and demolition of the commercial district, as well as its historic homes. Every trip, my mom would pull down a side street to go look at her favorite school building, and as we would drive by, my mom would sigh deeply and talk about her love for the building and dreams of its rehabilitation. I will always remember those ripped curtains blowing out of the windows, wondering about the stories the building could tell—and as any kid would wonder—what ghosts might be inside. Although the school has long since been demolished, I think often about how it likely inspired the direction of my career.
My first job after getting my master’s in historic preservation from the University of Kentucky in 2013 was at the Southeast Tennessee Development District as the historic preservation planner. I worked at the District until fall 2020 when I left to become the preservation planner for the City of Chattanooga. This job allowed me to cover all aspects of preservation, from National Register nominations to how to write and administer federal and state grants. Through this work, covering ten counties, and serving on local boards and commissions, I was able to really see where our region was falling short for preservation. Unfortunately, I also became increasingly frustrated with the lack of preservation knowledge and advocacy in Chattanooga.
Birth of Preservation Chattanooga
I have never been one that likes to sit back and not take action, so in 2018 I invited a group of preservation-minded individuals gathering over drinks to talk about preservation in our city. What do people want to see happen in Chattanooga? How could we improve our community through preservation practices? How do we show people preservation is important? How do we remind people that places they love to visit are primarily where the built environment has been preserved?
Looking around the table, I knew we were really going to make an impact. These people were not consultants or preservation professionals; they were teachers, history buffs, contractors, planners, and marketing professionals, all with one simple connection: a passion for historic places. With this group, we formed Preservation Chattanooga. We wanted to use our platform to educate the community on historic preservation and why it was important, specifically through the three pillars of education, advocacy, and policy.
When it comes to education, anyone in the field knows that there are many levels to preservation that the public does not typically know anything about. While working at the government level on Section 106 reviews, National Register nominations, and historic surveys among many other things, we often remain behind the scenes. (Well of course, until we are taking historic survey photos and a homeowner runs out in their bathrobe asking why we are taking photographs of their house.) With this we become increasingly aware of the disconnect between our knowledge and passion, and the general public’s lack of awareness of a topic they inadvertently treasure.
As vice-chair of the Chattanooga Historic Zoning Commission, I saw people present cases to replace windows and siding, among other things, based on what a contractor, or (my personal favorite), the window salesperson, told them was the right direction to go. It was frustrating to hear the false narrative about energy efficiency and windows needing to be replaced simply because they were painted shut.
So how do we reach the people that do not know about preservation? The answer, one that we center at Preservation Chattanooga, is by focusing on what is important to them: something tangible, something they can relate to, something that is usually their biggest investment: their home.
With that in mind, we felt that our first step to reach the community would be to hold workshops for various trades that would not only prepare an owner with the knowledge they needed to work with contractors, but also give them tools to do it themselves. This served to make them self-aware of preservation for their personal homes, but more importantly, it opened their eyes to the idea of preserving neighborhoods and communities. In the end, helping a homeowner recognize the importance of saving a window plants the seed for preserving an entire community.
After the success of the initial event, Preservation Chattanooga held a plaster workshop and a masonry workshop, and teamed up with a local non-profit, Green Spaces, to have a class on energy efficiency in the historic home. More classes were planned for 2020 including a sold-out window restoration class and a cemetery preservation class, until COVID-19 paused our programming. We remain undaunted and have already resumed planning for future classes and programming. Laying the groundwork for the importance of historic preservation through a residential focus, we can then branch out to relate it to commercial buildings in the community connecting the materials, histories, and architectural features to what makes their own home special.
We hope that we can continue with new programming like Pints and Preservation give-back nights as ways to invite more community members together to start conversations, and we hope to make new connections in the field by hosting a Preservation Petal in spring as an architectural tour of Chattanooga. Policy plays a huge role in any city on how our historic resources are protected, so evaluating current zoning, landmarking, and other opportunities in Chattanooga is also always on our radar.
Expanding My Reach
In addition to recognizing the need for an organization like Preservation Chattanooga, there were other challenges to preservation in the community—in the lack of local preservation consultants. Often, a consultant for Chattanooga projects would either be hired from Nashville or from out of state.
Recognizing the importance of hiring staff that understood the community, I formed Revive Preservation and Planning LLC in 2019. My first project, while not a consulting one, was a window restoration project. Understanding that to have more educated conversations with contractors and homeowners about their windows, I needed to be versed in the hands-on part of preservation practice myself. With help from a fellow preservation pal, I spent weekends learning, and once I had the basics, a willing property owner took a chance on us and allowed us to restore all 19 of their original double-hung wood windows. We spent many weekends with a lot of sweat and hard work practicing the work we preach. While subsequent work involves historic tax credits and National Register nominations on the weekends and restoring everything in my own historic home, providing these resources to the community is imperative to promote the importance of preservation practices and opportunities.
Sometimes though outreach does not have to be about creating a new organization. Outside of my 9-5 job for the City of Chattanooga, Preservation Chattanooga, and my LLC, I take to Instagram to post about the importance of preservation as a way to connect to the community in the digital world. Not only does Instagram serve as a great tool to reach people you may not typically reach, with events and educational opportunities, but it is also a space frequently visited by the next generation of homeowners. Pointing out details on building and homes around town and what makes them special, makes people really look at the neighborhoods and places where they live.
Underscoring all this work, from Preservation Chattanooga to my own personal projects, is my belief that the future of preservation belongs to all of us. Every conversation, every post on Instagram, and every local advocacy campaign makes a difference. I am often asked what my favorite part of my job is, and I always answer the same way: helping people notice things they have never noticed before. But above all else, the important thing is to get people talking and thinking about preservation, because we are all stewards of our communities’ memories, materials, and for building a sense of place.
Melissa Mortimer lives in her hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee with her preservation pup, Louis Sullivan. She has a bachelor's degree in Interior Design from Murray State University and a master's degree in historic preservation from the University of Kentucky. She works for the City of Chattanooga as the historic preservation planner and is the owner of Revive Preservation and Planning LLC. You can find her on Instagram as @deserve2preserve.