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Ernest Dollar

On making historic preservation matter to young people

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Ernest Dollar
  • Ernest Dollar

Local history is more than some important family's big, old house. That's the message Ernest Dollar has been spreading since he became executive director of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill in March. Through events at the historic Horace Williams House—art exhibits, parties and re-enactments—and other projects, such as the preservation of town murals, Dollar hopes to motivate citizens to preserve Chapel Hill's history and culture.

You're in your 30s. How are you trying to get younger people involved in historic preservation?

Most people do have a very antiquated view of preservations societies, and I think [preservation societies] have sort of helped feed that stereotype. Our mission statement is to preserve the architectural heritage, the natural landscape and the culture of Chapel Hill. It encompasses those who are interested in saving the trees, stone walls and green space, and the arts and music communities.

The way people have been taught history is that they were forced to memorize dates and names and places that really didn't mean anything. Once you make history come alive for folks and make it relevant, which is the really important part, then they say, Wow, this really does mean something.

We're going to have a "Welcome to Chapel Hill, President Polk" party. He came to the university in 1847. It's never too late to have a party. We're also planning a 1940s USO dance here. It's a chance to mix music, always an important part of Chapel Hill, with a little bit of theater with people dressing up in period clothes.

I saw that you have a page on the photo-sharing Web site Flickr (flickr.com).

When anybody my age or younger has a question, the first place they go is to the Internet. We have so many endangered properties it only makes sense that we put them on the Internet so we have a 24-hour-a-day billboard to try and save them.

One that comes to mind is the Edward Kidder Graham house on Battle Lane. It's in awful shape, just barely standing. We've been trying to talk the owner into selling this property to people who would preserve it, but to him it doesn't make good business sense because he can tear down this house, build a bigger, newer house and sell it for twice as much. So in a community like Chapel Hill, where we can't compete against real estate prices, we need to make Chapel Hill preservation-minded. Chapel Hill back in the '60s had a collection of avant-garde architects who built these really neat modernist houses. When you think of preservation societies, you think of antebellum homes, but these houses are from the '50s and '60s and they're a community treasure now.

I understand you've been working on a book about the history of Morrisville.

Morrisville is a wonderful place for a historian because it's like being an archeologist on a historic site that's never been dug before. Since nobody knows this history, they can't respect it or preserve it, so development there has just caught everyone off guard.

I started in 1996 by advocating for the preservation of what is left of the 1865 Civil War battlefield. One of the other great treasures Morrisville has is Shiloh, a community of free black Americans founded in the 1820s. It remained hidden in western Wake County through the Civil War until today. But after almost 180 years, finally the community is starting to fall to development. I-540 is going really close to the neighborhood, and so many of the families are leaving.

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