It’s that small town feel — the Normal Rockwell-esque Main Street dimly lit by vintage streetlights, the brilliant fall colors painting Church Street in amber hues, the historic homes, the little off-the-beaten-path shops like Wall Street Books, the squeak of the floorboards at Mast General Store. That’s what makes Waynesville special, members of the public told Annie McDonald during her presentation before Waynesville’s Historic Preservation Commission on May 11.
McDonald, a senior architectural historian with cultural resource management firm Richard Grubb & Associates, spoke to about 30 people interested in helping the town craft a historic preservation policy meant to enhance Waynesville’s existing architectural and cultural assets, and maybe save some from the wrecking ball.
“This is a planning process, like any other planning process the town does,” McDonald said.
The Historic Preservation Commission was created by the town in 1996. It acts in an advisory capacity to the Town Council and serves the general public in an educational capacity, while overseeing 16 locally-designated landmark properties. The HPC also makes recommendations on new landmark applications and reviews applications for alterations to existing landmarks.
In 2022, the town successfully applied for a planning grant from the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office to prioritize heritage preservation activities primarily in downtown Waynesville, Frog Level and Hazelwood.
The $9,000 grant, along with a $7,000 town match, funds this effort. The end result — after another listening session focused exclusively on Hazelwood — will be a “master plan” of sorts, to be considered for adoption by Waynesville’s Town Council Members.
Waynesville has had its fair share of success stories with preservation through designations from several accreditation authorities.
The first is the National Register of Historic Places. Administered by the National Park Service on behalf of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Register works with every state’s preservation office to review National Register applications. Properties must meet specific criteria to be listed, and extensive documentation is required.
A National Register designation is mostly honorific and is not regulatory in any way. It’s meant to celebrate and recognize both individual properties and historic districts and makes owners eligible for income tax credits for rehabilitation.
It does not, however, protect properties from alteration or demolition, although it does play into consideration in planning for federal projects that might endanger them.
Most recently, the old Haywood Hospital and the Pigeon Center were designated for inclusion on the National Register, joining other well-known National Register listings in Haywood County, like the Green Hill Cemetery and the Shelton House.
“Even the old post office is a preservation success for the town of Waynesville,” said McDonald.
In addition to individual properties or sites, Waynesville also has three National Register-listed Historic Districts — the Main Street Historic District, the Frog Level Historic District and the Spread Out Historic District along Walnut Street.
It’s this last, least-known district that demonstrated the benefits of National Register inclusion.
Back in 2016, plans by the North Carolina Department of Transportation to accommodate the growing number of cars in the town would have decimated the residential character of the area.
After a prolonged and noisy debate spearheaded by then-Mayor Gavin Brown in conjunction with current council members Jon Feichter, Julia Freeman and now-Mayor Gary Caldwell, NCDOT was wrestled into submission and made major concessions that spared the stately homes and stone walls of Walnut Street.
In contract to the National Register, locally designated landmarks enabled by legislation from the General Assembly and designated by the Town Council are not only honorific, but also are inherently regulatory in nature. Once so designated, anything that happens to the exterior of a locally designated landmark is subject to review.
Waynesville has never designated a local historic district. Downtown Hendersonville is one such district, and the King Street District in Boone is another. Wilkesboro has a large district as well.
“Downtown Hendersonville looks the way it does because they have a locally designated historic district,” McDonald said.
Downtown Hendersonville might look much different without its historic preservation efforts, as would downtown Waynesville.
The Downtown Waynesville Association was instrumental in adding to the look and feel of Main Street, culminating in a successful effort to bury or reroute power lines, but the DWA came around too late to advocate for the preservation of some of Waynesville’s lost treasures.
“We lost a lot of stuff, like many communities did, in the early 1970s,” said Alex McKay, a prominent Hazelwood preservationist and chair of the HPC.
McKay mentioned the old Red Wing building on Main Street — now an empty lot where the large metallic figures known as “the troubadours” stand poised to pick and pluck their musical instruments — and the train depot in Frog Level as examples of Waynesville’s vanishing legacy.
After stressing the economic benefit to the preservation of historic buildings, McDonald asked if there might be support for a locally designated historic district in Waynesville and Frog Level.
Consensus seems to indicate that yes, there is, even with the regulatory stipulations that would come with such a designation. Of the 30 or so people in attendance, only three or four identified themselves as downtown property owners, while only another three or four said they owned or operated downtown businesses.
Historic buildings mean little without the people who live, work and play in them, creating and sustaining a cultural legacy that endures over centuries, according to McKay. In the end, any effort to preserve Waynesville’s historic character wouldn’t just be about the buildings.
“For a lot of us,” McKay said, “it’s the memories that go along with them.”
Time: 6 p.m.
Date: Thursday, May 18
Location: Folkmoot Center Auditorium,
112 Virginia Ave., Waynesville