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A Denney for Your Thoughts – Preservation draws interest, investment

By Connie Denney

“Old buildings are unique treasures crafted by the generations before us…and they serve as an architectural record of our community history and life as it once was. You only have to cast your eyes on a building to feel the presence of the past. It is important that we take steps to preserve that history and the memories of so many who have passed through its doors.”

The words above appear on a Web site and are important to us because they are applied to the Elm Street School building. (Brad Hicks wrote in the April 12 issue of this newspaper, about restoration of the former school building, 600 Elm Ave., to house condominiums.) The Web site is, where you may see floor plans and read about the building’s history. (If you have items or stories related to the school or other local history you are willing to share for display in the building, send an email to [email protected])

One reason this project is important to Lee Naylor, CEO of Historic Restoration Contractors, is that in many ways Erwin reminds him of his own childhood days growing up in a small Georgia town. “The community as a whole has a good feel. It is truly a hidden treasure tucked in a valley somewhere between Asheville and Johnson City. I hope that as the Town of Erwin grows in its revitalization efforts careful consideration is given to preserving the small town atmosphere, as I feel that this is one of its biggest attributes.”

The location itself he sees as a plus.  Noting a “national average commute time approaching 30 minutes,” he feels Erwin could draw from the surrounding areas.

Naylor, who now lives in Athens, Georgia, started his own business after graduating college in 2003. In 2007 he founded Historic Restoration Contractors, “as the majority of our projects shifted from new construction to historic preservation and re-creation….

I have had the privilege to be a part of the restoration and preservation efforts for many historic properties throughout middle and north Georgia. Period re-construction has become the focus of our business. Most of our projects have original construction dates ranging from the early 1800s-1930s. I have fallen in love with my trade and can’t ever see myself doing anything different.”

He’s excited about the work here, his first multi-family adaptive reuse project, explaining “I have been looking for the right project to take on and I feel that the school is definitely worth preserving.”  More than just the architectural significance, though, he draws attention to capturing “the feeling and spirit that emanates from these old buildings. My approach differs from others where old buildings are paired with trendy finishes that lack reference to the building history and context.”

Preservation over profit is an attitude Lee has found among some investors.  “On this project I chose to work with the McDonough family,” Lee said, adding that Joe is in his early 30s and familiar with Erwin as an Appalachian Trail hiker and outdoor and whitewater enthusiast.  He and his father, David, were “…eager to add a project like this to their portfolio.”

An out-of-town developer preserving an endangered historic Erwin building, real estate investors wanting to be a part because they know the community through good outdoors experiences–how cool is that!