‘Preservation is working’: Monson marks city of Wilson retirement

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When Lu-Ann Monson first came to Wilson, she was stunned by the city’s size and beauty.

“Compared to my hometown of Winthrop Harbor, (Illinois), Wilson was big. My first impression when I arrived for my interview in April, driving through the tree-arcaded Raleigh Road was ‘I want to live here.’” Monson said. “In high school I dated a Rocky Mount native. He had painted a picture of North Carolina in my mind, so when I drove down and saw azaleas and dogwoods in full bloom, it was everything he’d described and then some. I knew then that I wanted to live here.”

As the youngest of three girls born to a career railroader and a homemaker, Monson originally studied architecture to follow in her great uncle’s footsteps — and famous Midwesterner Frank Lloyd Wright — but one class changed her path and her life.

“I started out studying architecture and took one class in historic preservation with Professor John Garner at the University of Illinois — Intro to Historic Preservation, Architecture 319. We would pore over these slide tables filled with hundreds of slides of historic buildings in the U.S. and around the world,” she recalled. “We’d memorize names and dates and architects, and I loved it.

“As geeky as it was, I loved it.”

She switched to urban and regional planning with a concentration on historic preservation.

“The class was a turning point,” she said. “Anyone can draw from a blank page, but it takes more skill to work within the parameters of an existing building. That marked the beginning of my career.”

During college, she worked for two contractors. With Bob Mason, she was part of a crew restoring the porch of the Solon House in Champaign, Illinois, then with Martin Touhy, she and 98 others did painting at various projects. Her studies reinforced her passion for Italian and European architecture, which eventually led her to travel Europe before settling in Wilson.

“I loved Rome, Venice and Florence, but the pollution and crowds were overwhelming, so I liked the smaller towns the most. Vicenza was my favorite — smaller and more personable. I drew, I interacted with the hotel owner and his family, etc. I also visited the Amalfi coast, Pompeii and Herculaneum,” she recalled. “To see Michelangelo’s David – you always see it in books, but never in relation to a person. The base of David is taller than I am, so the scale is much larger than I expected.

“In the Accademia where David is, the hall is lined with unfinished work of Michelangelo — blocks of rough-cut stone with sections that were more detailed, and others polished. I loved, loved, loved, loved Italy.”

In fact, shortly after accepting a job with the city of Wilson, she told her supervisor she would either buy a house within three years of moving to Wilson or she’d go back to Italy. Wilson won her over, though.

“I did a program for a group and a real estate agent asked me what I was looking for in a house. Instead of the usual three-bed, two-bath house, I said I wanted interesting windows, operable shutters and turn balustrade. Oh and under $30,000,” Monson said. “She called back a month later and said she wanted me to look at a property, and that is the one I bought.”

The 1893 Victorian home is in the Broad-Kenan Historic District and has needed work from the floorboards to the roof along with everything in between.

“It was not habitable. Imagine that,” she said with a laugh. “I did a massive renovation initially and moved in. Many things that were done the first time around had to be re-done.”

Needless to say, when Monson retires after 30 years on Sept. 1, she’s looking forward to tackling more projects with her home.

In addition to some of the “professional” work she’s had to redo on her own home, Monson said the most important part of her work when she focused on historical buildings was preservation.

“When I think about the people who built these houses 75 or 150 years ago, they weren’t rocket scientists or scholars,” she said. “They were craftsmen and I appreciate the craftsmanship of the old houses.”

Public education about Wilson’s historic properties was an essential part of preservation, but often it is an uphill battle.

“The reality is that a lot of Wilson’s historic neighborhoods are in low-to-moderate income areas. There are some homeowners who want to do historic rehabilitation or restoration, but other owners may not even want to do the bare minimum improvements,” she said. “When minimum housing regulations were updated, it brought about much controversy. Often rather than looking at multiple options, they may cover the problem up, rendering more damage that goes unnoticed until it’s a much bigger and more expensive problem to fix.”

And not all the battles were professional. It is inevitable that a 30-year career would be fraught with personal challenges as well, such as the death of her father and the declining health of her 92-year-old mother. That along with two aging dogs and an army of cats means she’s had to be out of town for extended periods of time, which led to her becoming a long-range planner and the October hiring of Dana Corson as the city’s new preservation planner.

With a career spanning three decades, Monson has become a valuable resource among residents and staff looking for information about old buildings and she’s had a hand in a variety of projects over the years, including Mercy Hospital, Charles L. Coon High School, the Boykin Center, Imagination Station and the Oliver Nestus Freeman Roundhouse Museum. To retain that knowledge, Monson pitched and helped execute a large-scale architectural survey of buildings around the city with case information, property assessments and more put together with Wilson’s geographic information system.

“One ambitious project was updating the architectural survey, previously done in 1980 by consultants. My coworker Mikel and I, and later Dana, captured 65 fields of data on 740 local district properties, updated photos and everything was linked with GIS mapping,” she said. “The intent was to provide a baseline for Dana to start with, and indexes to the past 42 years of historic preservation cases.”

Over the years, Monson has been a part of many computer-based efforts such as a damage inspection database following Hurricane Floyd and an organizational system for the server with department files and pictures of various properties. But it has been the interactions with folks who love Wilson as much as she that have been the highlight of her career.

“Guy Cox was one of my absolute favorite people I’ve ever worked with,” she recalled. “One day I was driving around with him in the Broad-Kenan Historic District, where as a child he had been a paperboy. He said to me, ‘These houses look just the same as I remember.’ And all I thought was, ‘It’s working. Preservation is working. We’re doing something right.’”