Profile: Gillian White, Cary’s First Historic Preservationist

Cary, NC — In November 2019, the Town of Cary made a move it never had before in hiring a full-time staff member dedicated to historic preservation. Selected for the task was Gillian White who worked as a Planning Technician in Cary’s Planning and Development Services Department since January 2019.

The Need for Historic Preservation in Cary

Despite Cary’s reputation as a young, up and coming community, Town Manager Sean Stegall says the rapid period of growth for Cary is mostly behind it. Following the last 40-50 years of constant growth, the town is now starting to see less first-time development and much, much more re-development. With historical buildings from the era of Cary’s incorporation in 1871 still standing, it begs the question, how will the town keep history in-tact while simultaneously planning new developments?

Town Manager Sean Stegall said, “Understanding our past and what made Cary Cary is of critical importance to us.” A key reason the position was created was to take the next step not just in understanding what led Cary to where it is today, but also to navigate what the town needs to do to preserve its past going forward.

“I think what made Gillian the ideal person for the job is her passion for it,” said Stegall.

“She stood out because she really connects and gets the topic. If you aren’t passionate about preservation and it’s more of just something you do at work, you can’t advance at it that far. So, being that this is our first one, we wanted someone we think can really establish it as a very important part of our daily operations and we feel that she’s able to do that and she’s already off to a great start.”

Gillian’s Path to Cary

Growing up in a rural Colorado farm town, Gillian White naturally became someone who loved the outdoors. Her family’s travels led her to live in Singapore as a child before later living in California, Florida and now North Carolina. White earned her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Design from the University of Colorado in Boulder’s School of Architecture and Planning before going on to work with several architectural and engineering firms in Florida.

White traded in the career path of an architect for that of a historic preservationist when she pursued a Master’s of Historic Preservation and Conservation at Savannah College of Art and Design. This decision to get her master’s degree while working full-time came after realizing that this particular niche was one she was passionate about all along.

“Growing up I was always interested in architecture and historic buildings. Living in different areas, you see the different styles of architecture and you also see how communities deal with their aging properties. A lot of places in South Florida would just tear them down and rebuild, but when I was in school in Boulder, they were very preservation-minded, so they wanted to preserve all their old buildings and that interested me to see where I might fit into that type of work,” said White.

After taking a particular interest in adaptive reuse and helping communities navigate how new development can coexist with historic buildings, White applied to the Town of Cary’s national search and joined the staff as a planning technician.

“When I first applied to come to Cary and work in the Planning Department, I was looking for a path into local government,” said White, “which is more difficult than you may think.”

Not even a year into her time working in Town Hall, Gillian had participated in the Historic Preservation Commission meetings and worked alongside Anna Readling, a Town of Cary Senior Planner who pioneered the town’s Historic Preservation Program  and started the Historic Preservation Commission in 2014.

In late 2019, White heard of the new position opening in a staff meeting. She was quick to apply and said it all seemed to come together at the perfect time.

“Transitioning into this new role, I saw it as something that aligned with what I am passionate about and also an opportunity where I could help implement our vision for historic preservation and felt I was well-equipped to do that,” said White.

“My colleagues here were very happy for me and I think the community was also very excited because we were taking this step to further our preservation program and grow it more. I think it was something that spoke a lot to our community saying that Cary takes this seriously and we want to prepare for the future. We also want to remember what’s here and keep the character of Cary, and creating this position just reinforced that,” said White.

White’s Approach to Historic Preservation in Cary

“When a lot of people think of historic preservation, they think of old buildings, but it’s really more about connecting with our past. For me, historic preservation is all-encompassing of our past and trying to keep that connection strong and being able to understand it and interpret it for future generations,” said White.

Describing her work style, White said the main thing she always strives to be is observant. She’s quick to listen and always makes it a priority to look at all the unique factors as no two preservation projects can be approached the same way.

“Luckily, here we have a very collaborative work environment so when I look at all these factors, I can reach out to several different departments and we’re able to work together to go after whatever we need to,” said White. “I like working on a team where we can all see all these different angles that might be involved in these projects.”

Looking to the future of Historic Preservation in Cary, White says she is optimistic to see the program continue to flourish.

“We have built this foundation and have been steadily growing. Now that we have this new position, I can see that we have more resources to be able to put more effort and time into this program. I see it continuing to grow and really holding on to Cary’s character and historic context because that’s really important to the community here,” said White.

Get Involved in Historic Preservation

There are opportunities for all looking to know more about Cary’s Historic Preservation Program. You can learn more about Cary’s historic landmarks, attend a volunteer event or even apply to have a seat at the table of the Historic Preservation Commission. A few upcoming events and meetings include:

  • Historic Preservation Commission meetings are open to the public on the second Wednesday of the month in Town Hall’s Conference Room 11130. The commission accepts applications once a year.
  • Take a self-guided walking tour of Hillcrest Cemetery to learn about the people behind the famous names you see around Cary like Maynard Road, Bond Park or the Herb C. Young Community Center. The tour, which includes 23 notable Cary-ites, was created by the Friends of the Page-Walker Hotel.
  • May is National Preservation Month and the town will be hosting preservation-related events throughout the month. These may include free walking tours, a preservation-focused movie showing at the Cary Theater and more. Keep an eye on the town’s webpage and social media pages for details as it gets closer to May.
  • Keep an eye out throughout the year for volunteer events that pop up, such as a cleanup day at Hillcrest Cemetery.

Story and Gillian White photos by Ashley Kairis. Historic landmark photos courtesy of Town of Cary.