As an architect, HK Principal Clif McCormick dedicates a lot of his time to historic preservation architecture, bringing his passion and expertise to projects that celebrate and protect our architectural heritage. As a member the Chattanooga Historic Zoning Commission and a Tennessee State Historic Architectural Consultant, Clif plays a vital role in ensuring that the stories etched into our built environment are preserved for the future.

What initially sparked your interest in historic preservation?

Growing up, I lived in a decidedly non-historical 1970's split level.  My earliest affinities for historic buildings probably grew from the contrast I saw during visits to my grandparents and their Victorian house in southern Mississippi.  The expressive wrap-around porch was always filled with plants, the ceilings were quite high, and layers of dark woodwork always seemed to be hiding some mystery.  Also at the time, my grandfather was "modernizing" the house by installing dropped ceilings and florescent light fixtures.  So conversations about change and preservation were happening even then.

Moving to Atlanta for college, I earned extra money on the weekends working on various construction jobs, all of which involved historic interior restoration of old houses and a few businesses.

Later I found myself living in a 1920's studio apartment in San Franscisco.  The doors didn't function very well, and most of the (original) kitchen cabinets refused to open at all.  I learned that making these things work properly takes more than just a few tools - they need special treatment and thoughtful work.

Please share about the role you have that integrates your passion for historic preservation on the historic zoning commission?  

Each of the four historic districts in Chattanooga falls under the purview of the Historic Zoning Commission. In historic districts, there are things you can and cannot do related to the exterior of your house. There is always something that somebody wants to do that does not fall clearly inside or outside the historic zoning rules. We hear cases every month in which someone has a change to the house that is visible to the street. The question is – "does this meet historic regulations?" As a commission we listen and approve, deny, or defer. It includes everything on the exterior house – from windows and siding to the placement of parking spaces.

If the house is listed as a "contributing structure," in other words, if it was considered historic at the time the historic district was designated, the rules are generally interpreted more strictly. For instance, if a window is 100 years old and in bad repair, the homeowner must prove that the window is beyond repair before they can just get a new one. So people always ask things they can and can’t do. You can't put modern porch columns on a historic house, skylights on the visible side of the house, plywood siding on a historic house. We also look at new house designs in the historic districts. It has to be no more than so much bigger or smaller than adjacent houses, the setback needs to be consistent with the historic houses around it, the porch has to be a certain depth or maybe the house has to be set back a certain distance from the street.

Tell me about your role as the State Historic Architectural Consultant.

What it really is an arm of the State's Historical Commission. Sometimes the Commission wants to do things with these buildings, but before they can do a project, they have to get a budget. So they have to hire someone, usually me or one other consultant in Nashville, to go out to the site, look at the building with their office, figure out what they want, and write up a program. The program will outline necessary work like roof restoration, installing sprinklers, restoring windows and doors to their original condition. I'll also include pricing for things like adding HVAC if the proposed new use requires it. They then take the package and go through the budget approval process at the state level.

Architect Clif McCormick of HK Architects stands in a field next to a historic Tennessee structure, the York Bible School.

Clif exploring the historic site surrounding the historic York Bible School.

What type of historical structures do you enjoy working on the most?

I really like schools and similar public buildings because of scale. With bigger scale, there is so much more you can do. There have been some historic examples that have beautiful things that are more than you could ever expect at a historic residence. People did smart things a long time ago. Everything seemed more intuitive - for example, all the corridors stack. All the windows stack. Spaces were generally designed less tightly around a specific use and therefore are more flexible. It is just more intuitive than a lot of buildings now. I try to keep those things in mind when I design now.

What is your favorite historic property you have worked on?

That's a tough one. There's a lot that I like. One of my favorite projects ever was the Sherwood Inn in New York state. It is an 1800s inn at the tip of the Skaneateles Lake. It has been continuously used as a lodging since around 1820. It's not a small inn - it's big, rambling. It has a lot of types of places to stay. We worked on the entry, the tavern, and the dining room. When you go into the tavern, it is dark with low light, heavy beams in the ceiling. Tons and tons of wood paneling with a big stone fireplace adorned by a painting of huntsmen on horseback. We spent a lot of time thinking about each door, each piece of molding, each piece of paneling on the wall. You would think every brick in the fireplace was painstakingly chosen to match the historic look of the inn, but in fact in order to get the weathered look we needed, we told the masons it would be faced with stone and no one would see the brick, so they would do their work in a way that ultimately fit the period well.

How do you decide what parts of a building should be preserved versus updated or changed?

It depends on what the end use of the building is going to be. I don't want to change things unless there's a reason to do so. Sometimes with historic preservation architecture, you have to change things because of codes. For example, at Swann Tobacco, the windows had to be made operable. The fire marshal wanted windows that you could rescue someone out of. That was strictly a code reason. People want beautiful old floors, but they are very bad for noise. The acoustics of beautiful old floors don't matter in a factory, but when offices and apartments go in, things can get way too loud. To remedy the noise on such first floor, we might hang acoustic clouds to dampen sound, or decide to only repurpose the original surface on one side or the other.

An upward view of the exposed floorboards at a historic renovation project by HK Architects at Signal Mill.

The exposed floorboards from above serve as a ceiling at Signal Mill.

Have you ever discovered or uncovered a hidden gem during one of your historic preservation architecture projects?

A long time ago, we were working on an 1840's home that had been the home of a surgeon at one point. The surgeon had his practice in his basement, and we discovered that he actually had kept a lot of the limbs that he had amputated. The police had to come and verify that they were all very, very old bones. The project was paused for over a month. We couldn't just throw the bones in the dumpster! I'm not sure what ended up happening to the bones, but eventually they were taken off site and the project progressed.

Through his work, Clif exemplifies the importance of historic preservation architecture in maintaining our cultural heritage. By carefully restoring and adaptively reusing historic buildings, we not only honor the craftsmanship and stories of the past but also ensure that these architectural gems remain vibrant pieces of our communities. Clif's insights remind us to appreciate the rich tapestry woven into our built environment and to support efforts that protect these irreplaceable buildings.