Detroiter Jim Turner is in high demand. A few years ago, while giving a presentation on historic restoration in the Pacific Northwest, he got a call from New Orleans. Following his presentation, Turner hopped a flight to help with reconstruction efforts in Louisiana following the devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought. More recently, Turner has been spending significant time in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was asked to run a college program on the historic restoration trades.
But despite answering calls around the country, Turner and his company, Turner Restoration, remain based in Detroit, the city he loves. He's one of the area's staunchest advocates for historic preservation, arguing against two recently-introduced bills
designed to gut the decades-old Michigan's Local Historic Districts Act while working with his hands to shore up historic properties throughout the region.
His company specializes in the repair and restoration of the windows and wood features of historic buildings. Today, he averages four to five employees at any given time. He has both commercial and residential clients, from the city to the suburbs and even out of state.
Guisa Suttle and Maria Fernandez glazzing and fitting glass at Turner Restoration's workshop
His first-hand restoration knowledge may have begun when he moved into Detroit's Arden Park-East Boston Historic District in 1988, but his love of old homes began as a child riding in the back of his parents' car.
Turner grew up in government housing in the Downriver suburb of Ecorse. It was a tight-knit African-American community that he remembers fondly. But it was the grand homes of old Detroit that planted a seed in Turner.
"I grew up passing through these magnificent neighborhoods in the city, riding in the car and gazing up at these large houses that we never thought we could obtain while we drove to Belle Isle," says Turner. "It set a dream that was ultimately fulfilled."
He would pass through those same neighborhoods as an adult going to work at Chrysler. It wasn't until Turner was invited to house sit for a realtor who was selling a home in the Arden Park-East Boston Historic District, however, that he discovered the magic of living in a historic home. He fell in love with the house as soon as he entered and would go on to negotiate a land contract and successfully fight for a mortgage (at first he was denied, but later would secure one after appearing in front of the city's Mortgage Review Committee). The purchase of that home set Turner on a path that he has been following for nearly 30 years.
Turner first learned the craft of historic restoration by working on his own house, teaching himself how to insulate and weatherstrip old windows. Any thought of buying new windows was quickly put to rest when he realized that the old windows in his home were more valuable than what was being sold in stores. He just had to learn how to fix them first.
A year after purchasing his home, Turner began to volunteer for Preservation Wayne, now called Preservation Detroit
. In joining the advocacy organization, Turner says he began to see Detroit in a different way, understanding how different patterns of migrations of ethnicities and cultures shaped the city.
Turner Restoration's tools of the trade
In Louisville, Turner sees many of the same socio-economic challenges faced in Detroit. As instructor and program director at the Samuel Plato Academy
, he's providing a largely African American group of students with jobs training in the historic restoration trades. All at once, he's teaching useful skills to an under-served population while spreading the value of historic preservation and restoration.
"It's mostly African Americans that are living in these older cities and communities. They're living and paying taxes, and that's often overlooked by leaders who don't see their value," says Turner. "It's the citizens who have been keeping their finger in the dike."
Turner scoffs at the idea that historic preservation stands in the way of economic progress, as some in the state legislature have argued. In fact, he says, look at the Detroit neighborhoods that are experiencing the most development, and you will see that it's the city's most historic areas with high-quality, old, historic buildings that are being restored and reinvigorated. There are economic advantages that accompany historic preservation.
The idea that historic preservation is pro-development is lost on some leaders and businesspeople. Fast and easy sometimes trumps a more measured approach taken by people like Turner. Since House Bill 5232 and Senate Bill 720 were introduced in Michigan's legislature earlier this year, historic preservationists have rallied to block the bills' passage, arguing that they would strip the Local Historic Districts Act of 1970 of its power and hinder communities' abilities to maintain neighborhoods as historic districts.
Turner, in his op-ed for this publication, says, "Historic preservation has been a crucial economic driver in Detroit's continued revitalization. Since 1996, over $350 million has been invested in the city through the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program. Of the 89 buildings involved, over half have been rehabilitated within the past six years. Our historic districts have been helping lead the rebound as well, attracting investment and tax-paying residents. Tellingly, almost 75 percent of neighborhoods that have now seen their property values exceed pre-recession values were located near or within historic districts."
As Turner points out, not only has historic preservation served as an economic driver for the city, it's been his own source of income since opening his business in 2001. Turner Restoration averages four to five employees as the company travels throughout southeast Michigan and beyond, applying expert restoration techniques to individual homes and businesses. In addition to running his company in Detroit and the restoration trades school in Louisville, Turner is an advisor of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He also used to serve on the board of both Michigan Historic Preservation Network and Preservation Wayne (Preservation Detroit).
Not only is historic preservation important to Jim Turner, Jim Turner is important to historic preservation.
"In Detroit today, we are going back to a more livable city, where people live where they work," he says. "Historic preservation helped start that because looking at where you are helps you value the culture that is there. It helps you grow and build families, neighborhoods, and communities. It's about preserving a small nugget of culture that we all live in with our neighbors."
MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
Photos by Marvin Shaouni. Photo of Jim Turner by Erica Rucker.