Cheri Nichols writes to the rescue of century-old houses that tell the history of Little Rock, as well as other emblems of wood and stone and beveled glass that define the state’s past.
“In preservation circles, when Cheri speaks, people listen.” — Longtime friend and neighbor Sharon Mosley about Cheri Nichols
Author, historic researcher and preservationist, she saves the world that was.
It’s not about doting over antiques, Nichols says of her career and place in history as adviser emeritus to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Little Rock.
“My true interest in historic preservation always has been the positive impact it has on communities,” she says. “Preservation makes cities better places to live.”
Historic houses, streets and business districts give a place its unique value, she says. As evidence, she cites that people go to museums as she does, never one to miss a museum — but who goes sightseeing in the suburbs?
“ReUrbanism” is a new word, but the concept is what she had in mind all along: preservation defined as a need that increases the faster things change. Old buildings aren’t for keeping as crumbling shells, but for keeping alive, she says.
Nichols cites research from the historic trust that “older neighborhoods are economic engines.” Restored, “these buildings fuel creativity,” being “distinctive, character-rich, endlessly adaptable, and often low cost.”
Her home is a good example: a devotedly labored-over, 127-year-old showplace in Little Rock’s Quapaw Quarter. But the kitchen has a microwave oven. The past holds the future.
“And if it’s taken care of,” Nichols says of this 3,200 square feet of green-painted, oak leaf-dotted history, “it will last for many more generations.”
Retired, she will receive the Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement from Preserve Arkansas during the organization’s awards dinner Friday at Albert Pike Masonic Temple in downtown Little Rock. The late Westbrook was known as “Arkansas’ father of state preservation.” More on the award dinner can be found at preservearkansas.org, or by calling (501) 372-4757.
“My true interest in historic preservation always has been the positive impact it has on communities. Preservation makes cities better places to live.”
“Cheri is well-deserving,” says Rachel Silva Patton, Preserve Arkansas’ executive director. Nichols is a founding member, past president and current ex officio member of the nearly 40-year-old, 200-member group, based in North Little Rock.
“She wrote her master’s thesis about the development of Pulaski Heights [the present-day Heights and Hillcrest neighborhoods],” Patton says. “Anyone who has done research on Little Rock’s historic buildings surely has run across material written by Cheri.”
Nichols counts the book How We Lived: Little Rock as an American City (1984), co-authored with Charles Witsell and Hampton Roy, as “my biggest achievement in the research and writing field.”
The project led her to another publication, Little Rock: Driving Tours of Three Historic Neighborhoods (1989): the MacArthur Park, Governor’s Mansion and Hillcrest historic districts.
Nichols has authored numerous National Register of Historic Places nominations, Patton says, including nominations for the Arkansas designs of E. Fay Jones and an amendment to the nomination for the Camp Ouachita Girl Scout Camp Historic District. The amendment “elevated the camp’s level of significance from local to national,” according to Patton, “so the property could receive federal funding for rehabilitation.”
And Nichols served two terms as executive director of the Quapaw Quarter Association, 1984-1986 and 1991-1997.
“She worked tirelessly to save the city’s historic buildings,” Patton says — notably, the Kramer School, West Side Junior High School, the Choctaw Route Station, Curran Hall and the Dickinson Hardware Co. Building at the east end of the River Market.
A DESTINY FULFILLED
Nichols traces her interest in preservation back to childhood, remembering smalltown Princeton, Ind., north of Evansville. “Even before I knew about historic preservation, I liked older neighborhoods,” she says. Growing up that way, “I walked to school. I walked to my dad’s drugstore. I rode my bike. I could get around.”
Family vacations were trips to historic sites: George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon; Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello; and Old Sturbridge Village, a re-creation of early times in Massachusetts.
“I enjoyed it,” she says. “I guess I was kind of destined to be involved in history in some fashion.”
But her family moved “to a modern house in a new subdivision,” the American dream at that time — done with the old, on to the new. And the way to get from old to new wasn’t by skipping along the sidewalk, or on a bicycle — it was by car.
“I didn’t like the suburbs,” she says. Ever since, “I prefer to be where getting around by foot is possible.” The same thinking is behind the preservationist’s slogan: “Cities are for people, not vehicles.”
Her first job after college set her course to the past. She did preservation planning as executive director of the Bartholomew County Historical Society and Museum, in Columbus, Ind. Nichols graduated magna cum laude from Hanover College in Indiana with a bachelor’s degree in history (1974), and from George Washington University in the nation’s capital with a 1981 master’s in American civilization, concentrated on historic preservation.
Washington University, founded in 1821, is steeped in history. Preservation was a new field of study there, and hers was a fairly uncommon degree those years ago, she says. But Hanover College was a rarity in a different way.
At Hanover, she found a friend she had known before, in seventh grade and her escort to the junior prom — Mark Nichols.
“We weren’t high school sweethearts or anything like that,” she says. Historians don’t make up romantic fancies when facts are available.
It was a while before one connection led to another. She liked the Colonial East Coast, where old is older. But he moved to Arkansas to practice law.
“Moving to Arkansas had never been on my list of things to do,” she says.
But it topped the list with their marriage in 1979.
HOME, SWEAT, HOME
The couple bought their three-bedroom, two-story, Queen Anne-style residence in 1983. They redid it from the ground up “literally,” she says, for the next 20 years, “starting with the foundation.”
At first, “we thought we had the money to just do the house,” she says. “We found out we didn’t.
“We lived in the back while we worked in the front,” she says — another lesson in history. Before central heat and air, people didn’t inhabit the whole house at once. They stayed in the rooms that were seasonally the most comfortable.
“The Prathers, who built it, were not wealthy people,” she says. “He was a traveling salesman. It was a standard, middle-class house of the period. This one wasn’t very fancy, and that suited me.”
But the property testifies to a different time, a different way of living on snug hardwood floors under 11-foot ceilings, with maid’s quarters and a carriage house in back.
The parlor turned out as a cozy spot to settle with a copy of Emily Bronte’s 19th-century novel, Wuthering Heights, off the bookshelf — or to watch television, as long as the program is not one of those home fix-it and decoration shows.
“They really don’t have anything to do with good work on historic buildings,” Nichols says, “and I don’t want a headboard made out of an old fence.”
Mark rates himself “pretty good at paint and demolishing,” but “my standards are not Cheri’s standards. I got fired in the early ’90s.
“The kitchen was beyond my skill set,” he says, time to call in the professionals.
“I never thought of living in an old house as an adult,” Mark says. “I grew up in one. But Cheri is a preservationist, so she has to live in one.”
“She really has been the voice of the preservation community [in Arkansas] for 30 years,” he says, “the likes of which most states don’t have. People still call her to find out what’s happening, and what’s not.”
Nichols researched and wrote about historic properties through her former business, History Inc., which she had from 1987-1991. She maintains her interest in preservation through memberships in Preserve Arkansas and the Quapaw Quarter Association and as a board member for Indiana Landmarks and as an advisory board member for Historic New Harmony in Indiana.
“In preservation circles, when Cheri speaks, people listen,” Nichols’ longtime friend and neighbor Sharon Mosley says.
Mosley tells how she and her husband, Scott, “met Cheri through our affiliation with the Quapaw Quarter Association. She was serving as executive director at the time. Scott and I chaired [the association’s] Spring Home Tour in 1986, and that’s when we really got to know Cheri. The candlelight dinner was at the Governor’s Mansion that year, and I’ll never forget frantically filling salt and pepper shakers on the back lawn with last-minute help from Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. However, Cheri was always the calm, cool, collected leader who kept everything knitted together.
“In 1987, Scott and I bought the Hemingway House on Arch Street. Cheri and Mark were our back-door neighbors. We raised our children together — our daughter, Dayna, and their son, Will. We have been great friends ever since. We shop together, we eat out together, and Cheri was part of a small group of girlfriends who watched all the episodes of Downton Abbey together.”
The Mosleys have since moved to another house, a red-and-gold Victorian in this same, tree-shaded area. Many houses in this part of central Little Rock have plaques out front that identify them by the name of the original owner: The E.G. Thompson Cottage, the Robertson-Kilpatrick Cottage, the Prather House.
“The Quapaw Quarter Association has always been an incredible resource for those of us renovating historic structures in downtown Little Rock,” Mosley says. “But, more importantly, under Cheri’s leadership, the Quapaw Quarter Association really matured and became much more.
“Cheri is largely responsible for the [association’s] effectiveness as an advocacy organization,” she says, “throughout the city and across the state.”
Friend and preservationist Julie Wiedower credits Nichols for bringing an educated view of “the big picture” to restoration efforts in Arkansas. The two served together as board members of the Quapaw Quarter Association, Preserve Arkansas and the City of Little Rock Historic District Commission.
“My involvement in historic preservation has been strictly amateur and volunteer,” Wiedower says, but Nichols “has always had the ability to see the big picture when many of the rest of us were focused on saving individual structures. Her wider perspective allowed her to understand that preservation is a tool in the revitalization of neighborhoods and communities.
“Cheri Nichols has been a tenacious advocate for city and state policies that complement the efforts of historic preservationists in Arkansas,” she adds. “Receiving the Parker Westbrook Award is a fitting tribute to her commitment to historic preservation over the years.”
SHE KNOWS JUST THE PLACE
Nichols has nominated more than a dozen sites now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, part of the National Park Service, including the Royal Theatre in Benton and (with Sandra Taylor Smith) the Hillcrest Historic District. The designation marks that a place is worth keeping.
Owners of properties listed in the National Register may be eligible for a 20 percent investment tax credit, according to the park service. Federal tax deductions are also available for charitable contributions for conservation purposes. Grant money is possible. Coal-mining rights can be an issue. Preservation is where history meets paperwork.
For Nichols, the point is that something worthwhile has a chance of being valued, being put to use and being kept safe.
“It’s nice to say that you’re the steward of a historic property,” she says. “I’d definitely say do it. I wish more people would do it.”
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Jan. 23, 1952, Evansville, Ind.
MY HOUSE WAS BUILT circa 1890. Circa means “about.” I think it was built in 1889, but I can’t prove it. We’re the fifth owners.
IF I COULD LIVE IN THE PAST, I WOULD GO BACK TO spend a day in this house when it was new and the Prathers (the original owners) lived here. Also, I’d like to spend a day in London in Victorian times.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HISTORIC AND JUST PLAIN OLD IS: Just plain old is something that doesn’t have much value.
WHAT I SAY ABOUT THE CHANCE OF SEEING A GHOST IN AN OLD HOUSE IS THAT it’s generally difficult enough to encourage people to restore an old house without adding the aspect that it might be haunted.
MY FAVORITE THING TO DO AT HOME IS: gardening.
MY FAVORITE HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCE IS maybe the refrigerator. I use the vacuum cleaner a good bit, but I can’t say I’m fond of it.
MY FAVORITE WAY TO GET OUT OF THE HOUSE IS travel. My husband, Mark, and I are both retired, so we’ve been able to travel more. Our longest trip ever was in August and September, to London and Scotland.
SOMETHING NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT ME IS: I saw The Beatles in concert. It was in Memphis at Mid-South Coliseum in August 1966. Although I lived in southwestern Indiana, my parents had friends who had moved to Memphis. This couple had two children around my age, and when the mom bought tickets for them to go to the concert, she bought one for me, too. It was my first-ever plane trip — Evansville to Memphis. And I do remember what I wore [to the concert]: a new blue sundress.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP IS: organized. It has more to do with daily life, not just about keeping things in Tupperware.
Print Headline: Cheryl Griffith Nichols; As a child, Cheri Nichols enjoyed walking old neighborhoods near where she lived in Indiana. In Arkansas, she became a historic preservationist with the ability to see the big