Like many before and after him, Bruce Daws was introduced to Fayetteville by the U.S. Army.
And like many soldiers, he served his four-year hitch.
But unlike many who then leave the city to pursue life elsewhere, Bruce Daws stayed.
His passion for history and architecture led him to become one of the foremost authorities on the history of Fayetteville and its downtown buildings.
Daws, who retired on Dec. 31 as the historic properties manager for the city, has been a vital component in the revitalization of downtown from its shuttered buildings and topless bars to the robust business and entertainment center it is now.
Or, as he calls it, he’s been a piece of the puzzle.
“I’ve always had an interest in history and historic preservation and architecture,” the 71-year-old Daws says. “To me, it’s like taking a jigsaw puzzle and dumping pieces on the table. Every building downtown and every project downtown is one puzzle piece, and every puzzle piece has to be in order for the puzzle to come out.
“To make that happen, I played a minor role compared to many other people. It was a team effort. I’ve worked with many great, great people. So, I certainly cannot take credit or a large part of the credit. I was just one of the people around the table helping to put the jigsaw puzzle together.”
Daws is one of three people who will receive the third round of Downtown Visionaries awards presented by CityView Magazine. A luncheon recognizing them will be held June 22 at Segra Stadium. Also being honored are Molly Arnold, co-owner of Rude Awakening coffee house on Hay Street and a key organizer of the Downtown Alliance, and Mac Healy, a businessman and chairman of the committee that worked with consultant Robert Marvin to develop the 1996 Fayetteville “Once & For All” plan for downtown.
Hitting the streets
Daws, who grew up near San Jose, California, arrived in Fayetteville in 1972 as a soldier assigned to Fort Bragg. America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam was winding down. Instead of training for a war overseas, Daws took to the streets of Fayetteville as a member of the military police.
“I was working as an undercover narcotics agent, primarily working downtown on miIitary offenders,” Daws says. “I left the Army in 1976 and came straight to work for the Tri-County Bureau of Narcotics for Cumberland County in the same year.
“This was the 1970s, so when I retired I had a big afro and large beard. And one day I was working for the Army, and the next day I was working for the Tri-County Bureau of Narcotics.”
He also was a homicide investigator for the county and later became the city’s communications director.
In 1996, he went from protecting the people of Fayetteville to protecting its buildings and history when he was named historic properties manager. His duties included preserving the historic value and integrity of downtown buildings and helping build and maintain the fledging Fayetteville History Museum.
At the time, the city needed a lot of help and nurturing.
“I got involved during a period of time when downtown Fayetteville had transitioned from adult entertainment. It was pretty much a ghost town,” Daws says. “Buildings were boarded up, going into a state of demolition because of neglect. So it was pretty bleak.”
Basically, those working to revitalize downtown were starting from scratch.
Daws embraced the challenge.
“It was very exciting after a number of years in law enforcement, following that family tradition, to transition to another passion I had, which involved historic preservation,” says Daws, whose father and brother also worked in law enforcement. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. For me, it’s always been a passion.
“It’s been extremely rewarding watching Fayetteville go from a boarded-up city downtown to what it looks like today,” he adds. “It’s certainly a different place. Many people who have not been in Fayetteville for a long time and come back are amazed at what the city looks like now.”
A reliable source
Daws has earned the respect of his peers and co-workers.
“He’s so good to work with. He’s so knowledgeable,” says Heidi Bleazey, who worked with Daws at the museum for 11 years and succeeded him as director. “Everybody knows that Bruce Daws knows the history of Fayetteville. There’s no doubt about that.
“I think a part of my preparation was watching and learning from him a level of dedication and loyalty to preserving and telling accurately the history of this city. We will tell it all; we will tell it right.”
Teamwork was important to Daws, Bleazey says.
“What people may not know about working with him is that he was thankful and generous — thankful for what we do, generous with his time and his willingness to steer and involve some of the staff with learning and sharing history knowledge,” she says. “He was so dynamic, so productive and so energized every day.
“He wants us to continue to grow in our knowledge together as a team. He had a small staff, but he always said, and it was true, we could do anything. We could do anything together.”
Daws had great autonomy on the job.
“Although in the chain of command, Bruce reported to me, he operated very independently,” says James McMillan, assistant director of recreation for Fayetteville-Cumberland County Parks & Recreation for the past 17 years and Daws’ immediate supervisor. “Bruce took very seriously the task of preserving the history of the city accurately and skillfully.
“His role with FCPR was not just a job to him, but something he sincerely cared about and truly enjoyed doing.”
Daws also worked well with others, whether they were in Fayetteville or came from other parts of the state.
“He has so much knowledge of local history, and he has a true passion for it. And I share that,” says Hank Parfitt, a urologist who retired in 2015 and has co-owned City Center Gallery and Books downtown with his wife, Diane Parfitt, since 1999. “The thing that I admire the most is, No. 1, his vast knowledge of history and, No. 2, he is a real stickler for the facts. He has an uncompromising position on sticking to historical facts.
“Especially in this day and age, I know that we tend to think of facts being really flexible things. But not for Bruce. Facts are what they are. To find out history, you don’t just go by what you see on Facebook or the news.”
Parfitt says he has worked on several projects with Daws as past president of both the Downtown Alliance and the Lafayette Society.
Daws worked with business owners and homeowners to upgrade their buildings while adhering to historic integrity.”
“He was the first line of information for people that were looking to work on a historic building downtown. Bruce was the perfect conduit for that,” says Jeff Adolphsen, senior restoration specialist with the N.C. Historic Preservation Office. “He had a big interest in the city and how it’s developed and all.
“I think that just translated perfectly into what he did professionally with the Historic Resources Commission and working with applicants who are making changes to their exterior building and all. Bruce is a technician, a technical person. He’s always trying to put historic property back to the way it was.”
And he was courteous, thoughtful and helpful while dealing with the public.
“He’s the first line of defense,” Adolphsen says. “I mean, the guy is out there on the street and looking at the buildings as they’re getting fixed and all, and people are asking questions and he’s accessible and all to all the people.”
That accessibility likely aided Daws and members of the Downtown Alliance when they were dealing with people who were buying and renovating property downtown.
“One of the big accomplishments that again was a joint effort was based on the fact that Fayetteville was boarded up downtown and the buildings were in a bad state,” Daws says. “We looked at Raleigh’s model ordinance for demolition by neglect, which kind of puts the burden on property owners to fix up their buildings based on the fact that neglect is causing the building to go into a state of demolition.
“So we identified many buildings that had boarded-up windows, the roofs were sagging in, the doors were boarded up. We sent out a notice to the property owners that they had so much time to remove the boards, to fix the roofs, or otherwise there would be a financial penalty. Once that was done, we kind of sat back and held our breath to see what would happen, if there was going to be a lot of litigation.”
For the most part, that did not happen.
“Many buildings were sold and put into the hands of new owners that had a vision for the buildings,” Daws says. “That’s kind of one of the major pieces that helped in the infant stage to bring Fayetteville back around.”
The turnaround continues to this day.
“When I started in 1990, Hay Street had a high vacancy rate and there was not a whole lot of activity down there,” Adolphsen says. “Now, if you have a 5% vacancy rate on Hay Street, I’d be somewhat surprised.”
No matter how old or damaged a building is, Daws believes it is important to try to preserve it.
“Our downtown historic district is a tangible link to the past,” Daws says. “I like to say that if you would bring a stranger into Fayetteville and put them out in the Cross Creek Mall, Skibo Road area and pull the blindfold off, that person could look around and they could be in Anywhere, USA.
“You bring them downtown to Fayetteville, and those buildings that we have downtown are character-defining. They help to tell our history. That is very important. We don’t want to lose that. You lose a lot once an old building is destroyed or refurbished to a point where it no longer reflects its character. It’s gone forever.”
The history museum
Three of Daws’ pet projects were building the Fayetteville Transportation and History Museum and protecting the Market House and Cross Creek Cemetery No. 1.
“Of the many projects Bruce was a part of, his role in the development of the Fayetteville History Museum is paramount,” McMillan says. “Bruce took very seriously the task of preserving the history of the city accurately and skillfully.”
The museum is in the restored 1890 Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railroad Depot.
“I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time when a grant became available to restore the old Cape Fear Yadkin Valley Railroad Depot,” Daws says. “I’m just very pleased that that money was made available to us to restore that wonderful old building and upfit it as a museum.
“That’s very, very important because that gives a place for visitors to come and get a better understanding right here in the historic district of the importance of Fayetteville and what has occurred here. A person can walk into the museum on Franklin Street, leave the museum, walk the downtown area, get something to eat, shop at the stores, but have a better understanding of what it’s all about.”
Daws notes that the restoration of the railroad depot was a long process that was completed in 2003.
“That building — people who have been in Fayetteville for a long time will remember — had a wall that spanned from the 1970s building to the 1890 railroad depot and from the other side from a 1920s building that’s now Cape Fear Studios,” Daws says. “Our first job was to gently pull down those brick walls to let it stand alone again.”
Bleazey remembers the early days of renovation.
“He saw it from its raw potential, from the stripped-down studs and then into an award-winning restoration of this depot into a museum,” she says of Daws.
That ability to see the potential of a project is Daws’ strength, Bleazey says.
“If readers could see behind his eyelids and see some of the little gems that he saw and faces that may never be the way they were when he saw them, I just think that’s incredible,” she explains. “Nothing held him back from the opportunity to see and showcase all walks of this community.”
The Market House
The Market House, which opened in 1832, is one of fewer than 40 national landmarks in North Carolina, Daws says. It is on the site where North Carolina state officials ratified the United States Constitution in 1789.
“That’s the highest plateau of historic distinction,” Daws says. “So, we opened up the Market House many years ago for Fourth Friday, allowing people to come up and just look around upstairs. Many people would make the comment that, ‘I’ve lived here all my life and never been upstairs.’ A lor of people were pleased to see that.”
The original building that served as the statehouse burned down in 1831, Daws says.
“Resurrected out of the ashes came the Market House, which opened in 1832,” Daws says. “It’s a unique building in that it is virtually unchanged through time. It really has its 1832 appearance.”
Its history, of course, is marred by the fact that slaves were sold on the property in the 1800s.
Cross Creek Cemetery No. 1
When vandals damaged headstones at historic Cross Creek Cemetery No. 1, Daws and city officials sprang into action, asking the North Carolina Historic Preservation Office to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Normally, they are not placed on the national registry because there are too many historic cemeteries scattered across the country,” Daws says. “But our cemetery is very important in that it is one of just a handful of municipally owned cemeteries that date to the 1700s.
“In that cemetery, there are in the neighborhood of 112 or more headstones that were carved by George Lowder from Scotland, who was the most prominent stone mason of 19th-century North Carolina history.”
It was a costly venture to repair the headstones.
“We had vandalism issues out in the cemetery, and they were quite costly because you can’t merely put an old historic headstone made of marble back together with a form of cement or some other material that would be counterproductive to the long-range preservation of the stone,” Daws says. “It is very time-consuming, very costly.
“We were able to apply for a historic preservation grant; the city helped us with that. We were able to raise enough money to make a large impact on the level of vandalism.”
“A lot of the city’s history is written in that cemetery,” he says. “So many people that were prominent in the community are buried in that cemetery.”
Not all work and no play
“The man in the hat,” as Bleazey calls Daws because he wears a hat almost every day, is not consumed with old buildings. He’s no relic.
“I trust Bruce Daws,” says McMillan, his immediate supervisor when he worked for the city. “Bruce is an all-business/no-nonsense type of operator but in the appropriate environment is a fun-loving, charismatic individual.”
Daws began a new journey in his life when he remarried; he and his wife, Gail, wed in 1998. And his sense of public service rubbed off on his son, Bruce Daws II, who works for the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Bleazey has seen Daws’ fun side often.
“Bruce loved the adventure,” she says. “One of the things that we would do when we were working on something on Mondays when we were closed was that kind of an adventure day. He would pop out of his office or pop up the stairs from having been somewhere, and he would say, ‘Are you ready to ride?’ and we would hop into that.
“Whether I was in a skirt and little sandals or no matter what, he would take us to places and we’d tromp through the woods. Or we would go down to places I’d never been down before and, poof, there would be an historic story of a grave marker or something he would get to. I miss the opportunities to go on those little adventures.”
Hank Parfitt recalls that Daws helped plan a function for the Lafayette Society with representatives of Fayetteville’s Sister City, Saint-Avold, France.
“We decided to have a pig-picking,” Parfitt says. “The French had no idea what a pig-picking was. They thought we had to put on rubber boots and run around a bloody pig pen.
“It was the best North Carolina barbecue I had ever had, cooked over an open pit by some private guys that did it on their own at 3 in the morning. The French were just overwhelmed.”
Even more so when Daws provided dessert.
“He had a sense of humor. Toward the end of the night, Bruce broke out his own supply of moonshine,” Parfitt says. “I don’t know where he got it, but it had a real kick to it. It must have been 99% alcohol.
“He got a real kick out of that, and so did the French. They got a real taste of the South.”
Daws’ legacy and the future
Daws says he realizes that revitalization is far from finished. He says city officials and business owners need to continue “all the good things that many leaders in the past have started.”
“The revitalization of Fayetteville certainly didn’t happen overnight and didn’t happen with one visionary,” Daws says.
Modesty aside, his peers and friends consider him a pillar of downtown revitalization.
“The big picture is, he was saving our history, preserving it for the future,” Parfitt says. “Anything that has historical significance, he has scooped it up, cataloged it and stored it. He’s given the town back its identity.”
McMillan, his former supervisor, agrees.
“It was important to him that he left the department in a good place, with a good team and prepared for the future in his retirement. He did just that. Fayetteville was fortunate to have Bruce Daws on its team.”
Though he’s retired, Daws said he is not going anywhere. After all, he’s been a fixture in Fayetteville since 1972.
“My position is in great hands now with Heidi Bleazey,” Daws says. “I’ll always be there to assist.”
He admits the past 50 years have been quite a fun ride.
“A lot of people get up in the morning, and they say, ‘I sure don’t want to go to work this morning,’” Daws says. “I can honestly say that I have been happy with every job that I’ve had.
“It’s all been good. It was with mixed emotions that I retired from this job. I certainly enjoy doing it, and it’s almost hard to believe that I get paid to do it. This job is almost what you might call a hobby.”
That downtown puzzle might not be complete. But Daws certainly helped fit a lot of the pieces together.
For the betterment of downtown Fayetteville.