Forty years ago on Thanksgiving Day, I never imagined that the ancient American over-eating ritual would change the course of my career in amazing ways. But waking up the next morning still in discomfort from the previous day’s gorging, we decided to go for a walk.

But where to walk? I grew up in sprawl, but remembered the tiny village of Mooresville, Alabama where Dad occasionally took us when I was a kid. Dad was a cabinet-maker regarded by builders across the region as Mr. Perfect, and while his work in the 60s generally adhered to the styles of the day because that’s what people wanted, he had great love for the places that had long endured and were filled with superbly-crafted architectural patterns rarely built then. So he would take us to places like Mooresville from time to time so we could just soak it all in.

By mid-morning that Friday, Wanda, Susan, Hazel, and a friend and I shook ourselves from the post-feast muddle and headed out to Mooresville to go for a walk. I was in the middle of my third year of architecture school at the time, Wanda and I had been married 17 months, Susan was in her first year of architecture school, and Hazel was toward the end of her pre-teen years.

In those days, Mooresville still had its general store and another shop or two; maybe one was a coffee shop or breakfast place? In any case, the two churches still stand, and the post office is still in operation. The other commercial buildings still stand as well, and I hope they may be occupied again someday. The Stagecoach Inn & Tavern, sadly, was in ruins 40 years ago but I’m told it has been restored recently.

The village is only 9 square blocks sitting peacefully among great trees only a stone’s throw from the interstate right-of-way to the north, and sloping down to its Tennessee River landing to the south. It served as the first state capitol for a few years after incorporating in 1818; I think the legislators met in the tavern. In more recent times, it was the primary filming location for Disney’s Tom & Huck in 1995.

Walking around town that day, nearly halfway through my 5 years of architecture school, I was struck by two things I thought weren’t possible then. Having grown up in sprawl, I’d never experienced a place as an adult that was so compact, mixed-use, and walkable. Seaside was still a few months from breaking ground at that time, so to my knowledge nothing like this had ever been built in our day. But why not? If our ancestors enjoyed life in places like this, what were far too many of us doing stuck at the end of a cul-de-sac? That day primed me for being an instant adherent to the New Urbanism when DPZ’s plan of Seaside was published a few months later.

But the much longer-lasting questions were the architecture. Still embedded in the Dark Ages of Architecture, all that was built back then in flyover country like where I grew up was buildings like suburban tract houses, strip shopping centers and malls, and bronze glass box office buildings. The preservation movement had taken hold across the country by then and people were lovingly restoring houses and sometimes Main Street buildings downtown as the realization grew of what a downward trade the architecture of the Dark Ages had been in comparison to what it replaced. But how could we build lovable buildings again? What was the process? On that day, I had no clue.

Our architecture professors taught us that because we had recently acquired computers, the builders had bigger power tools, and the banks had more clever mortgages, we could build better than ever before. Quality was determined by the tools, in other words. But I was walking the streets of a place that day built by simple farmers and tradespeople with none of those tools, but both the urbanism and the architecture was clearly far superior to what was built in 1980. How did they do that in 1818, years before architects first set foot in Alabama? I did not know. But it was clear beyond debate that they had. What great wisdom did the people of the village possess to build better than 1980’s best and brightest? Again, I had no clue. It was a complete mystery.

But this wasn’t even the biggest mystery. One could imagine how an enlighted builder might come to town and build buildings people love for a time, but how was that wisdom passed down to the next generation? I was 20 years away from my first trip to Europe but was of course aware of the Italian hill towns, Cotswold hamlets, and villages in the South of France where the wisdom of building well had been passed down for centuries. What was the device? Go deep enough into European history, and most of the people were illiterate, so it couldn’t have been books. What was it?

I left Mooresville that day completely clueless, but I took this mystery of three questions (urbanism, architecture, and process) home with me and “fed and watered it,” if you will, hoping to unlock it someday, realizing I was much more likely to find something I was looking for than something I forgot.

This is the first post of three; the next will be tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day, and the wrap-up will be Friday on the 40th anniversary.

Next: The Mystery of Mooresville (part 2)