He Lives Major: Thaddeus Cooke

Christine Mitchell Adams September 26, 2015

I first met local mover-and-shaker Thaddues (also known as Tad) Cooke when I discovered his incredible photography and his work with the New Moran project. Located on the Burlington waterfront, the Moran Plant has been a local landmark since it was built in 1952 as a coal burning power plant. It was decommissioned in 1986 and remained derelict until 2014 when three Burlington residents (including Tad) proposed the New Moran master plan for the preservation and adaptive reuse of Moran Plant. We caught up with Tad to get the full scoop on the project and discover what keeps this 9th generation Vermonter rooted and inspired in the green mountain state.  

You're from Charlotte area, went to UVM and are now living in Burlington - what keeps you in Vermont?
I think Vermont holds possibilities you don’t find anywhere else. The longer I live here, the more convinced I am. Add that to extensive mountains and waterways, a commitment to preserving the natural landscape, increasingly vibrant downtowns and some of the best food and drink in the world – it’s hard to beat.

Photo by Thaddeus Cooke, hitting the backcountry of Vermont

What are your favorite spots in Vermont where you get to enjoy the outdoors and spend time with friends?
Like any skier or fisherman, I would be in bad graces if I shared my favorite spots in detail, but one of the beautiful things about Burlington is the proximity to get outside early morning and still be back in time for work. In pursuit of those early mornings, I got into fly fishing for the first time. I'm a serious amateur, but it's a whole other side of Vermont that I've loved exploring. As you know, the Trout Club is one of those rare Vermont institutions that have survived and thrived for generations, and it's quickly become a favorite. I've been backcountry skiing on the west side of Mount Mansfield and the back side of Bolton for most of a decade. I spent a lot of time with friends in Nebraska Valley last winter, just south of Stowe. The crowds are low, the snow stays fresh longer and there are even a few gas stations on the way with almost average coffee on hand before

What inspired your interest in urban sustainability and ecological development? 
I grew up in Charlotte, which is a one-stoplight town barely half an hour from Vermont’s largest city. With that experience, I’m a firm believer that modern economies need thriving urban centers to balance the natural or agricultural landscape – and vice versa. In that sense, building dynamic, resource efficient cities is one ingredient in preserving and sustaining the farms and wilderness I love. 

So now I work on the redevelopment of an abandoned urban coal plant, but I spend my free time fishing, skiing and taking pictures in the relative wilderness. I’m squarely in the ‘balance is healthy’ camp.

You were still enrolled at UVM when you co-founded the Moran Plant redevelopment. What attracted you - and your friend and colleague Erick Crockenberg - to the project?
At the outset it was shameless curiosity. What is this derelict landmark on Burlington’s otherwise wide open public waterfront? Why was it abandoned for so long? How hard could it really be to reinvent and re-use it?

As we answered those questions, we realized the Moran Plant was far and away our best shot at making a lasting local impact right out of college. Our work focuses on the adaptive re-use of one building, but it’s about so much more than a singular space with four walls. Burlington and Vermont have led the country in a variety of ways – renewable energy and local food systems to downtown development and civil rights – and I’m convinced Moran is an opportunity for our generation to have that kind of impact.

While developing your ideas for Moran Plant, have you been inspired by other derelict spaces that are now hubs for their local community across the country? 
We could find examples in cities across the country, but I love hearing about the unlikely landmarks – those spaces that come back from the brink of demolition to radically transform the region around them. Locally, I think right away about Shelburne Farms. Who would have imagined a lakeside Vermont Rockefeller estate in deep disrepair would evolve into a national non-profit leader in land stewardship?

Or look at the High Line – that an abandoned elevated in the lower east side would become the most visited public attraction in New York City? No matter where you look there’s real power in derelict spaces, and that’s something we hope to capture with Moran.

Has this project surprised you with unpredicted rewards or challenges?
I’m always humbled by how much everything comes down to relationships. We spend more and more time as a culture focusing on metrics and insights, but at the end of the day, even in the complex, technical aspects of our work, everything my team has accomplished has somehow been based on person-to-person connections.

With those relationships and connections, you’ve been hosting some innovative events in the space such as live performances and art shows. What are some upcoming events you're excited about?
Our next event on October 8th is a closing celebration for a seven artist collective exhibit called Make Moran. Of over 1500 people who’ve walked through Moran with us, artists are frequently the early adopters who become longtime supporters.

Our team loves a good party, so we’re excited to celebrate the collective work that’s brought so much energy to our growing community over the last three years. As with any party, it’s a time for new beginnings, so you’ll also see the launch of a major new initiative we’ve been putting together. Keep an eye out on MoranPlant.org for that starting October 9th.

Awesome, we’ll see you there! Moran is set to open in 2017, how do you foresee it affecting the local community when it opens to the public? And where do you hope to see it in 20 years?
If I’ve learned anything in this venture, it’s that we preserve what we love. If we can create a contemporary landmark – one that marries culture, commerce and community – then I think we’ll see a ripple effect of similar spaces, programs and ideology spreading beyond the local borders.

At the very least, it’ll be a solid place to watch the sunset with a few hundred friends and a world-class beer in your hand!

photo by Thaddeus Cooke

Not only are we fans of your work with Moran Plant, we're also big fans of your photography (and are lucky to have one of your photos as a web banner on our site!). What inspired you to pursue photography and film in particular?
Most of my photos are of the outdoors and of friends in great places. I couldn't be further from being an artist, but taking photos gives me a chance to focus a bit harder – if briefly – on just how special these people and places are. I love shooting analogue – somewhere between the light and the film itself unexpected things often happen, and that bit of chance and delight is something I don't find in digital. While I'm being corny, I also shoot on a Nikon my dad gave to my mom when they got married. When my ski bag was stolen last winter, the camera was the only thing I recovered – after a successful post-theft Craigslist recovery mission, the karma on that old FM-2 is too good to shoot with anything else.

When Tad isn't busy with the New Moran project he's camping, hiking, skiing and generally "living major" in Vermont. Check out his incredible photography and adventures on instagram

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