As Midtown explores becoming a historic district, several of its older buildings are getting torn down

This is the first in a series of columns in Maria’s Metro about Atlanta’s preservation past and present.

By Maria Saporta

Oh the irony.

The Midtown Neighbor’s Association and its Historic Midtown Committee are looking into designating one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods into a “Local Historic District.”

But as the neighborhood is pursuing the establishment of a Midtown Historic Overlay District, significant parts of its history are being torn down for new developments.

What has become all too apparent is that there are far too few organizations looking out to preserve Atlanta’s history and that there are far too few developers willing to encompass and respect the historic fabric of our city into their new developments.

6th and juniper

Historic home at 6th and Juniper as it was before March 13 (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Take the latest victim – a strikingly attractive yellow historic house on Juniper Street near 6th Street that was demolished on Friday the 13th – an unlucky day for the house that could have beautifully anchored the redevelopment of that block.

Alliance Residential had the house demolished so it could build a multi-story apartment building on the site.

Todd Oglesby, managing director of Alliance Residential in Atlanta, wrote in an email that the company had worked with the Midtown Neighbors Association, NPU-E, the Midtown Development Review Committee and the Midtown Alliance on the redevelopment of the site.

“We explored a number of options to try and preserve the existing home on our Juniper property,” Oglesby wrote – adding that those options included: re-using the house, moving the house and removing the house. “After a series of meetings and design studies, and conversations with the Georgia Trust (for Historic Preservation) about moving the house, we ultimately determined that options one and two were not feasible for us to develop the site.”

Remnants of the historic home at 6th and Juniper on March 13 - the day of demolition

Remnants of the historic home at 6th and Juniper on March 13 – the day of demolition

The problem with keeping the house was its location on the site and how it created a “non-coherent” development plan. “The concern from many was that it would look like a left over single-family house in a cavern of mid-density development,” he said.

Oglesby said the Georgia Trust did favor keeping the house, and it advise the developer that there was little likelihood that a benefactor would move the house.

“In general, they did not view moving houses as a sound preservation strategy,” Oglesby wrote.

Atlanta often tries to short-change preservation – offering up strange compromises that create an amputee-like approach to history. Instead of having the decency to save an entire building, developers and/or institutions think it’s okay to save a facade (and what an appropriate word). Let’s create an illusion that there was something historic here, but let’s destroy the actual structure that was part of the history.

6th and Juniper

House at 6th and Juniper before Friday the 13th – much of the block is low-rise nondescript buildings that also will make way for the new development

Think of the poor Crum & Forster building at 4th and Spring Street where Georgia Tech saw fit to just keep the front one-third of the building.

Or think of how Neel Reid’s beautiful McCord Apartments on 7th Street were torn down a couple of years ago to make way for a parking lot to serve a new apartment building on the corner of Peachtree and 7th streets.

Or think of the ultra-sad Carnegie library where a few columns were put back together six blocks north of its original location and turned into a kind of open-air urban gazebo that has no historic context whatsoever.

One lesson we’ve learned. History and place belong together.

Moving something historic to a new location actually diminishes the history that someone is trying to save.

“We don’t have a high standard for preservation in Atlanta,” said Mark McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust. “We have a low bar. We are a real estate town, and preservation tends to be reactive rather than proactive.”

Demolished house at 6th and Juniper - as it was on March 13

Demolished house at 6th and Juniper – as it was on March 13

All too often in Atlanta, developers look at property as a commodity – ignoring the fact that older structures or trees contribute to the value of a place. Instead of leveraging the historic qualities of a site into developing a completely unique setting, we often see cookie-cutter like buildings that could be plopped on any piece of land. The creativity and design sensitivity to blend the old with the new – in a respectful and coherent way – is in short supply in this town.

But it can be done. In fact, just around the corner from where the one-of-a-kind yellow house once stood, a developer and Smith Dahlia architects are blending a historic Midtown home with multifamily residences. The home at 5th and Piedmont, which had been in terrible condition, is being restored, and it is serving as the signature piece of the new multi-family project.

It just goes to show how much of preservation in Atlanta and the entire metro area is a hit-and-miss endeavor. Whether a historic building or home is preserved is all too often left up to a developer to decide – and we have seen what a game of chance that can be.

“We don’t have adequate public policies to support historic preservation – not only in the City of Atlanta, but throughout the metro area,” said McDonald, who is concerned about the precarious future of Glenridge Hall in Sandy Springs, a mansion that was built in 1929. It’s furnishings and other rare antiques are to be auctioned off on March 21 and 22.

Broadstone Terrace

The property where the house once stood is being developed by the Broadstone Terrace apartment project (Special: Alliance Residential)

Whether it is I.M. Pei’s first office building ever designed or whether it is the old Spring Street Elementary School that has been and continues to be defaced by the Center for Puppetry Arts, we have a long way to go before we can claim to be a city that values urban design and historic integrity.

We desperately need a strong and independent Atlanta Urban Design Commission with teeth that can help instill Atlantans with a mindset that we can welcome new development while respecting the built and natural environment that put us on the map.

Meanwhile, the Midtown community will meet on Thursday, March 19 at Grace Methodist Church to contemplate the merits of establishing a Historic Overlay District.

And let’s that we don’t lose too many more of our beautiful historic buildings while we’re trying to figure out how to preserve our past.

5th and piedmont

An example of blending the old with the new – 5th and Piedmont – now under construction

 

5th and piedmont

An aerial artist rendering of 5th and Piedmont development (Special: 5th and Piedmont)

5th and Piedmont

Another artist rendering of 5th and Piedmont project (Special: 5th and Piedmont)

 

Note to readers: Next preservation column will be about Atlanta’s greatest victory – saving the Fox – 40 years later.

 

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

22 replies
  1. letmesaythis says:

    well written….excellent examples and solid point of view or argument – Historic status is long overdue. It not only benefits Midtown, but the 5 county urban core as a whole.Report

    Reply
  2. SaportaReport says:

    Thanks for the feedback Will Curry & Chad Carlson. This is just the first look at this need for historic preservation. Check back for more articles like this one!Report

    Reply
  3. Samantha Lyste says:

    Sorry, but anything west of Piedmont shouldn’t necessarily be preserved unless it’s particularly significant. This single family house doesn’t qualify. Density is needed in the area to make Atlanta a walkable and liveable city. This is one block off Peachtree and walking distance to MARTA heavy rail. Single family homes just aren’t appropriate long-term in this specific locale. Don’t get me wrong – there are lots of buildings that should be preserved – the Crum and Forster building should have been fully saved, for example – but you can’t place this house in the same category at the Fox, Terminal Station, the Carnegie Library, and historic Reid apartment buildings.Report

    Reply
  4. Claudia Hicks says:

    I am an Atlanta native who long ago became disillusioned with how the city has developed. Since the days of Reconstruction, Atlanta has been, & still is, a “Carpetbagget” city. Money & profit have always trumped historic preservation & good design. There have been a few bright spots like the Fox Theatre & the Castle, but too much has been demolished & plowed under.
    In 1996, Billy Payne pronounced Atlanta the ” next great international city.” That statement was & is debatable. We see nothing ironic in going to Europe for the history & beauty of their cities & then bulldozing anything old here. History & cultural identity can’t be created by a Chamber of Commerce, only by honoring the lives & lifestyles of those before us. I hope we are beginning to change while there is still time.Report

    Reply
  5. TMR says:

    It’s just a house. Not a theater, not a historic office or government or arts institution or a historic transit station.  Just a house.  I do agree that Atlanta has had more than its fair share of demolition, but might it be prudent to focus on the bigger fish out there?  Private owners want to preserve a house, great.  If not, then they have no legal or moral obligation to do so.Report

    Reply
  6. TMR says:

    By the way “what put us on the map” was rail.  Literally.   So if we are going to be technical about it, let’s continue to make our desire for better mass transit (i.e., rail)  known to our elected officials. The more of that we do, and the less whining we do about any old building that is targeted for demolition, the better.Report

    Reply
  7. Roy says:

    I disagree with this article. If Atlanta wants to have some truly high density, walkable neighborhoods, then there are going to have to be some sacrifices. This is within a short walk of the Midtown MARTA station, and just one block away from Peachtree Street. Even your adaptive reuse example at 5th and Piedmont (5 townhouses) is not a high enough density to truly support public transit. 

    I agree with other commenters — save the Fox Theaters and the Terminal Stations. But we can afford to lose one single family home one block away from Peachtree Street, as long as it’s in the name of walkability and residential density that’s necessary to support our neighborhood businesses and transit system.Report

    Reply
  8. Joe says:

    Ok, sorry those houses on Juniper are really on their last leg.  If anyone has been into one of them you know they need MAJOR work.  Some of those houses went abandoned for almost a decade and the owner really did not care so they deteriorated.  They’ve been gutted for multi-family apartments which really did not help them.  They are just in really really bad shape.

    Also, these houses were built by a door to door salesman.  Not some renowned architect.  The sales guy would come by with a small model or catalog of the homes and the buyer would select out of them and it would be built for them.  Kinda like the McMansions everyone hates. The interiors of these houses almost look 100% identical to each other, maybe a slightly different window, or door layout. 

    In all honesty if these homes really needed protection it would have to been in the 1980’s-90’s when they were in better shape.  Since Midtown was sketchy the city just left them there to rot.  So it’s a bit too little too late. Let’s let progress go on.Report

    Reply
  9. JonAT says:

    Joe  This house was nowhere near “too far gone” and neither are a lot of the other surviving houses on Juniper.  Check out the Atlanta Daily World building, which not too long ago was declared unsalvageable (or the Trio Laundry Building) which now houses two beautiful apartments and a couple of businesses.  The vast majority of the buildings in America were not designed by any notable names, so that’s a pretty bad argument for demolition.  With that said, I think the benefit will outweigh the loss in this particular case.  2/3 of the building site was occupied by a parking lot and a terrible fortress office building  If anything could have been done to save this house it would have been moving it down the block next to the house at 5th Street.Report

    Reply
  10. Living the Dream says:

    Just think what Charleston, SC would look like if they took Atlanta’s lead…  The Battery would be a ton of mixed use, medium-high density development.Report

    Reply
  11. Midtown Res says:

    I am a lover and student of old houses and the home on Juniper made my heart
    sing; aesthetically, it represented a story-book era of home architecture
    that we will likely not see again. Unfortunately, the city in which it sat
    is not a fairytale, but more of a drunken text; it was born of little
    fore-thought and followed by meaningless second-guessing. It is why we have
    sprawl, congestion, and pollution, and why this home should have been taken
    down when its only photos were in black and white and replaced with what
    would now be a historic apartment building.
    True, “apartment” does not have the same romance as a stately Victorian with
    a veranda on which to sip mint julips, but our city has to move toward the
    walkability that comes with denser housing options, which one can only hope
    have some character, as our mass transit system and Georgia’s suburban
    mentality are billions of dollars and forty years behind what is needed to
    support a well-functioning city that is as far-spread as Atlanta.
    I hope that Atlanta will do more to preserve history where it is appropriate
    (e.g. the Rufus Rose House), as the old homes and buildings provide
    character and context, but that we recognize that these works of art do not
    hang on a wall, and need to function in a city that must evolve to better
    meet the needs of its citizens.Report

    Reply
  12. jpatrickdesigns says:

    @Joe  Your entry only reinforces the historical value of these homes…The fact that this, at one time, was how homes of this stature were designed, sold and purchased is of historical significance..  these buildings could,as they have in other cities, provide boutique shopping or up-scale dining experiences for the high-rises that currently exist on Peachtree.Report

    Reply
  13. RBVeal says:

    Very sad the house at 6th and Juniper could not be saved. It seems there was no pressure on the developers to save the house. The house was in great condition and could have been moved. That could have been a condition of approving the development but it was not. I realize it would have been expensive to move the house but it was possible. I just don’t think anyone really tried to save the house.Report

    Reply
  14. John Burger says:

    Preservationists in midtown have been trying to establish some kind of protection for historic buildings for more than a decade, to little avail. As the Georgia Trust notes, we have a very low bar for preservation in this city. Quite sad for a city with big ambitions.Report

    Reply

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