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