Ben Schmidt, an intern with the Atlanta Preservation Center, presents the "Atlanta Public Schools Historic Inventory" to APS officials May 10. (Photo by APC.)

Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has turned an embarrassing demolition debate into a long-term historic preservation system that other government agencies would be wise to imitate.

A year after controversially proposing the demolition of Lakewood Elementary School, APS has partnered with one of the main critics of that idea — the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC) – on an inventory of the district’s historic properties and a rubric for scoring which to save and how. Expected to be adopted as part of a strategic plan update later this year, the inventory could be a precedent for other government agencies to follow.

The “Atlanta Public Schools Historic Inventory” also gets APS back on track as a district known for seeing shuttered schools renovated in acclaimed preservation projects, which made the Lakewood decision all the more puzzling. Stan Sugarman, the developer who led the highly praised transformation of the former Adair Elementary into Academy Lofts, calls the inventory “great news.”

“APS is an important owner of historically important buildings,” said Sugarman. “They reflect the demographic and societal changes that have been shaping Atlanta for 100-plus years. [The inventory] is an important first step in developing a vision for these buildings as they no longer fit APS needs to become community centers in new ways, whether commercial hubs or residential units.”

A slide from the APC’s APS Historic Inventory PowerPoint presentation showing the significance of the shuttered Venetian Hills Elementary School.

The inventory was put together by Ben Schmidt, a Georgia State University (GSU) grad student interning at APC, whose research uncovered such gems as Lakewood Elementary’s ties to one of the most significant labor-union strikes in U.S. history. He presented it to APS officials on May 10. He said situations like the Lakewood demolition proposal partly involve questions of equity, as APS was quicker to seek teardowns in parts of town where the real estate market was not as hot — typically meaning majority-Black neighborhoods with shrinking populations.

“I think showing that these neighborhoods, these schools, have a significant history can help get people interested in those areas and hopefully work to fix these schools, renovate them, and kind of help them get back on their feet or help the locals to kind of stick with it,” Schmidt said. “So many people are leaving… I think that instilling a sense of pride in the community and instilling the sense of history, of knowledge, … [can] help people stand up a little bit straighter in those areas.” 

APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell said his organization is “fortunate to work with the Atlanta Public Schools facilities division to really discuss how to work directly with planners, architects, developers and businesses to find innovative ways to make the most of these schools… The wisdom to take good advice never ceases, and I am emboldened to see public schools leading the charge for enlightenment and inclusion.”

APS did not respond to a comment request, but Schmidt describes it as far more than a passive recipient of an APC project. He said APS facilities department staff members asked for a quantitative scoring system that could adapt to future changes and integrate with the district’s master plan. And, he said, APS’s Center for Equity and Social Justice team has been collecting oral histories from residents in some of the neighborhoods around historic schools. “So hopefully that can become part of this project,” he said.

Schmidt is set to graduate from GSU’s Heritage Preservation program next month with a master’s in public history. He also works at Roswell’s Computer Museum of America. At APC, he took on the rapidly expanding APS inventory project. 

As a basic matter, that meant making a list of all current and former school buildings APS still owns — 92 at last count. He started with the list of properties APS already marked for demolition or sale. A bigger challenge was that APS wanted something more analytical as well.

“They’re very quantitative in their approach… They wanted a way to prioritize things at a glance,” said Schmidt. That meant he had to come up with an answer to “how do you quantify something as subjective as history? …At what point does something move from not historic to historic?”

His answer was a scoring system that gives weighted values to some classic attributes in such systems as the National Register of Historic Places — age, cultural significance and architectural significance. The size of the building is a bonus, too. Scoring was done for every building more than 40 years old. The rule-of-thumb age for potential historic status is 50 years, so the idea is that the scoring system will be a decade ahead of the game.

Buildings are then ranked in “tiers” of significance based on their scores. “High significance” is the highest rank, meaning buildings that have stand-alone historic value and might be eligible for National Register placement. Tier 2 buildings might contribute to the overall neighborhood’s history without necessarily standing on their own. 

A map of school buildings on the APS Historic Inventory as shown in their rank of significance.

The inventory comes with policy recommendations, including different treatments for different tiers. For example, it suggests that “ideally” APS would never demolish a Tier 1 building and never without “documentation and community feedback” that includes discussion of its historical significance. Other recommendations speak to such issues as the protection of buildings while they remain vacant and informing buyers of surplus properties about preservation opportunities and funding sources. 

Of course, to make those scores, Schmidt had to plunge down rabbit holes of school history. That involved much digging through archives of APS and such other institutions as the Auburn Avenue Research Library, Atlanta University Center, GSU and the Atlanta History Center. 

Venetian Hills Elementary — currently on APS’s demolition list — is among the structures pushed to the “high significance” tier by Schmidt’s research. The vacant, 1950s-era complex at 1910 Venetian Drive in Southwest Atlanta shares an architect with the Governor’s Mansion in Buckhead and the Yaarab Shrine Temple in Midtown. It also has connections to significant recent history — some flattering and some not. Among the school’s attendees was Natasha Tretheway, the former U.S. poet laureate and 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, whose first “book” was a bound compilation of her writing created by a third-grade teacher and placed in the school library. The school also played a role in the APS’s notorious 2009 test cheating scandal, with its principal among those convicted of charges relating to the changing of students’ answers. 

A variety of other schools made Tier 1. There’s the “incredibly important” Booker T. Washington High on the Westside, Atlanta’s first public high school for Black students, where Martin Luther King Jr. attended like many students still do today. There’s the charming, century-old little house at Peachtree Road and Peachtree Battle Avenue in Buckhead, a real estate office turned kindergarten and now something of a white elephant that is on APS’s surplus list. The inventory suggests it’s a candidate for the National Register.

Schmidt’s discovery of the union strike history at Lakewood brings things full circle in a story of a crisis spawning standards for public interest and posterity. It’s not the first time with APS’s historic properties. The Adair Elementary/Academy Lofts rehabilitation happened only after a long and messy battle over property ownership between the City and APS. A key point hammered at the time by then-Mayor Kasim Reed and then City Council member, now mayor, Andre Dickens was establishing a baseline for affordable housing units in projects using public land or resources. That’s a policy that could use improvement, but Academy Lofts indeed contains affordable units and earlier this month was the backdrop for a press conference where Dickens and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta announced hundreds of millions of dollars in affordable housing funding.

Proactive policies are typically better than reactive ones, and there’s reason to hope that another APS building will one day be the backdrop for another announcement about saving historic resources and bolstering communities. And there’s still more to do. Schmidt’s inventory is not yet complete. APC is retaining him as a contract researcher to continue that and other work after his graduation. And a longer-term vision is including APS’s non-school buildings and properties.

“This is the beginning,” said Mitchell.

Hopefully not just for APS, but many other government agencies, too.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.