It’s time for Atlanta to demand design excellence – let’s save 20 Hilliard St.

By Maria Saporta

The hand-painted letters on the building says it all: “SAVE ME.”

Once again, Atlanta is at the precipice of losing an all-too-important historic building – this one at 20 Hilliard St, just a few steps south of Edgewood Avenue where the Atlanta Streetcar tracks line the corridor with a promise of better days ahead.

And yet, for some inexplicable and incomprehensible bureaucratic bungling, a significant contributing building to the national Martin Luther King Jr. Landmark district is on the verge of being demolished by the Atlanta Housing Authority.

20 Hilliard St.

20 Hilliard St.  (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Why? Why do we continue as a city to fall short over and over again from achieving excellence in our urban design? Why do we let our most precious assets – our prized possessions be treated like throwaway trash so we can have yet one more vacant piece of land?

Actually this is an open letter to the Atlanta Housing Authority.

When you bought the 20 Hilliard St. building in 2009, did you know it was in the King Historic District? As a responsible property owner, you should have known what you were buying.

 

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And as a government agency that should have been especially respectful of the amazing history along the Auburn Avenue and Edgewood Avenue corridors, why didn’t you do everything you could protect and preserve the building from being damaged by the elements?

Now, conveniently five years later after letting the building deteriorate by neglect, the Atlanta Housing Authority has asked for permission to demolish the building. It has received a permit from the City of Atlanta, bolstered by an inspection from the Bureau of Buildings, stating that the building is unsafe. The permit has even been signed off on by the Atlanta Urban Design Commission.

Well shame on all of you.

A view from the South = Edgewood Avenue is in the background

A view from the South = Edgewood Avenue is in the background

During all these years, who was there fighting for the historic district, fighting to save the 1910 building, looking for a way to permanently save 20 Hilliard St.

It is time we demand design excellence from the Atlanta Housing Authority, from the City of Atlanta’s Bureau of Buildings, from the Atlanta Urban Design Commission and from all the people in a position who can make a difference in how our city will ultimately look today, tomorrow and for years to come.

According to the preservation community and other published reports, several people contacted the Atlanta Housing Authority asking about buying 20 Hilliard St. so they could renovate the building and locate their business there. But none of their calls were returned.

Again, why did the AHA buy a historic structure if it was only going to let it rot and demolish it? Instead of being given a demolition permit, the Atlanta Housing Authority should be fined for failing to live up to its civic responsibility of maintaining a historic community treasure, and then it should be mandated to repair and restore the building to a pristine condition.

The front of the building also says: SAVE ME

The front of the building also says: SAVE ME

Okay, that is what would and should happen in a city that truly valued its historic buildings and its historic districts.

In such a city, Atlanta Housing Authority would not have been allowed to get away with demolishing 20 Hilliard St. The city’s Bureau of Buildings would not have had the final say. The Urban Design Commission would not have been a submissive agency, and it would have asked for time and expertise to find ways to save the building rather than going along to get along.

If we really want to become a world-class city, it’s time that we start acting like a world-class city (yes Matt Garbett). It’s time that we start demanding design excellence — in our built environment – especially when it comes to our few remaining, yet treasured, historic buildings.

Atlanta Daily World storefront with Gonzalo Borondo artwork (Courtesy of Gene Kansas)

Atlanta Daily World storefront with Gonzalo Borondo artwork (Courtesy of Gene Kansas)

We have seen how good it feels when it does happen. Remember when the Integral Group wanted to tear down the historic Atlanta Daily World building. The public was given an opportunity to intervene (unlike 20 Hilliard St.), and the 102-year-old building was saved.

Gene Kansas Commercial Real Estate bought the building, and Kansas is renovating the building into apartments with ground-level retail. One of the Living Wall artists – Gonzalo Borondo – just completed fabulous etchings in the windows of the building. Here is a link to Gene Kansas’ Sidewalk Radio episode about Auburn Avenue.

Living Walls popping up all over town have added to the color and excitement of our city, bringing another dimension to our daily lives.

Atlanta Daily World building - 2nd floor window art (Courtesy of Gene Kansas)

Atlanta Daily World building – 2nd floor window art (Courtesy of Gene Kansas)

Along the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail — a wonderful collection of photographs line “The Fence” — making the experience of walking or riding the corridor even more enjoyable.

And just this weekend, artists were beginning to install their latest works for fall showing of Art along the BeltLine, a twice-annual event and one that many of us would hope would leave us with more permanent art installations. Maybe we can vote on our favorites, and those could remain for good.

And then there are many design decisions where we have fallen short. The one that continues to pain me every time I drive by is what they’ve done and are doing with the former Spring Street Elementary School – now the Center for Puppetry Arts.

They have cut down all the beautiful trees that adorned the front of the attractive school so they can build a non-descript structure with no windows that will totally hide the school from the street – ignoring the urban context of the past and the fabric of the city.

And then there’s the fiasco with the truncated Crum & Forster building — where Georgia Tech cut off two-thirds of a most historic structure on Spring Street – making it resemble an amputated building in Midtown.

We as a city can do better. We as a city must do better.

We can start by saving 20 Hilliard St.

Art along the "The Fence" along the Eastside Trail of the Atlanta BeltLine (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Art along the “The Fence” along the Eastside Trail of the Atlanta BeltLine (Photos by Maria Saporta)

A close up of photos along "The Fence"

A close up of photos along “The Fence”

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.

19 replies
  1. Jessica says:

    Thank you.  I worked with Living Walls this year, and have become very involved in the situation regarding 20 Hilliard St.  It seems people are slow to take an interest in a situation that seems unrelated to them, but, as I’ve been saying the past couple of days, all you have to be is a member of the community to have an opinion.  I’m neither a preservationist nor an architect, but an art student at Georgia State University.
    If this building is demolished, and something cheap and useless thrown up in its place overnight, I hope I don’t hear a single complaint from anyone who didn’t try to do something to stop it.  Now is the time to have an opinion, not later when the only opinion there is to have is dissatisfaction.Report

    Reply
  2. susandeisenroth says:

    Very interesting points of hypocrisy here. A little bit of “Do as I say, not as I do” here. This will make it easy for those people living in historic districts to disobey the ordinances. Disappointing and certainly does not support those of us who believe in historic designations and ordinances.Report

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  3. Disgusted says:

    Maybe the City can convince Novare to build one of their cloned towers on this site. They are ruining the rest of the Atlanta skyline why not here? Who needs a historic building when you can have a soul-less, highrise monument with no architectural integrity?Report

    Reply
  4. 54pontiac says:

    Burroughston Broch It was a contributing building (meaning it fell within the age range and still exhibited the characteristics of its period) in a local historic district. You may be confusing it with a building on the National Register which is a federal designation. Local designations actually have more safeguards. However, it wasn’t enough to save this building.Report

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  5. Burroughston Broch says:

    54pontiac I was commenting on Maria’s statement, “Once again, Atlanta is at the precipice of losing an all-too-important historic building…”
    From what you posted, it is neither historic or important; instead, it’s just over 100 years old and is of that period’s style. Why the angst?Report

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  6. mariasaporta says:

    Burroughston Broch 54pontiac The Sweet Auburn area has some of Atlanta’s richest history as the economic capital for the African-American community for most of the 1900s. The Martin Luther King Jr. Landmark District has been designated to try to retain the special charm and character that existed in the community that helped birth the Civil Rights movement. As a contributing building in the district, 20 Hilliard St. is key to keeping the historic character of the area intact. The fact that this building survived the 1917 Atlanta fire makes it that much more special.  As we bring a streetcar to the front steps of the King historic district that’s part of the U.S. Park Service, it would be a shame to keep losing buildings that contribute to King district. If you look around the building, you would have to agree that the last thing we need is another empty tract of land or another surface parking lots.We need to bring a new generation of life to the historic buildings that remain standing.Report

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  7. Burroughston Broch says:

    mariasaporta Please respond to my original post – why is this building historic? If it were not in the Sweet Auburn area, would you be campaigning as hard?Report

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  8. Burroughston Broch says:

    kevinalynch The Borders medical practice opened in 1965, long after Sweet Auburn’s heyday, the Atlanta Daily World ( founded 1928) and Atlanta Life (founded 1905 and HQ built 1920).
    Once again, why is this building historic (see definitions in original post)? Or are you insisting any building is historic if it’s both old and once housed a black business?Report

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  9. Matt Garbett says:

    Burroughston Broch It’s such a bizarre thing. As if what must be justified is a reason to you that will convince you to find this building historic. What municipality makes decisions this way? The road in front of my house has potholes; but I walk and take transit. If the city came and sought unanimity and I stood up and said “What makes roads important?” would we delay the whole project for the waited with baited breath opinion of one man? No.

    You do not think it meets your criteria for historic. That’s fine. It’s “historic” because that’s what the law says, and if you want to change the law, let’s take votes, let’s lobby council. But the hubris that the obligation of preservation is to justify historic to you or any individual is absurd.Report

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  10. Burroughston Broch says:

    kevinalynch Please review the common definitions of “historic”:
    1. famous or important in http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/history, and 
    2. having great and lasting importance, and
    tell me how either is relevant to this building. Dr. Borders doesn’t practice in it, so obviously she doesn’t place great value in it.
    As to your citation, it is a preview of a 31 year old academic paper in which the author proposes “On the contrary, black progress in the 1960’s and 1970’s marks the onset of a new system of segregation.” What specifically do you find worthwhile and relevant in this paper? I am not going to pay $22 to download the entire paper.Report

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  11. Burroughston Broch says:

    Matt Garbett LOL. Since you mentioned “the law”, you must be familiar with it. How does “the law” define “historic”? Would a 100 year old privy in Sweet Auburn be classified as “historic”?
    If you and your fellow travelers really love this building, buy it with your money and restore it to your heart’s content. Just like the Atlanta Daily World building.
    As far as design excellence, the building wasn’t an example of design excellence in 1910 and is not one today. Of course, this is my opinion.Report

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  12. Sherry B says:

    Thanks for this wonderful article to save 20 Hilliard Street.  As an Atlanta native, I am excited that AHA is now looking into saving this landmark!!
    Sherry B.Report

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