Let’s do a better job preserving Atlanta’s past in 2017
By Maria Saporta
The coming of a new year heightens our sensitivity to the changes in our life and our city.
This year marked the last Peach Drop as we know it. Sadly, the rain and the cold dampened the final event held at Underground Atlanta before it is sold to WRS Realty in the near future.
The good news is that the historic structures in and around Underground will be preserved as new buildings are constructed as part of the new development.
But there are so many other landmarks in danger of being demolished during 2017 with Atlanta having a spotty record of preserving its most precious landmarks.
For example, on Jan. 2, change.org sent out a petition update from the Marietta Street Artery Association saying the Engineer’s Bookstore is still in jeopardy. Apparently, the new owner of the bookstore and some other property owners within the Means Street Landmark District want to declare that their buildings are “non-contributing” to the district – which would make them easier to demolish.
There are numerous other buildings with unknown fates.
There’s the State of Georgia’s proposed sale of Pullman Yards, and unfortunately, the state is not mandating that the historic buildings be preserved as part of the sale.
There’s the City of Atlanta-owned former Atlanta Constitution building – also known as a former Georgia Power building. It has been vacant so long that trees are growing out of the roof. Again, the city does not appear to be committed to saving the building when considering a possible redevelopment of the property.
On the Westside, there are so many historic buildings in danger that it will require a special focus to keep the historical integrity of the area intact.
The YMCA of Metro Atlanta is proposing tearing down Jordan Hall, the former E.A. Ware elementary School, which has been at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Maple Street since 1922.
The demolition will need to be approved by the City of Atlanta, but it is not known whether there will be any kind of protest to help save the building.
Just a couple of blocks west of Jordan Hall is Gaines Hall, one of the oldest structures in Atlanta which caught on fire in August 2015. Since then, the building has been fenced off. But so far, there’s no concrete plan on what will happen to it and how it will be preserved.
A bit further down MLK is the historic Paschal’s Motor Lodge, which is becoming a victim of demolition by neglect. There are many questions about what will happen to the restaurant space that was the breakfast and lunch meeting place of the Civil Rights movement as well as the hotel where the movement’s foot soldiers spent the night.
As investors and philanthropists look to improve the quality of life on the Westside, they should pledge to invest in the historic fabric of the community. The community remains one of Atlanta’s most defining and significant areas in our city.
It is one step to save a building from being demolished, and it’s a whole other step to making sure a building is preserved with a modern-day purpose.
So far, the Bell building on Georgia State University’s campus and the Trio Laundry building in the MLK Historic District are still standing, but their long-term future still has not been determined.
During this period of unprecedented development in Atlanta, we are destined to face more conflicts between preserving our past and building for our future.
What really needs to happen is a shift in our public and private mindset. A community that respects its history would view demolition as the option of last resort.
Every effort should be made to find solutions to save what we have so we can continue to have a frame of reference of where we’ve been.
All too often, Atlanta settles for preservation compromises – saving a façade of a building or just a section of it. While it’s better than saving nothing at all, it’s better to preserve an entire structure – such as the beautiful Fox Theatre.
One obvious example is the Crum & Forster building at 771 Spring St. In December, Georgia Tech broke ground on its new CODA, the 770,000 square foot expansion of Midtown’s Technology Square.
At the ground-breaking, Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson acknowledged our ongoing debate about preserving only a third of the building to make way for the new development. Peterson promised the university would make sure the remaining portion of the Crum & Forster building would become an asset – maybe even become an upscale restaurant or gathering spot.
This coming year will be an important one for Atlanta. We will be electing a new mayor, a host of new city council representatives and new school board representatives.
We need to be sure that we have elected officials who appreciate Atlanta’s past as much as its future.