Historic preservation? 'Atlanta doesn't get it'

Before and after images from the site of the Maddox House in Buckhead. The house was razed to make way for another house. Photos: Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation

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Before and after images from the site of the Maddox House in Buckhead. The house was razed to make way for another house. Photos: Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation

Experts say the city loses one historic building per week

Perhaps it shouldn’t be news anymore. The destruction of another old house, say preservationists, is the latest chapter in a narrative that began with flame and destruction more than 150 years ago.

Still, the realization that two aged houses have been demolished in a month was enough for those who love old structures to shake their heads. It is, they say, the Atlanta way.

In recent weeks the Wilson and Maddox houses have been flattened. The remains of the former, erected before the Civil War, were knocked down in January. About four weeks later, the Maddox house — a structural gem, designed by the famed Atlanta architect Phillip Shutze and built in 1937 — fell to heavy machinery.

Boyd Coons, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center, sighed. His family ties to Atlanta go back seven generations.

“I love this city,” said Coons, perhaps unnecessarily. “Atlanta has a native character, a native culture. Losing that … makes us like Anywhere USA.”

For more than a century, the Wilson house commanded a spot along a curve on Fairburn Road in southwest Atlanta. During the Civil War, Union officers bivouacked there; their horses clopped about on the ground floor while the men slept upstairs. Until January, it was one of three Atlanta antebellum houses still standing on the sites where they were built.

Its destruction may have been inevitable. Zoning officials declared the antebellum structure a menace, and engineers doubted it could be saved.

The Maddox house was a different story. Unlike the Wilson house, it was not a tottering ruin. A Colonial Revival structure, it turned tall windows to passersby on the 3600 block of Tuxedo Road in Buckhead.

It was an imposing thing, white with black shutters, a fanlight spread like peacock feathers over an arched Palladian window atop the front door. The spot it occupied is now empty. A larger house will rise on the tract.

Rarely do new homes fit seamlessly into older neighborhoods, Coons said. Almost invariably, they are larger and gaudier than those they replaced, he said.

“It’s not one size fits all,” he said. “It’s like someone walking into a party and shouting, ‘Look at me!’”

The owner of the property is Dallas Clement, chief financial officer of Cox Enterprises, which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Clement said he had hoped to update and live in the Shutze house but found the project untenable.

“After much consideration, I made the decision to build a new home on the property,” Clement said in an emailed statement. “This came after exploring several options and meeting with a number of groups. We hoped to renovate and modernize the existing house. Due to a number of items, such as previous alterations to the home, we decided that this was not the best route. We believe this is why it remained unsold on the market for several years.”

‘It’s an epidemic’

Blame the Yankees. When Union Gen. William Sherman came through town, he ordered numerous buildings put to the torch. History has shown that the blue army did not leave Atlanta a smoldering ruin, as some claim, but it may have set a precedent to shove aside anything standing in the way of progress.

With few exceptions — the Fox Theatre, saved from destruction, is perhaps the most shining example of preservation over progress — Atlanta's historic structures are not appreciated, said Mark McDonald. He's executive director of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, which compiles an annual list of the state's most imperiled properties. The inventory routinely includes Atlanta buildings.

In a recent interview, McDonald estimated that an average of one historic house a week is demolished somewhere in Atlanta to make way for something new.

“Builders are buying (older houses), scraping them off the lot and building houses three or four times larger” than neighboring houses, McDonald said. “It’s an epidemic.”

At least two factors drive the loss of old homes and buildings, said McDonald.

Foremost: The economy has shrugged off the 2008 recession. Developers again are buying smaller homes and putting up larger ones in leafy, established communities. When they acquire older homes, builders know it’s worth the cost to take down an aged structure and put a new one its place. Real estate agents call it “buying the dirt.”

Also: Many Atlanta neighborhoods aren't protected from demolition, despite their inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The federal recognition is an honorary distinction; it cannot turn aside a bulldozer. For that protection, an Atlanta community must be included in the city's historic preservation ordinance, on the books since 1989. Sixty properties and 18 districts — West End, Grant Park and Druid Hills, to name a few — are covered by the ordinance. They are under the purview of the Urban Design Commission, a no-nonsense collection of preservationists who take a dim view big yellow machines.

For a community to become listed as a local historic district, residents must vote on whether they want that protection. That’s no slam-dunk proposition. Consider West Peachtree Heights, where property rights became a hot issue when residents several years ago considered becoming a local historic district.

Preservation proponents said the ordinance would protect homes from getting bought and razed; opponents argued that the designation would hogtie property rights. Each side argued that its position would protect property values. Residents eventually turned it down — by one vote.

Belle Turner Lynch, a vocal proponent for getting her neighborhood listed as historic, still thinks about that lone vote. Her neighborhood, she noted, is listed on the national register. “But that does nothing to protect our old homes,” she said.

‘Incredible effect’ in Macon

The Historic Macon Foundation, founded in 1964, likes to revamp entire neighborhoods, one house at a time. The nonprofit organization buys houses and sometimes accepts dilapidated structures. “We take them however we can get them,” said Ethiel Garlington, the organization’s executive director. Crews fix a house, sell it, then put those profits into a fund to buy more houses. As those structures are improved and sold, the pot of cash grows. In time, the foundation moves on to another neighborhood. The process begins again.

Garlington realizes that Macon and Atlanta aren’t on equal footing. A tract in Midtown is likely to fetch more than a comparable lot close to downtown Macon.

Still, said Garlington, he has some numbers of which Macon can be proud.

Garlington figures the foundation has funded 150 projects in the past 30 years. It has also helped hundreds more property owners apply for state and federal tax credits that make owning a historic structure less onerous, he said.

The foundation estimates that the projects have generated more than $10 million in construction investment, created more than 2,000 jobs and enhanced the tax base by $9.5 million.

“It’s had an incredible effect on Macon,” said Garlington. “It’s really unfortunate that Atlanta doesn’t get it.”