For many small Georgia towns, the arrival of the railroad in the late 1800s put them on the map. If the train chugged through an already bustling downtown, the area got even busier. That was the case in 1871, when the railroad began running alongside Main Street in Suwanee.
By the latter part of the last decade, that contemporary mode of transportation - the car - pulled development closer to Buford Highway and farther from the tracks. Ten years ago along that major thoroughfare, the city built a swanky Town Center, with shops, restaurants, condos and greenspace for events and concerts. Old Town became a quaint corner with a handful of antique stores and a smattering of Victorian houses.
“When we talk about our downtown, we talk about it having a dual personality: the charming, quiet old town and the vibrant new center,” said Lynne DeWilde, Suwanee’s public information officer. “We’re working on building better connectivity between the two. That’s important because Old Town is still very popular; one of our most popular parks is on Main Street, as is the Gwinnett public library.”
City officials, recognizing that Old Town is just as integral as its contemporary sister-center, spent two years documenting and researching the area to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a distinction it earned a few months ago. The area encompasses about 67 acres and 40 structures, including several commercial properties that were the inspiration for pursing the national designation.
“Pierce’s Corner, considered to be about 1910, started it all,” said Adam Edge, Suwanee’s downtown and business development manager. “A company wanted to rehab the building and maintain its historic integrity, and they realized there were these opportunities for tax credits. If there was an opportunity to provide for investment and rehabilitation tax credits, then we thought, as a city, it was prudent to open up that economic development tool box to include anything that has historical value. It was the jumping-off point to attract investors.”
Though no company has yet to move into the red-brick Pierce’s, having the historic designation in the area may be a catalyst to attract interest from businesses, investors and homeowners as well. Along the district’s main streets - Stonecypher, Scales, Russell and Jackson - are structures that date back to the 1870s. One of the most eye-catching is the ornate, Victorian Rhodes house, built in 1880 as a home for teachers and later run as an inn for railroad passengers. It’s currently being transformed into a music school.
“Old Town really represents a railroad town that existed between the 1870s and 1950,” said Edge. “It’s an integral piece of what the community was - primarily agricultural - until the railway came, and Suwanee grew.”
Although Suwanee wasn’t officially chartered until 1949, the first settlement in the area was recorded in 1817. “That was the year a village showed up on the map,” said DeWilde. “But the railroad didn’t come until 1871.”
Having a National Register district doesn’t change anything for homeowners in the area, Edge points out.
“It comes with no obligations,” he said. “But if you’re looking to invest, there are certain things you need to follow to get the tax credits. So doing it was really giving another option to the homes and businesses located there.”
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