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An Exploration of Atlanta's Fondness for Facadism and Historical Salvage

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Much ado has been made of Georgia Tech’s plans to partially demolish the Crum & Forster building, but it doesn’t seem like the actual term for what they’re planning has entered the discussion. The f-word we’re talking about? Facadism. As you probably deduced, it’s the practice of retaining part of an older building (usually the front) while building behind or around it. Naturally, it’s not without its controversies. Does it create theme park cities? Is complete demolition preferable to reducing historic architecture to a pastiche wallpaper? Are buildings really only worth the face they present to the street? Although it hasn’t been very common in Atlanta (historically, we’ve preferred to throw away the baby with the bathwater), facadism and its close cousin, salvage, aren’t without precedent in our city.

Praxis 3, the architects of Rennaisance Walk, utilized the technique somewhat when introducing a new scale of building onto the historic thoroughfare. If you want to get technical about it they didn’t practice pure facadism as much as they built around a handful of antique storefronts. Had the recent controversy surrounding the Atlanta Daily World building ended in favor of the same developer, Integral, we might have seen a more classic example of facadectomy. Official renderings were never released, but Integral was clear in their goal of only saving the building’s frontal bits. When it comes to selective preservation, Atlanta’s been more fond of collecting architectural souvenirs as opposed to leaving things in situ.

Lest you think that Atlanta’s embarrasing track record with historic preservation is a post-WWII phenomenon, consider the columns on an unusually grand apartment building in Ansley Park at 149 Peachtree Circle. Before 1913, they graced the antebellum Leyden House that sat near the present site of 200 Peachtree (the old Macy’s building). Then there’s the pieces of the Equitable Building that can be found scattered around downtown. Our ponderous first skyscraper was designed by none other than pioneering Burnham and Root; in 1971 it came tumbling down, but not before some columns and other goodies were salvaged and placed in and near new buildings. Ever notice the wreath-bearing angels inside the Five Points MARTA Station? They and the rest of the storefront they grace came from a building that sat nearby and now form what may be the only attractive feature of that transit stop. The stately marble pieces of the Carnegie Library that was dismantled in the late ‘70s didn’t find another purpose until the Olympics, when they were reconfigured into the folly-like pavilion that sits at the southern junction of the Peachtrees.

Barring a minor miracle, it seems as though the Crum and Forster building will soon be losing its behind. No doubt the street facade is the most distinctive feature of its design, and the development of a mostly empty Midtown block is progress, but are we doing the past a disservice by picking and choosing its prettiest parts and trashing the rest?

· Review Panel Sides With Georgia Tech Foundation Concerning Crum & Forster [Midtown Patch]
· Facadism gone wild: a visit to Washington, D.C. [Markasaurus]
· Architecture & Design: Top 8 Facadist Renovations, from Melbourne to Bucharest [IB Traveler]