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Preservation Guru Talks Losing Atlanta's History

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Seventh-generation Atlantan Boyd Coons, Executive Director of the Atlanta Preservation Center, waxes on saving the city's built environment

Atlanta isn't exactly a city known for preservation. In fact, many would say the city's alarmingly proficient at development through demolition.

Few know the drama of Atlanta preservation better than F. H. Boyd Coons, a seventh-generation Atlantan. In his 17th year as Executive Director of the Atlanta Preservation Center, Coons holds graduate degrees in Architectural History and Preservation from the University of Virginia.

The mission of the Atlanta Preservation Center is to promote the preservation of Atlanta's architecturally, historically, and culturally significant buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes through education and advocacy.

To better understand why the city often struggles with preserving its heritage, and learn what we can do to save what remains, Coons joined us for this week's segment of Field Note Fridays.

CURBED ATLANTA: Atlanta has a tumultuous history with preservation. Why do you think that is?

BOYD COONS: Even before its burning in 1864, Atlanta was a commercial city which conceived of itself as expanding and developmental. We have not outgrown this and matured to be the kind of city that also values history and a sense of context and place. The new generation rising in Atlanta gives us hope that this will change soon. If you look at what Millennials gravitate towards, it's not only a sense of place, but a sense of the authentic.

CURBED: Often, Atlanta considers "preservation" as saving a piece of a building versus the entire thing (example include the Crum and Forster Building, the Carnegie Education Pavilion, etc.). How do you view these efforts?

COONS: There are national standards for preservation that were rationally arrived at. They are codified in the Secretary’s Standards for Historic Preservation. "Façademy" is not an acceptable practice. On very rare occasions, such as the Dwoskins Building, we have said that the preservation of a façade alone would be acceptable; in this instance, the reason was that the façade had been designed separately from the building itself by one of our greatest architects, Phillip Shutze, and thus the façade was not integral to the concept of the entire composition. Despite this, that building was destroyed a number of years ago and is now a vacant lot. In the case of Crum & Forster, the entire building should have been preserved and, in my opinion, could have been incorporated into a well-conceived design for the entire block.

CURBED: Forty years ago there was no preservation movement in the city. But when the Fox Theatre was threatened with demolition, a grassroots effort galvanized the citizenry and led to the creation of the APC. What was different about the Fox Theatre that got peoples’ attention?

COONS: The proposal to demolish the Fox was a case of just going too far. The building was unique, was so recognizable, so much a part of people’s sense of a city, and having lost so many other major landmarks, such as the Terminal Station, Atlantans reacted in a very unexpected way.

This had also happened before around 60 years earlier at the demolition of the Leyden House, which was a great survivor of our antebellum past. Citizens were so outraged at the demolition that the developer had to react by salvaging the columns, which were relocated to a now endangered building on Peachtree Circle in Ansley Park.

What is often lost on people’s understanding of the preservation world is that it is not always the loss of a great gem that makes a difference. This is why we have historic districts. Very often what is significant is a collection of buildings which, while they may not have transcendent aesthetic significance individually, together they form an ensemble which creates a sense of place and a unique invocation of our historic past. It is these areas which are currently forming the catalyst for vital and unique redevelopment within the City.

CURBED: The transformation of the Fox was clearly a major success. Why did that effort not spark a new age of preservation in the city (two years later Atlanta lost the DeGives/Lowe’s Grand) if it was proven that saving buildings could be beneficial to the city and to property owners?

COONS: In my experience, Atlanta seems to view many phenomena as a checklist rather than as ideas which form a philosophy for the development of a great city. We're lucky that so many private individuals have been capable of implementing philosophies which are lacking in planning at the official level. It is not enough to have just one exponent of an idea, such as the Fox, if that idea does not inform and contribute to the culture of a community. Would an art museum have the same purpose if it were not part of a larger community in which art plays a vital role in people’s cultural lives?

Development here is often conceived of as an off-the-rack phenomena, wherein a single solution is imposed without consideration of the unique culture or context of the site. This is one of our major problems in Atlanta, from our point of view.

CURBED: Besides the Fox, what major success stories has the city had in preservation over the years?

COONS: There are quite a few. Easements Atlanta holds Historic Façade Easements on 40 buildings throughout the City. Many of these have been renovated and adaptively reused as hotels, restaurants, loft apartments and businesses. One of the great examples of a success story is Fulton Bag and Cotton, which not only revitalized the historic mill complex, but gave a new life to the Cabbagetown neighborhood and arguably, provided the nucleus for the redevelopment of Memorial Drive. Obviously, Ponce City Market and the Biltmore renovation years ago which, by its success, really allowed the transformation of Midtown to begin.

The cooperative revitalization of whole neighborhoods by dedicated residents in areas such as Inman Park, Grant Park, Druid Hills, West End, Castleberry Hill, and many others [has] been very successful. Projects such as the renovation and adaptive reuse of the historic Peters House, which was an advocacy project of ours for over seven years and for which stewardship and renovation was undertaken by SCAD, is a very important and contributive example. The recent revitalization of the Atlanta World Building by the Gene Kansas Group gave new life and purpose to a building to prevent the demolition of which we had fought one of our advocacy battles. The presence of this project on historic Auburn Avenue not only gives new life to this portion of the street, but reinforces the historic context of this internationally important historic district.

One of the greatest preservation projects to take place in this city is the restoration of the historic Goodrum House, which serves as the headquarters for the Tom Watson Brown Foundation. This very generous group not only provides the largest body of private scholarship funding in the state, but has given our city a textbook restoration of an exquisite example of the architecture of the great Philip Trammel Shutze, one of the premier Atlanta artists of the 20th Century.

CURBED: What buildings now are on the APC’s radar as the most important to preserve?

COONS: For a number of years, we have been very concerned about the area south of the Gulch. This contains some of our most important 19th Century and early 20th Century commercial buildings. It also contains the currently endangered Underground Atlanta area. A number of years ago the State Office of Historic Preservation did a survey of the area and determined that there were enough contributing buildings for it to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a district. There are many vacant lots within this area, and with intelligent planning, invoking sensitive infill, we think this could be one of the most wonderful, interesting areas in the City. It has walkability to MARTA, downtown amenities, and Georgia State.

If there are sufficient residential components included within the redevelopment, this would be an asset to all of downtown. We understand that currently the railroad buildings on the western edge of this district are in play for redevelopment. For years we have been interested in the marvelous Art Moderne Old Constitution Building, which the city owns and has been vacant for decades. We invoked 106 review to prevent the demolition of this building years ago and have been advocating for its rehabilitation ever since. This is just one of our areas of interest.

Others include many of the elements along the Beltline. If you visit our website you'll find any number of endangered buildings on our Endangered List. One that we are particularly worried about is the apartment building on Peachtree Circle in Ansley Park. This building is not only over 100 years old in and of itself, but it ornamented with the salvaged columns from the antebellum Leyden House and is thus a unique survivor in the city.

CURBED: Clearly Atlanta has very little in the way of legal protections for historic properties and the city often finds itself in a situation where demolition by neglect brings about the demise of a building (DAR, the Wilson House). What policies would you like to see put in place to offer more protections for historic buildings?

COONS: The city does in fact have an option for preservation, which is administered through the Atlanta Urban Design Commission, but this is elective and does not automatically protect the significant assets within the city. In fact, even when this is in place, as in a landmarked building such as Crum & Forster, we have seen that a building is not necessarily protected as one might expect it to be.

Listing on the National Register of Historic Places offers no actual protection except in cases where Federal money is to be used to degrade or destroy the national cultural asset. It would be wonderful to have a system which automatically protects the transcendent assets of our city’s history, and which at the same time would allow flexibility for adaptive use of those assets and would compensate the property owners for their stewardship with some sort of tax benefits.

The fear many preservationists have in the city is that any reworking of our present system might compromise protections that some neighborhoods have worked so hard to attain. It has seemed to me that often in Atlanta something will be packaged and labeled to suggest one usage when in fact it is serving a very different agenda.

We are fortunate to live in a state which has some very intelligent tax programs regarding preservation. There is the state investment tax credit, which returns 25 percent of investments to those who go through the program in rehabilitating a historic building. If the building can also be used for commercial purposes, there can be an additional 20 percent federal tax credit. Also, property taxes can be frozen for a period of time at the pre-renovation valuation. This program provides a limited period of protection for the renovated building. The protection that Easements Atlanta, Inc. offers is currently the highest level of protection in the city for a historic building. A historic façade easement taken on a historic building can result in a significant tax credit.

CURBED: Obviously, not all old buildings should be or need to be saved. Generally, what do you see as good criteria for preservation?

COONS: The criterion for National Register eligibility is a national standard and is the best benchmark.

CURBED: Finally, what are some of the places that you most love in Atlanta?

COONS: I am very fond of Peachtree Heights West, which is the area in which I live and which is the only neighborhood known to have been designed by the great American Beaux-Arts architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings.

The neighborhood was developed in the early 20th Century and has a very sensitive layout using the natural topography. The houses are sited to maximize the sense of open space and over 85 percent of the buildings were designed by notable architects for specific clients and for the specific sites on which they stand. While there has been some sensitive infill, the neighborhood is being degraded by tear-downs and speculative building. This is true for many of the most beautiful areas of Buckhead.

Fortunately, Atlanta has numerous talented architects who are capable of adapting these original buildings to meet the needs and expectations of modern life, so we are also seeing some very appropriate and sensitive alterations and infills as well. I suppose I love this area not only for its beauty, but also for its reassuring familiarity and the sense of intimacy that it holds within a large and rapidly changing city.

For these same reasons, I also have a special affection for historic Oakland Cemetery and for historic Westview Cemetery. My family has lived in Atlanta for seven generations and now when I want a sense of that continuity, I can find it in these two cemeteries. Oakland was founded in 1850 and you can see evidence of Atlanta’s history from some of our earliest times. Westview was founded in 1882 as a great rural cemetery, so it has a very different feeling, but it is also highly evocative of Atlanta’s past.

Naturally, I am also very fond of the Grant Mansion, where the Atlanta Preservation Center has its headquarters. Atlanta’s last official historian, Franklin Garrett, called this the most historic building in the city. It is the oldest documentable building remaining in Atlanta having been completed in the spring of 1856 for the railroad pioneer Colonel Lemuel P. Grant. It's the only place in the city where the public can get some sense of Atlanta’s antebellum domestic environment.

There are so many wonderful things in Atlanta; people discount us as a new city, but we have well over 150 years of built history to enjoy and it is available to those who seek it out and appreciate it.

During our Phoenix Flies Celebration in March, we try to showcase as many of these historic sites as possible and to make them available to the public view. Next year, in 2017, Phoenix Flies will be expanded to a full month because of the enormous participation we have from those who are good stewards in Atlanta who are willing to open their historic sites to the public.