The last three days have been a roller coaster for those who follow Modern Architecture and preservation — both in Atlanta and far beyond.
It all began Monday night, as affairs spilled into their eighth hour at the Atlanta City Council Meeting. Clarence Terrell "C. T." Martin — a councilman since 1990 and friend of former coucilmember and Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts — presented a referendum that many viewed as effectively supporting the demolition and replacement of the city’s Central Library, a controversial but important architectural work.
The line that caused the most consternation read, in part...
The wording fanned the flames of concern already swirling around the building’s fate. Designed by internationally renowned Modernist Marcel Breuer, the Central Library is his last work and is regarded by many as one of his best. Tensions have been steadily increasing over the last few years as proposals to replace the building have cropped up, only to be tamped down again.
All had been quiet on the Breuer front, until the resolution came out of nowhere, not even appearing on the agenda.
The resolution was read around 9 p.m. As Councilman Kwanza Hall would later characterize it, the councilmembers were (rightfully) "punch drunk from an eight-hour meeting." Nonetheless, Hall and at least one other councilmember recognized the potential implications the wording of the resolution would have and suggested the motion be sent to committee. Martin quickly dismissed the request, invoking social and class arguments that were not mentioned in the resolution, nor by any other councilmember; the resolution was rushed to a vote, passing 9-3.
While the word "demolition" is not used in the referendum, "new," "constructed," and "at its present location" would seem to indicate the replacement of the existing structure. Don't forget: 1) the existing building fills the entire block and 2) it's difficult for two buildings to concurrently occupy the same space.
Since the vote, a growing chorus of discontented Atlantans, supported by national groups that advocate for preservation and modernism, have condemned the vote.
Anger came to a head on Wednesday afternoon.
At 4 p.m., the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System Board of Trustees convened for their monthly meeting on the sixth floor of the Central Library.
As the room filled with concerned community members, the library's director Dr. Gabriel Morley scurried around bringing additional chairs. While the monthly meetings sometimes draw a half-dozen people, the more than 40 attendees that packed the room stunned the board.
At least two dozen people stood to make public comment, calling for the preservation of the building on the grounds of architectural merit, sustainability, and even economic responsibility.
Among those who stood to speak were two councilmembers: Kwanza Hall and C.T. Martin.
Hall echoed the sentiments of those community members who spoke before him, advocating for the preservation of the building in an effort to "do this right." He insisted that a sorely needed overhaul of the facility to bring "inclusion and equity" through adaptive-reuse could prove a win for the city and for the library board.
Martin shocked many in the room when he said, "I agree with everything I have heard here," as comment time wound down. He claimed the wording was not intended to insinuate that the council recommended the demolition of the building, and vowed that the final version of the referendum would include "correct" wording.
Also in attendance was former Atlanta City Council president and mayoral hopefully Cathy Woolard. She remarked that the turnout was heartening, and that this amount of support for a single building could truly mark "a watershed moment for preservation in this city." Indeed, the attention the building’s fate has garnered is encouraging for a city that often rallies little support for saving older buildings.
At the end of public comment, Paul Kaplan, Vice Chairman of the Board, expressed his appreciation for the turnout, acknowledging that there was "passion" among the attendees. Efforts would be even more powerful, he said, if the group were to "pack the house" at the next meeting of the Fulton County Commissioners, who ultimately will decide what becomes of the library situation.
By meeting's end, all parties had noted there was a shared desire to maintain the Central Library downtown, and tacit agreement that the Breuer building should be saved. Whether Councilman Martin's input was a move to placate, or a capitulation to the continued pressure, is unclear. What is clear: This saga isn't over.
Purposefully or not, the city council appears to have blundered, and the move stoked the flames among the community. This sort of uproar probably wouldn't have happened in yesteryear Atlanta.
It's important to note that the council holds no power in the decision to reinvent or demolish the building. The decision is at the sole discretion of the Fulton County Commissioners. However, the move added to the negative discourse and growing community resentment of what is continually appearing to be a secretive process.
Atlantans who value the Central Library will need to remain vigilant.