This House Must Die: Documenting a Decatur Teardown

The greenest building is … one that is already built – Carl Elefante, architect.

The house at 916 East Lake Drive in Decatur, Georgia, had to come down. It wasn’t structurally deficient. Nor was it an abandoned eyesore. The one-story home suffered from a malady sweeping through Decatur: it was too small. Once celebrated by architects and consumers, the American small house is an endangered species threatened by the impulse to tear them down and replace them with larger, “better” homes.

New construction looms over Oakhurst’s small houses. October 2011.

Teardowns definition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Teardowns Glossary.”

When an older house — old is not synonymous with historic — is demolished to make way for a new, larger home it becomes a teardown. Teardowns and McMansions of all shapes and sizes are common throughout Decatur and greater Atlanta. They are a nationwide problem because of the environmental impacts they create and because they can significantly alter the visual character and economic fabric of established neighborhoods.

916 East Lake Drive. October 17, 2011.

Built in 1943 or 1944, the 1,100-square-foot frame house was located in a 0.18-acre lot on the east side of East Lake Drive. It fit well in the Oakhurst neighborhood where it was built. The rectangular house was an ordinary mid-twentieth century small house. It was built on concrete block piers and had an interior brick chimney. Originally clad by wood drop siding, vinyl siding had been added in recent years. The roof appeared watertight and was clad by composition shingles.

916 East Lake Drive with the front porch and part of the front facade demolished. A two-person crew deconstructed the house using a Mustang track loader and bare hands. As parts of the house fell away during the eight hours it took to reduce the building to a pile of rubble, interior spaces once called home by multiple families were laid bare.

916 East Lake Drive with the front porch and part of the front facade demolished.

A two-person crew deconstructed the house using a Mustang track loader and bare hands. As parts of the house fell away during the eight hours it took to reduce the building to a pile of rubble, interior spaces once called home by multiple families were laid bare.

916 East Lake Drive. The loader had just knocked the firebox out from under the chimney.

The walls, roof, windows, and doors were broken up and dumped into four-ton capacity waste bins that were loaded onto trucks and hauled about seven miles to a landfill off of Moreland Avenue where they were dumped.

Empty 4-ton disposal bins are put in place at 916 East Lake Drive.

Most of the facade has been removed as the loader begins work on the rear of 916 East Lake Drive.

Owner and builder Mike Shivers estimated that there would be about seven bin loads or about 28 tons of debris removed. Metal – gutters, ducts, etc. – was plucked from the piles and set aside for recycling. Everything else, from the concrete block piers, brick firebox and chimney, hollow clay tile flues, window glass, wood framing and siding, vinyl siding, cabinets, even the window blinds, was bound for the landfill.

A pile of rubble is all that remained of 916 East Lake Drive 24 hours after demolition began.

In addition to the materials sent to the landfill, the carbon used to fuel the loader that demolished the building and to fuel the truck making round trips between the landfill and the site also created waste. Additional energy will be used to fabricate and transport materials for the new house that will rise at the site. No matter how energy-efficient the builders make the new house, there will be no way to recapture the embodied energy wasted in the construction, life, and demolition of the old house.

Pineview Homes, Inc., built the house that stood at 916 East Lake Drive. In early 1944 the company bought the block bounded by East Lake Drive, Spring Street, McKoy Street, and Underwood Street. The tract yielded 16 home sites shown in a plat filed in June 1944.

1944 Pineview Homes plat. Arrow points to 916 East Lake Drive. DeKalb County land records.

Most of the homes were one-story frame buildings. On May 25, 1945 Pineview sold several of the lots to J.M. McDonald and one year later the house at 916 East Lake was sold to Edward C. Young Jr. Young, a salesman who worked at Sears, lived there with his wife Ophelia until 1954.

The Youngs sold the home to Lila and Sherman Forrester. Forrester was a co-owner of the Forrester and Terry Service Station a few blocks away at 715 East Lake Drive.

Over the next three decades, the house was sold several times. The house was vacant several times in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Atlanta suburban directories. In disrepair and cited by the city by the late 1970s, the property ended up in the Decatur Housing Authority’s portfolio.

Shirley Huff, who in 1981 bought it from the city as an urban homesteader, owned the property until it entered foreclosure earlier this year. Shivers bought it at auction and is collaborating with Atlanta Intown Properties on building a new 2,000-square-foot home at the site.

916 East Lake Drive. Teardown site plan. City of Decatur.

According to Shivers, the new home will be a 1-1/2 story “bungalow.” Its footprint will cover 2,129 square feet and there will be a 400-square-foot garage.

916 East Lake Drive. Proposed new construction site plan. City of Decatur.

Shivers owns 4M Contracting. Until the 916 East Lake project, all of his Decatur work has involved renovations. His firm has done work in Decatur’s MAK Historic District and one project they completed at 120 Adams Street won a 2011 City of Decatur Design Award.

Shivers is sensitive to context and to the potential for out-of-scale construction at teardown sites.

“I don’t do foursquares,” he said as his contractors were demolishing 916 East Lake Drive. “I think a lot of the guys down here are doing the bigger houses, what I call a foursquare-type thing. But I was going to try to keep this one more traditional, bungalow style.”

With the 916 East Lake project, Shivers explained that he was trying to build a more modest house than some of the other teardown and infill projects found throughout Oakhurst. “We’re going to take this house down and put a bungalow-style house similar to one I did over on Adams Street,” Shivers explained. “Kind of like a story and a half.”

Stay tuned as we follow the new house as it rises at 916 East Lake Drive. In the meantime, you can see the old house deconstructed in this video.

Small older houses juxtaposed against a larger new home along Oakview Road in Oakhurst. October 2011.

© 2011 David S. Rotenstein. Originally posted at Dateline: Decatur.

2 thoughts on “This House Must Die: Documenting a Decatur Teardown

  1. Good job on the reporting. The picture youre showing as an example of a tear down/ new construction/ McMansion is actually a renovation that I designed. We diverted quite a bit of material from the landfill by using the original construction. Yes, we did transform the old, horrific example of bad post WWII design to something newer and more exciting. Not everyone likes old traditional homes with no overhangs or porch, nor does everyone like modern design. Too bad you didnt show the picture of what we renovated, because it wasnt quite as nice as the one being torn down in your other pictures.

    We are a diverse people with different ideas of beauty. Ive designed every kind of building youll find in Oakhurst from a small bathroom addition to new construction, from bungalow to Prairie. Its naive to think all of society can conform to anyones idea of a one size fits all solution. A single silver bullet for all. The armchair historians who lack experience in construction, Architecture, and Historic Preservation from a hands on perspective, simply dont understand what happens when a 100-70 year old building sustains weather, fire, termites, wear and tear for decades without proper maintenance. We must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that this community was economically depressed for several decades and in the 90s many of these wonderful bungalows were ravished by bad renovators who often had no permit or experience in building.

    Most of my work consists of renovating old bungalows and everyone Ive been inside has had major structural problems at very least. I doubt many of you have surveyed nearly 100 Oakhurst bungalows from the crawlspace to the rafters, nor do you know what rot or termite damage looks like at first glance. All of the builders I work with consider renovating first. Like a car, sometimes a building is just totaled even if it looks just fine from the sidewalk in the eyes of the passionately inexperienced. All it takes is an airbag going off and your car is shot, but a building requires quite a bit more damage before its done.

    The CItys zoning ordinances and engineering regulations benefit renovations, but the appraisals do not. The economics of construction is very complex, but to reassure those concerned about the old bungalows, most people are renovating what they have because selling is not an option. The Housing Crisis has created a new attitude in the builders and home owners. Mass production of cookie cutter homes is difficult in a slow economy. Builders are beginning to compete more with quality than quantity. Everyone is scaling back the size of their homes. I have one client who sized down all the rooms for his large family because they not only have several kids, but the mother is moving in as well. This is a new example of extended family living, but it does require a bigger house than what a single person needs. This seemingly monster house replaces two houses and future extended nursing home living for mom, while promoting family values that many Americans have lost. Consolidating two houses into one is greener than building/ operating two smaller houses with many duplicate items. Ive designed for two mommie families, single people, large families, unknown speculative buyers. Not one of you can predict or create a one size fits all solution or aesthetic for the largely diverse population in this tiny little City of Decatur. This area is mostly made of 2 bedroom 1 bath houses designed before most people had TVs or computers. Most of the Living Rooms have walls full of doors, windows, fireplaces, and circulation leaving nowhere to put the furniture in relation to the TV, etc. In order to save these buildings, they must be transformed. Many have endured too much abuse and cannot be saved from an economic perspective. Although some may appreciate bungalows only, some of the newer, unique houses are bringing attention to this area (like the example of a new (renovated) monster house in the picture above). Some people are very enthusiastic about that look and have moved specifically to Oakhurst from FL, Washington DC, and Illinois just to have one. Why cant we accept the fact that this is a melting pot and not everyone wants the same thing? Shouldnt we be designing houses that are representative of our time period and needs? What will people 50 years from now think of us if we dont build anything that is uniquely ours? Its always appropriate to try and save an old building first, but just because its over 50 years old, doesnt mean the building is automatically exempt from being a bad design in the first place. We have great examples of historic homes that must be preserved and we have some really bad examples that need to go. Trying to save every single existing house in Oakhurst or Decatur is not only economically impossible, but culturally stunting. If Congress has taught us anything, we cant be so polarized and absolutist about everything or nothing gets accomplished. Some situations are far too complex for single minded, single solution thinking.

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