The City of Decatur Historic Preservation Commission presents its annual Decatur Design Awards to recognize contributions made to retain the historic character of the City. – City of Decatur Website
What was the Decatur Historic Preservation Commission thinking? Earlier this year, the HPC gave a design award to a property owner and his architect for a type of project that is diametrically opposed to accepted historic preservation practice and theory.
The house at 601 Third Avenue in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood began its life as a modest 900-square-foot one-story frame vernacular building. By the time Decatur architect Eric Rawlings’s design was completed, the earlier home had been replaced by a 2,300-square-foot two-story “Prairie Modern” home outfitted with all the latest gizmo green accoutrements available in 2008: geothermal heating and cooling, structural insulated panels, rainwater collection, and compact fluorescent lighting.
City historic preservation planner Regina Brewer objected to my description of the project as a teardown. When asked in an email how the project contributed to retaining Decatur’s historic character, she replied, “The Decatur Historic Preservation Commission created a new category for the Decatur Design Awards in 2011 for Sustainable Design and Energy Efficiency.”
True, the new home is energy-efficient. But what about the embodied energy lost when the older home was scraped down to its foundation? Although the builder recycled materials onsite, there were carbon costs in that recycling that would not have been incurred had the existing building been retained.
And what about the project’s contribution to retaining Decatur’s historic character? Historically, there were no Prairie-style homes constructed in Decatur, especially not in a working class community like South Decatur. Setting aside the aesthetics of the design selected, the new building is incompatible with Decatur’s architectural heritage and the new building is out of scale with its neighbors, other frame vernacular and brick period revival buildings constructed in the interwar years.
If the HPC’s mission is to reward projects that contribute to retaining the city’s unique qualities that promote historic preservation, then it went seriously astray with this award. The new building no longer qualifies as “historic” as that term is defined in law and preservation practice. Instead, the new building is a McMansion. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, McMansions are “out-of-scale new homes on small parcels where they do not fit the existing character of a community.”
At the time the owners of 601 Third Avenue began their project to teardown and rebuild the house, South Decatur residents were embroiled in a contentious debate about creating a local historic district in Oakhurst, the neighborhood where Third Avenue is located. That effort became mired in personal attacks against the character of people of both sides of the issue and it split the entire city into two camps: one for preservation and one vehemently against. Nearly five years later, one home on East Lake Drive still has a yard sign created by historic preservation foes.
Opponents defeated the 2007 designation effort. Instead, a citywide historic properties survey was undertaken that documented a multiple potential historic districts, including one in Oakhurst. By the time that survey was completed in 2009, the 601 Third Avenue property had become a “Prairie Modern” house and surveyors categorized it as a noncontributing property in any potential local or National Register of Historic Places historic district. It lost the very qualities that the HPC is charged with protecting and promoting.
The current property owner, K.C. Boyce, explained in an interview that he opposed the 2007 historic preservation effort. “I understood the intent of it but generally I was opposed to it,” he said. “I wasn’t taking a strong stand but I just didn’t see a reason for it.” He added,
As best I could tell, the rationale for the historic district was to prevent the kind of shoddy, spec homes from going in and destroying the character of the neighborhood. And I think that there’s something to be said for doing that but it seemed like the historic district was a square peg, round hole kind of solution.
So what about the demolished home’s history? The property’s owner knew little about it. Boyce described it as a “Craftsman Bungalow” built in 1928. “I don’t recall anything unique about the house,” he said when asked about its history.
The property now known as 601 Third Avenue was carved out of larger Decatur landholdings consolidated in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1939, the property was bought by a Mrs. T.D. Dunn at auction for $806.00. Six months later Dunn sold it to J.R. Turner Jr. for $2,500. Fire insurance maps updated in the 1960s show the original home’s footprint.
Like more than 170 other South Decatur residential properties, 601 Third Avenue became distressed in the mid-1970s. After multiple citations by city officials for code violations, the property fell into foreclosure and landed in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s bulging portfolio.
Earlier this year I began researching the history of the local Urban Homesteading Demonstration Program project. Decatur was one of 23 cities participating in the urban homesteading program. Between 1976 and 1982, the city’s Housing Authority held lotteries and sold the homes to new buyers for one dollar. The new buyers were required to meet strict eligibility requirements and were bound to rehabilitate the homes using city-approved contractors and funds borrowed at reduced interest rates.
Because buildings – distressed residential properties – were at the program’s center, architecture is a key part of the larger study. Most of the urban homesteading properties are intact; about twenty continue to be owned by the original dollar house program participants. Several of the houses, however, have become teardowns like 601 Third Avenue. I documented the demolition of one of those homes in October and the new home at the site is almost finished. Curiously, in addition to the 601 Third Avenue property, two other urban homesteading properties have been torn down and turned into Rawlings “Prairie Modern” homes: one on Fayetteville Road and the other on Ansley Street.
As a historian who uses artifacts – buildings – to complement documentary research, the loss of primary data creates real problems for my urban homesteading study. Those buildings and how they relate visually and spatially to their settings are key to understanding a critical point in Decatur’s history.
The urban homesteading program is credited with stabilizing South Decatur and with creating the atmosphere that contributed to the entire city’s revitalization over the past two decades. The creation of an Oakhurst historic district would have stemmed the pace of teardowns and the construction of new McMansions. And, it would have helped preserve other elements of Decatur’s character: economic, ethnic, and age diversity.
As more buildings are torn down and new homes that are larger and out of scale and character with the community are built, the community’s historic character will continue to disappear. The places that made Decatur the city it is today will be irretrievably gone. Not only will Decatur look and feel significantly different without those buildings, it will forever lose tangible and authentic ties to the past. Ties that are not museum pieces or amusement parks but places where a diverse population lives and works.
But back to that 2011 HPC award for sustainability. Decatur’s HPC is still young and as the city gets accustomed to historic preservation, it’s bound to make some mistakes along the way. To date, the HPC has developed a remarkable track record by designating several local historic districts and working with property owners to get individual properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The HPC’s decision to give the award to a teardown is unfortunate and contrary to its mission. Rather than rewarding teardowns outside of historic districts, the HPC should focus its energy on recognizing good projects inside established historic districts. If architects, builders, and property owners outside of historic districts want recognition from the HPC, they should first ensure that their properties are recognized by the community as historic.
Update: Local blogger Nick Cavaliere (Decatur Metro), who has a Georgia State University master’s degree in historic preservation, wrote a 2010 post congratulating the Third Avenue property owners on receiving an award for their project. Apologies for omitting this reference in the original post. Check out the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s new report on sustainability,The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse (PDF; released January 24, 2012), that documents how teardowns can never be considered green.
© 2011 David S. Rotenstein