Tearing Down History, Preservation (updated)

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


2011 City of Decatur Design Awards. Presentation excerpt posted at the 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 By the time Decatur architect Eric Rawlings’s design was completed, the earlier home had been replaced by a 2,300-square-foot two-story “Prairie Modern” home outfitted with all the latest gizmo green accoutrements available in 2008: geothermal heating and cooling,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.

601 Third Avenue, December 2011. Inset photo shows the property prior to the teardown. Inset credit: ecohomemagazine.com

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.

Oakhurst home with an anti-preservation yard sign. Photo by author, August 2011.

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.

Sanborn Map Company fire insurance map. Arrow points to 601 Third Avenue. Original volume on file at the DeKalb History Center.

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.

Grantee index, DeKalb County land records. Highlighted entry is the 1976 transfer of the foreclosed 601 Third Avenue property to HUD. The entire page is one of several showing the transfer of foreclosed South Decatur properties into the HUD 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.

Decatur’s Urban Homesteading Demonstration Project area. Filled parcels were urban homesteading properties.

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.

Ansley Street urban homesteading property, December 2011. Photo by author. Inset photo shows the teardown. Inset credit: Google Maps.

Fayetteville Road urban homesteading property after teardown and new home construction. Photo by author, December 2011.

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

11 thoughts on “Tearing Down History, Preservation (updated)

  1. Examples like these tend to support my growing belief that preservation organizations, from the local level all the way to the National Trust, have gotten so caught up in the so-called Green Movement that they are making decisions more on the basis of alleged sustainability than on historic preservation principles. As you point out, historic preservation principles are truly sustainable, but not necessarily “trendy” sustainable in today’s current Green/LEAD system.

    Preservationists need to stick with their core principles–and possibly just ditch these types of “new construction” awards as they tend to get too political anyway. Our core principles transcend such passing fads and are truly conservation-minded. If we throw them away to grab the latest politically inspired catch-word, we’ll end up losing our focus and our grass roots.

  2. As Eric pointed out, being 50 years old in itself doesn’t make a building important from either a historical or an aesthetic perspective. I believe strongly that historic preservation is an important tool but it is only one among several, including design review, lot coverage, environmental sustainability, etc. All should be leveraged appropriately to guide development in ways that preserve our community’s character and heritage but avoid stifling current and future growth, both cultural and economic. Personally, I think Decatur’s historic preservation mechanism has sometimes been used inappropriately, as a proxy for design review. I think each has a role, and we should provide for each and own their respective rationales.

    I also agree with those who point out we’re in danger of creating a monocultural housing inventory. Tear-downs are not categorically evil. The trick is being smart about what replaces them. Decatur is a great place for young families, but one thing that makes it so is the presence of other kinds of households–young singles, old and middle-aged singles, empty nesters. All of those folks are also important becasue they consume fewer City services than they pay for. To put it bluntly, we can’t keep the school system, much less the rest of the City infrastructure, up and running at the level of quality we’ve come to expect, without a bunch of childless taxpayers contributing. So IMO what we need to be careful about preserving is not every 50-year old timber and asbestos shingle, but a range of housing types including some that are affordable for young people and for retirees.

    • I agree Phyllis. The city needs to do more to be comprehensive in its growth and sustainability strategies. One piece of the puzzle is historic preservation — two words absent from the recent sustainability open house the city held. And, as I wrote in this post (and elsewhere), historic preservation is a lot more than just saving old buildings and creating museum pieces in neighborhoods where people need to live, work, and go to school. Design review, as you pointed out, is another piece of the puzzle. A well-crafted historic preservation program that is implemented well with a historic preservation commission that acts defensibly could be one approach in a system that lacks any other vehicle for ensuring that new construction is compatible with the neighborhood.

  3. The Historic Preservation Commission has several design awards for different project types. Why would they have a separate Historic Preservation Category if the other Categories were also about history? The Sustainability category doesn’t mean it’s historically sustainable. There’s a category for New Houses and New Commercial Buildings too. I won a Preservation Award from Decatur for my McGowan’s renovation, extending the use of an important historic building. The Scottish Rite buildings have reusability challenges due to the very specific and very awkward original configuration of a severely outdated hospital design from the early 1900s. A few simple and easy to reverse modifications allow the building to be more useful today and easily restored to it’s original form if deemed desirable in the future. This is what Historic Preservation is all about. We’re not supposed to be making historic copies and creating a fake history that never was. Renovations to historic Structures should be easily reversible and compatible, but clearly from their own time period. They should not confuse the original building with the new construction. Future historians should be able to distinguish the different additions and time periods.

    I have over 60 built projects in Oakhurst alone and only 8 are Prairie Style, only 22 are New Construction. I have about 40 renovations, many of which preserve the original building with a minor addition not even visible from the street. KC Boyce’s house is only 2100sf with 4 beds and hardly a McMansion by the actual definition. Susan Susanka, author of the Not So Big House, invented the term McMansion and would completely disagree with your interpretation of the definition. His 2 story house with low slope roof is barely taller than the houses near it with steeper roofs. The house on the left is sitting more than 6ft lower because of grade elevations. Scale does not mean height or floor area. It refers to the proportion and size of the pieces and parts that make up the structure. A simplistic two story cube is out of scale compared to a one story house made of smaller forms. A larger house made of the same sized pieces and parts is in Scale with a smaller house made of the same size pieces and parts. The Fayetteville house is 25ft tall, 10ft shorter than the Decatur Zoning limit of 35ft. The new mass produced, same floor plan houses typically push the height limit, while also being a giant simplistic shape made of only four sides with little scale relation to the surrounding houses. Where are those pictures?

    The Prairie Style was invented by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1890’s and was the first Modern Residential Style in the world. It was based on the same Arts & Crafts movement from England as our Bungalows. If it weren’t for FLW’s immense popularity, Greene and Greene would have never designed their famous Craftsman houses in 1905-09 that created the popularity that helped incite the mass building of Craftsman Bungalows, like those in Stickley’s magazine “The Craftsman” from that same period. The Prairie Style is integral to the story of the Arts & Crafts movement in America and how it influenced the Craftsman Bungalow. It is a compatible design language that adds to the diversity. If you’re building new, it should respond to your time period and needs. I don’t make replicas, I use a basic system of updated Prairie forms using common materials. This design language allows the building envelope to provide better passive solar performance, ventilation, and daylighting. It’s not just trying to be cute, it’s form provides function that describes the needs of today when pertaining to the reality of Sustainability. This is part of the history we will leave. Our buildings will describe the moment we tried to do something about our future challenges with the bed we made for ourselves as we abused Mother Nature. Future historians will see how people like KC, went out of their way to start a more responsible way of living. The superior envelope design is a major reason for the house’s efficiency.

    Not everyone is willing to cram 2 spouses and 3 children into a small 2 bedroom house that was most likely renovated illegally at one point and not even close to current Building Code. We have some big houses, paying big taxes, making big 5th Avenue Schools possible for your kids. It wasn’t that long ago when drug dealers and prostitutes had gun fights in the streets of notorious Oakhurst and people like me have helped to make this a safer, more desirable place for all of us. A place with many sized houses for our many sized families. Don’t shame people because they have more kids and need more space. Help them fit in with forms that sit low with low sloped roofs and horizontal lines. The Fayetteville House was designed for a wheelchair athlete who needed as much space on the lower level as possible. The existing house simply wouldn’t work for wheelchairs. Every entry door in that house is wheelchair accessible. This house was featured on “Renovation Nation” on the Planet Green Channel and so was KC Boyce’s (2 episodes). Both houses have received a lot of other attention like design awards, mentions in books and magazines. I understand that everyone can’t like the same kinds of things and that is why I design a large diversity of project styles, types, and sizes. It appears some people do like these houses and Oakhurst benefits from the media attention that Architects can bring.

    • Thank you for your response. Your comments only bolstered the strength of what I wrote in my post. The houses you mentioned in your comments are in fact McMansions that are out of scale and character with the Oakhurst neighborhood. The do not respect the historical setting — a historicity you vigorously denied existed during the 2007 effort to create a historic district — and they diminish the community’s distinctive architectural character and feeling. The HPC made a significant mistake by giving the Boyce home a design award. It not only rewarded a type of project that is inconsistent with historic preservation practice but it also provided you with a platform to make comments like these. Your faux Prairie homes do not reflect Decatur’s history and they draw from an architectural vocabulary that works well in other communities but they destroy the setting and feeling of a part of Decatur that for decades has been recognized as the wellspring of vernacular architectural forms and styles found throughout the rest of the city.

  4. Who tries to have a Design Award taken away from a person theyve never met? It still hasnt occurred to you that a separate Historic Preservation category means the other categories are NOT about historic preservation. I know its hard to imagine that the HPC would still administer the design awards if they added some new categories that have absolutely nothing to do with historic preservation, like Sustainability. What historic sustainability feature did you think we were supposed to be preserving, a 1910s solar panel?

    If people like me didnt create new Architecture, then people like you in the future would have nothing to study about our time period. New Construction is a reality, just like renovating, and preserving. If you were here in 1939, you would have told KCs builder that his original house design isnt compatible with the 1910s craftsmen. Sorry the neighborhood is depressed and this is all you could afford, but youll need to build a more ornate craftsman home instead of this different looking WWII era house. You obsess over these lesser examples of their time because they did get built and they are different and they represent a point in time and a significant need. Your obsession to prevent progress is not good job security for your profession. Just as we must preserve history, we must make it too by building new homes that speak of our specific needs to add to the historic fabric and become part of the timeline. KCs WWII house wasnt of the same character as the existing houses when it was first built and thats why its significant to the timeline. You just want a time capsule.

    Youre not going to achieve your desired results when consumed with such negativity while barking up the wrong tree. Youre just going to invite equally negative results. You dont have to like all of my houses, but Ive designed a little of everything that can be found here. You cant hate all of my work and say you love Oakhurst. According to MLS listings my houses typically sell for the most, they attract media attention, and win awards. The market, media, and City seem to like them just fine. Its OK to have your opinion, but its also OK for everyone else to have theirs too. You paint a picture of me as if Im some sort of monster and then go out of your way to try and harass the City for giving me awards that you clearly refuse to understand their purpose. Why does it matter that much to you? Behavior of this kind could be considered damaging to my business and intimidating to City Officials. I suggest you slow down and think about your next action of vigilante justice. War really isnt the answer.

    • I don’t recall writing that I wanted anyone’s award returned. Nor would I characterize my post as an attempt to harass and intimidate city officials or anyone else. It’s your prerogative to call whatever you wish “green” but I and other historic preservation and architecture professionals disagree with your characterization of the project described in this post. One leading architectural historian described the project in an email to me:

      Although the replacement house may have many green/sustainable features, all the things you note in your blog post keep it from being truly green. You have hauled away materials that have already been mined, logged, manufactured and transported to the site and put them in a landfill, never to be used again. You have created a house that almost certainly consumes more energy than the original just because of its size. You may have created a house whose very size makes is unsustainable in a future with every-increasing energy costs. Will we be able to afford to heat these larger homes in the future? To provide the water that the multiple bathrooms, sprinkler systems, etc. need? Pay for the electricity they use?

      In addition to all that, as you note, there are the costs to the community associated with construction—wear and tear on the roads from construction traffic, increased traffic generated by a larger home, increased use of utilities, increased demand for services.

      All this adds up to NOT GREEN, no matter what the builders and buyers would like to believe.

      Another wrote, “Ack! Poor little house! It was so cute and I didn’t realize it was even the same property.”

      Mr. Rawlings, you are entitled to your opinions as are I and my colleagues.

      • “Will we be able to afford to heat these larger homes in the future? To provide the water that the multiple bathrooms, sprinkler systems, etc. need? Pay for the electricity they use?”

        Actually, yes we will, and far better than any existing house. A well insulated modern construction with geothermal HVAC can easily attain a net energy use of zero with a small solar array.

        And with rain water collected to flush the toilets, it doesn’t matter how many bathrooms you have, you’re still using far less fresh water.

        Ironically, it will be increasing energy costs that make these modern houses cheaper to live in than older existing houses.

        • EJ,

          Thanks for commenting. Unfortunately, your scenario only works (possibly) if you ignore the previous house’s history and its embodied energy lost in the work undertaken to build what’s there now. All of the gizmo green in the house depends on all systems functioning efficiently throughout the life of the new building.

          There’s plenty of data to show that arguments like yours and those made by Eric Rawlings, et. al just don’t withstand close scrutiny. One well-researched source is a UK study titled New Tricks with Old Bricks: How re-using old buildings can cut carbon emissions.

          The Third Ave. house may have been due for some rehab work but keep in mind that it was fully rehabbed when it left HUD’s inventory and that rehab was done to standards above and beyond ordinary practice at the time. It was structurally sound and there was nothing, other than the owner’s desire for more space, preventing rehabilitation of the existing building and construction of an addition that was more compatible with the neighborhood context.

          • The UK study was an interesting read. However, I would hardly use it as a case study to show why what I said doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

            Ignoring the shear folly of using a sample size of six houses to make any meaningful determination about anything, there are a couple major issues –

            1 – The new houses used modern construction materials and techniques, but all were built to minimum code. No geo-thermal, no solar, no rainwater collection, no high SRI or IRI roofs, and no modern hyper-insulative materials.

            2 – None of the new builds followed any accepted guidelines for green building practices like BREEAM (UK LEED equivalent).

            3 – The new builds were all traditional designs. None of the new builds in this study used modern (or many would say ancient) design techniques to maximize passive solar heating and cooling, thermal massing, rainwater collection, or low-impact landscaping.

            In the end the only thing that matters to me is that our house will produce more energy each year than it uses, including all of our transportation by using the solar array to offset our EV charging. And because our rainwater cistern will flush all the toilets, wash the bikes and cars, and irrigate the native landscape, our water bill will be low enough to be paid for by the excess electricity we sell back to the grid.

            Net yearly utility bills: -$22.00

            That’s the kind of gizmo-green McMansion I can love.

  5. Wow. The previous rant is really disturbing. This is the level of discourse in Decatur now? Every local site where I read posts, someone cuts off the dialogue using hateful, inflammatory speech to knock down any opinion that doesn’t match their own. The painting I get is in these words: negativity, hate, monster, harass, intimidating, City Officials, vigilante justice and War. Who wants to add their 2 cents just to get slapped down by more anger? I think the poster has drafted his own picture, in vivid black and white.

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