Subdividing history

Last week I testified at a Georgia House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee hearing on a bill that would amend the state’s historic preservation law. HB 802, described as an act “to allow for subdivision of historic property,” was introduced by Rep. Doug McKillip (R-115th Dist.) of Athens. If enacted, the amendment would allow property owners in locally-designated historic districts to bypass historic preservation commissions with proposals to subdivide their properties.

The bill has received little media attention in Georgia. One exception is an Athens Banner-Herald article published in January.

I was asked by DeKalb County preservationists to testify in opposition to the bill. I joined Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation CEO Mark McDonald and current and former Druid Hills Civic Association presidents Robert Benfield and Bruce McGregor.

Druid Hills, an iconic Atlanta suburb first designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s firm, is where the bill originated. Although sponsored by an Athens representative, the bill is being driven by Druid Hills property owners who have been trying to subdivide their historic lots. Unable to seek relief in the courts, the property owners and their attorney turned to the legislature. The only witness speaking in favor of the bill, besides its sponsor, was the property owner’s attorney, Linda Dunlavy of Decatur.

I testified to the importance of treating the entire historic district as a single historic property, not a loosely connected collection of historic (contributing) and non-historic (non-contributing) properties occupied by buildings. The bill’s proponents claim that the undeveloped lots are not historic because they lack buildings.

I used a musical analogy that I had deployed in hearings while serving on the Montgomery County, Maryland, Historic Preservation Commission in cases where property owners in historic districts like Chevy Chase and Kensington wanted to subdivide their properties. I compared the cultural landscape to a song. In music, the notes are held together by the breaks, silence. Without these breaks, the songs would fall apart. The same is true for historic residential suburbs and other cultural landscapes: if you remove the voids, the open spaces, the whole would disintegrate.

The evolution of subdvisions and architecture in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Fortunately, I have worked in many historic residential suburbs. I am keenly aware of their development patterns and I have successfully articulated why the historic platting patterns are important and contribute to the overall significance of the historic districts. Druid Hills, in fact, was one of the first historic residential subdivisions I had an opportunity to study as an undergraduate at Georgia State University and as a historic preservation professional working for the Georgia Department of Transportation in the 1980s.

More recently, I was lucky enough to do a small project that documented the history of a residential property in Druid Hills. The property had been owned by the Candler family, the leading capitalists behind the Coca Cola Company and the majority owners of the Druid Hills Corporation, the company that developed Druid Hills for much of the twentieth century.

The Candler property I dealt with was owned by Walter T. Candler (1885-1967). In 1914 Candler bought the first of two tracts from Druid Hills in an irregular area straddling Peavine Creek between Oxford Road and North Decatur Road. This first tract was a small rectangular parcel west of the creek. Three years later, on January 25, 1917, Candler bought a larger tract that spanned the creek and filled in the entire area between Oxford Road and North Decatur Road. This c. 34-acre area in 1923 became the Lullwater Subdivision.

Lullwater subdivision plat. Original in the Candler Family Papers, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

Candler’s property acquired from Druid Hills was subject to standard restrictive covenants the company placed in all of its real estate transactions. Druid Hills restricted development to residential use only and each house had to cost greater than $7,500. In addition to standard setbacks and use restrictions, the deeds included a clause prohibiting further subdivision. In 1923, Druid Hills released Candler from the restriction prohibiting subdivision and he was then clear to begin selling lots in the Lullwater Subdivision.

According to the 1923 plat by G.W. Crusselle, Lullwater initially included two blocks laid out for residential development. The plat was revised in 1924 and again in 1926. The 1924 revision added the remainder of Candler’s property east of Peavine (Lullwater) Creek and laid out lots in a rectangular tract along the creek’s west side.

In 1924 Candler executed a bond to two lots to a new buyer. The new buyer had intended to subdivide the two lots creating three smaller lots fronting on Emory Road. This buyer did not buy the lots, however, yet the smaller parcels were created. A plat appended to a March 1926 instrument shows the reconfigured lots.Candler’s Lullwater Subdivision filled quickly with new homes. In 1925, according to an Atlanta city directory, there were only three homes on Emory Road. By 1930 there were more than sixty homes on the street.

The Candler case is instructive because it underscores the importance of historic land development patterns memorialized in historic subdivision plats. It also shows how subdividers captured their visions for their developments in restrictive covenants that acted as land use controls in a period before zoning and master plans.

Consider, for a moment, the two possible configurations of the corner lots Walter Candler wanted to subdivide in the 1920s. One would have created three lots fronting on Emory Road while a second would have created three lots fronting on Oxford Road and one fronting Emory Road. Those lot configurations determined the orientation and placement of the buildings that ultimately were built.

Candler property re-subdivision alternative. Candler Family Papers, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

Candler property re-subdivision plat. DeKalb County land records.

I testified in the hearing that historic preservation commissions are best equipped to evaluate the appropriateness of subdivisions in historic districts like Druid Hills because they take into account all of the factors that I described above. They take into account the tout ensemble, the entire scene, including the historic context in which the open spaces developed to make decisions about whether later subdivision is in the public interest.

By excluding locally appointed expert bodies like historic preservation commissions from the decision-making process involving subdivisions in historic districts, the amendment would decouple the landscapes and buildings in historic districts. It would be contrary to all accepted historic preservation practice and theory and would diminish the integrity of locally designated historic districts throughout Georgia.

The subcommittee took its testimony and did not vote on the bill. Another hearing may be held to evaluate a revised bill and a vote may be taken to send the bill to the full House. I will update this post when additional information becomes available.

© 2012 D.S. Rotenstein

One thought on “Subdividing history

  1. I generally agree that random resubdivision is a bad idea. With that having been said, the most-loved places around the world as we know them today were almost all products of many resubdivisions over the centuries. Beacon Hill in Boston, for example, began as a hamlet composed primarily of family farms. And the World Heritage Site that is Pienza, Italy, began 2,000 years ago as a Roman subdivision of 1-acre lots.

    The problem is this: our track record of resubdivision with a holistic view of the place in recent years is abysmal. And the end product of resubdivision is something dramatically different from the place as we now know it. So it’s easy to understand the opposition… without a coherent and holistic mechanism, I’m opposed as well.

    That’s why I came up with something a few years ago known as the Sky Method. Please have a look at it here:

    If this stirs up enough interest, I’ll blog a response… after I do the post promised earlier, of course!

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