Decatur to adversely affect historic African American school (updated)

[Ed. note: Read the latest update documenting this property’s demolition, Separate and unequal: Preserving Jim Crow (July 2013)]

The City of Decatur, Georgia, is on a fast-track to redevelop a historic African American school site. Plans include demolition of parts of the former Beacon Elementary School and Trinity High School to make way for new public facilities.

An isolated historical marker outside the former African American school describes Decatur’s Beacon Community. Photo by author, February 2012.

The two equalization schools, relics of Jim Crow segregation, were closed after Decatur’s school system integrated. They are located in the northwest portion of the city’s historic African American community. The area underwent two phases of urban renewal — in 1940 and again in the 1960s — that wiped out all of Decatur’s historically black residential and business district.

The Beacon elementary school (1955) and Trinity High School (1956) were built to replace the Herring Street School. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Wilson.

Beacon and Trinity schools (upper right). Sanborn Map Company fire insurance map.

Earlier this year, the Decatur City Commission held a public work session with members of the City Schools of Decatur Board. At that meeting the elected officials were briefed on the development plans and on plans to offer the property to the schools as an administrative facility. “This is a done deal for us, except for the money,” said Decatur mayor Bill Floyd in the April 2012 work session.

The redevelopment is the final step in a process begun in 2010 with the completion of a Master Plan study paid for, in part, with a $10,000 Certified Local Government grant from the Georgia Historic Preservation Division, the state’s historic preservation office.

Beacon complex proposed site plan. Credit: City of Decatur Beacon School Complex Master Plan.

Principals in the master plan study were members of Decatur architecture firm Rutledge Alcock. Andrew Rutledge is the firm’s lead architect and he also serves as the chairman of the Decatur Historic Preservation Commission. Ordinarily, this might present some conflict of interest issues since the HPC oversees the designation of historic properties and their protection through a regulatory review process. But since the City is exempt from historic preservation regulatory review, it’s a non-issue, right?

Well not so fast. The school is undeniably a historic property. All it lacks is the official designation making it one. That designation could be an honorific federal designation, i.e., listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Or it could be a protective one, designation under the city’s historic preservation ordinance. Because Decatur is a Certified Local Government, its HPC serves in an advisory capacity in National Register nominations and other historic preservation activities, including that of consulting party in federal environmental review regulatory compliance. Oh, right, that wouldn’t happen because the Beacon complex a city-owned property and, well, you get the idea. In what appears to be anticipation of the redevelopment project, the historic property — and all of Decatur’s African American history — was omitted from the 2009 “comprehensive” citywide historic resources survey.

For whatever reasons, the fact that the entire school building and its grounds are historic — the last surviving, intact remnants of Decatur’s black cultural institutions — seems to be lost on Decatur’s elected and appointed officials. One commissioner in the April 2012 work session asked city manager Peggy Merriss, “Where’s the historical piece?” Merriss replied, “The gallery, museum, you come in, it’s right in there.”

The historical piece, folks, is the entire property, not just a small corner reserved as an afterthought to commemorate the community Decatur took thirty years to eliminate.

It seems to me that if the State of Georgia’s historic preservation office is going to invest in a community’s planning for the future use of a historic site, there ought to be a requirement that the grant recipient go through consultations with the office to ensure that the project is consistent with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. Because federal funds aren’t being used to redevelop the school site, the project is not subject to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

“View from Corner of Trinity Ave and Electric Ave.” Credit: City of Decatur Beacon School Complex Master Plan.

“Street View of Police Station & Courts Building looking up Trinity.” Credit: City of Decatur Beacon School Complex Master Plan.

“View of Courtyard and Arts Center Entrance.” Credit: City of Decatur Beacon School Complex Master Plan.

“View of Recreation Center from Courtyard.” Credit: City of Decatur Beacon School Complex Master Plan.

According to Assistant City Manager Lyn Menne, “No federal funds are being used on this project so there would be no Section 106 requirement.” As for the appearance of a conflict of interest hiring the city’s HPC chair to lead the design team, Menne replied in the same email, “The architectural firm was chosen through a competitive bid process.”

Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon expanded on Menne’s comments in a subsequent email:

We are not aware of any conflict of interest related to the participation of Mr. Rutledge’s firm in designing the project. The property is not located in a local historic district and no action is necessary by the City’s historic preservation commission to proceed with the work.  The City conducted an open and competitive process to select the design team for this project.  Twenty-one firms submitted proposals for the work and Rutledge Alcock Architects was judged by the City’s selection team to have taken the most comprehensive and responsive approach to achieving the City’s goals for the project.

In my humble opinion, the city’s plans to demolish parts of the school building and to construct a new plaza and building at the site’s west end would make the historic school buildings subordinate to the new construction. The loss of historic building fabric and the alteration of the property’s setting, feeling, and design would certainly be seen as an adverse effect if the project were being reviewed under Section 106. And if the city were to subject its own projects to the same standards to which it holds homeowners and business subject to compliance with the city’s historic preservation ordinance, the project as illustrated in the master plan designs, likely would not win approval.

Portion of Beacon complex slated for demolition under the City’s redevelopment plan.

Read more about Decatur’s Beacon community in the May 2012 issue of Reflections, the Georgia African American Historic Preservation Network (GAAHPN) newsletter published by the Georgia Historic Preservation Division.

UPDATES

July 8, 2013: Separate and unequal: Preserving Jim Crow (an update on the demolition of the Beacon complex)

July 2, 2012: Decatur City Commission voted unanimously to allocate $1.3 million for preparing construction documents. City expects to break ground in early 2013. Read the summary.

Update (August 2012): Read a related post on how the City of Decatur omitted this property and the African American community from its 2009 citywide historic resources survey.

Update (April 9, 2013): Demolition began:

Beacon-2013-04-09

Workers begin demolishing the building’s west wall. April 9, 2013.

A pile of rubble sits besides the former school's west wall. April 10, 2013.

A pile of rubble sits besides the former school’s west wall. April 10, 2013.

April 30, 2013.

April 30, 2013.

From MARTA. May 1, 2013.

From MARTA. May 1, 2013.

beacon-2013-05-17

© 2012-2013 D.S. Rotenstein

 

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