Last weekend the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Decatur school board (City Schools of Decatur) is considering plans that would demolish Decatur High School’s distinctive modernist facade.
While most of the discussion in a local blog revolves around how poorly insulated and how unsightly the facade appears, a few folks have commented that it is a distinctive feature worthy of retention. No one yet, however, has noted that the Decatur High School was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2012 as a property that contributes to the Decatur Downtown Historic District. And what makes the high school building singularly significant? Its modernist facade. Because the high school was less than 50 years old when the National Register evaluation was made, it had to have exceptional significance. The facade is what makes it exceptional and, by extension, historic. Remove the facade and Decatur eliminates the school’s architectural significance and it becomes just another 20th century high school building.
True enough, the 1965 building designed by noted local architects Bothwell and Nash, designers of Decatur’s Sharian Rugs building and other notable local landmarks, isn’t the traditional and familiar brick facade of the old Decatur High School building it replaced. But architectural historians, historic preservationists, and ordinary citizens place a high value on the architecture and the architects who designed it.
In February 2011, when the National Register historic district nomination was completed, I interviewed Decatur historic preservation planner Regina Brewer about the district and the high school:
BREWER: Our Decatur High School is listed in this district and that was designed by Bothwell and Nash, which was a very famous Decatur firm and did lots of work in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. And it’s just a wonderful example of the International style and so that’s going to be recognized and put on the National Register as part of this district.
ROTENSTEIN: Is that older than 50 years?
BREWER: It was built in ’65 but because it has significance in the style of its architecture and its cutting edge given that this was a pretty sleepy little town back in ’65, it’s being considered contributing — and because it’s Bothwell and Nash, who as a very famous firm.
Despite its detractors, the modernist facade is nevertheless distinctive; it does create a sense of place in a corridor that underwent tremendous change in the 20th century (and which continues to change); and, it is a designated historic property. The historic district in which Decatur High School is located is a National Register Historic District with no local regulatory oversight and no National Historic Preservation Act compliance obligations unless federal funds or permits are required.
Like the redevelopment of the former Beacon and Trinity schools site, the City of Decatur may decide to forego outside (e.g., federal or state) financing for school improvements that would carry with it National Historic Preservation Act compliance and with that move saddle Decatur taxpayers with a higher cost burden. Or, the City could find a creative way to retain the historic facade, apply for tax credits and other preservation incentives, and involve the school’s students in developing and documenting a sustainable approach to change that teaches them about urban issues, land use, architecture, history, and the environment. Now that would be an investment worth making.
I wonder how much a sense of place is worth to Decatur’s residents?
A postscript: Ironically, the Decatur Downtown Historic District and the high school were the subject of my first freelance piece for the local AOL McBlog outlet back in February 2011.