To many, the idea of historic preservation in Atlanta is a contradiction. First, even an introductory knowledge of the Civil War includes William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, which was epitomized by the decimation of the city of Atlanta. Secondly, it is a city fueled by the concept of demolition and development as unequivocal signs of progress. Ergo, according to F.H. Boyd Coons, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC), people repeatedly ask him, “How can there be historic preservation in Atlanta? Didn’t Sherman burn it all?” He answers in the negative, but the question remains: in what quantity and of what quality do historic structures exist in Atlanta?
The APC endeavors to answer that question with their annual community outreach program called Phoenix Flies. Founded in 2003 and named after Atlanta’s self-identified symbol, these preservationists curate a list of monuments and sites ranging in size from single statues to entire neighborhoods throughout the metro Atlanta area, and organize guided tours. The list for 2014 includes an impressive 230+ events at nearly one hundred locations. Ostensibly, the pride of the collection is the APC’s headquarters, the LP Grant Mansion near Grant Park. This bonafide antebellum residence dates from 1854-56 and functions as living proof that Sherman did not incinerate the entire city. When the APC acquired the property in the winter of 2001-12 it was in ruins, but after years of thoughtful restoration, the property demonstrates the potential transformative influence of history-minded Atlantans.
The fundamental criterion for inclusion in the Phoenix Flies program involves designation on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Founded in 1966 with the National Historic Preservation Act, the NRHP functions as the national organization dedicated to maintaining the country’s historic fabric. Coons believes this national recognition of significance coupled with local appreciation is integral to celebrating a historic monument or site. However, the NRHP uses 50 years as the de facto date for application, and as such, many resources just outside of that window face the harshest scrutiny. As Ruth Graham recounts in her article, “Can Buildings Be Too Young to Save?” the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Richard Howland wrote in 1957 that “everyone thinks that the architecture, decorative arts, costumes and similar products of their immediate predecessors are hideous.”
This quote exposes the dark side of contemporary historic preservation: everyone has their individual taste, which Tom Wolfe is quick to remind us is À chacun son goût, and which could be at odds with the taste of a subsequent generation. Thus, late modernism ironically now finds itself under that Fordian guillotine, and structures like the I.M. Pei Gulf Oil Building and some industrial complexes like the Goat Farm are just as threatened as older ones like the 7th Street Neel Reid apartments or Ivey and Crook’s Crum and Forster Building. A simple equation of relevance to a nationally ascribed notion of significance conceals more of Atlanta’s individual identity than it reveals. While Atlantans should support preservation of these sites, they also should visit those beyond the radar of the APC, such as Pullman Yards and Sweet Auburn, which are just as endangered, if not more so, remnants of Atlanta’s scant extant historical landscape. Residents have a daily opportunity to define the collective ethos, nature, and the character of their city, and Atlantans need to rise to that challenge.
Phoenix Flies runs through March 23. Click here for event information.
Nick Kahler is an intern architect at Lord Aeck Sargent, an independent artist recently commissioned for Art on the BeltLine, and a writer based in Atlanta.