Your history at stake

Survey takes stock of Atlanta's historic sites and buildings

In the 15 years since Atlanta last assessed its historic properties, a great deal has changed. The product of the 1987 survey, a publication titled Atlanta's Lasting Landmarks, is currently out-of-print and sorely out-of-date. The survey documented only a couple hundred buildings and just a handful of historic districts, but according to conservative estimates, those numbers easily could have doubled since then.As more citizens campaign for the protection of their historic neighborhoods and business districts, the need becomes clear for a more comprehensive survey that would examine the city as a whole and identify broad patterns of historical development. And so was born the Comprehensive Historic Resource Survey.

Begun in 2000, the project is organized by the Atlanta Urban Design Commission. Aided by a large advisory committee of local architects, historians, neighborhood leaders and other professionals, the group has followed recent initiatives in other American cities to develop guidelines for documentation. It will eventually consider a system for making the information available to the public.

Careful planning for the survey is crucial. A database is only as good as the information it contains, so the real task will be completing the documentation before the information is out of date.

A survey is a paradoxical beast. On one hand, like the notorious seven-year bachelor degree, a survey never wants to be completed and must continue as a "work in progress." On the other hand, the inventory data must be routinely synthesized. Practice has shown that attempting to piecemeal data from separate small-range surveys is not cost-effective for city planning and hinders "smart" development. Furthermore, a survey is a record of the city's history and as such should present as complete a picture as possible, otherwise it doesn't contribute to our understanding and recognition of the community as a whole.

Although a figure hasn't been offered by the Urban Design Commission, the number of historic designations on an Atlanta map would suggest that barely 13 percent of the city has been sufficiently surveyed to date. Currently, outlying neighborhoods in West End and southwest Atlanta have not been thoroughly researched, in addition to many other neighborhoods whose histories are being lost to redevelopment and shifting populations.

According to Doug Young, historic preservation planner for the Atlanta Urban Design Commission and project manager for the Comprehensive Historic Research Survey, a reconnaissance level survey will be a priority for previously unsurveyed areas. As Young says of this early stage, "We're in a dry fact-gathering mode."

Today, Atlantans have generally gotten the message concerning historic preservation. Most would agree, that, yes, it's a good thing the Fox Theatre wasn't razed. But not all historic buildings are exquisite movie palaces, just as all history is not necessarily "pretty." Surveys are susceptible to a certain sterilization of urban history, whether by neglecting poorer neighborhoods or omitting controversial events. For example, as the scope of historic significance reaches into the '50s, we see beginnings of the Civil Rights movement, but also the emergence of the city's now-burgeoning sex industry. During this time there is a growing community of underground gay establishments and, conversely, the reorganization of the Ku Klux Klan. To use Young's words, what happens when the facts concerning the history of buildings aren't so "dry?"

Fortunately, citizens in previous decades worked hard to retain the Cabbagetown and Martin Luther King Jr. historic districts. These were marginalized communities, and as such were more likely to have their histories lost rather than preserved. Through survey work, these environments were documented and paired to the historic events that took place there. Admittedly, a survey should not change its focus to uncover all the ghosts that haunt a building or site, but in light of the unique events and people that are invariably attached to places, the commitment to an unbiased assessment of Atlanta's historic resources cannot be overstressed. The status of historic architecture is not exclusive to the works of Atlanta's favorite boys Walter Downing, Neel Reid and Philip Shutze.

The Urban Design Commission is mandated by a 1989 city ordinance to compile this information, but whether the survey will live up to its "comprehensive" title remains to be seen. The 1987 survey identified an additional 85 buildings and 16 districts not recognized in the preceding roster, completed in 1981. Unfortunately, a number of buildings had been demolished since then, resulting in a net decrease in historic properties. This circumstance is inevitable, but with increased public awareness and involvement, at least the rate of senseless speculative demolition can be controlled. Amid these losses, I guess we could thank the developers at Stone Mountain, who just christened a brand-new historic district called The Crossroads. Transported from the 1870s (conveniently selected after the Civil War), this rural village has been brought to Atlanta, complete with "authentic" townsfolk who spend all day making candles and peanut brittle.

Isn't that history stuff great?

For information on the Urban Design Commission's Comprehensive Historic Resource Survey, visit www.ci.atlanta.ga.us/citydir/URBAN/Urban.htm.