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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

A Case for Preservation

May is Preservation Month! To kick it all off, I thought we should start with what was happening at a national level and here in Columbus that created the case for formalizing the historic preservation movement in the 1960s.


SOURCE: Historic Preservation in Columbus, Georgia. An Official Publication of the Columbus Area Bicentennial Committee. April 1976. The booklet was prepared for the Committee through the cooperative efforts of the Lower Chattahoochee Area Planning and Development Commission, the Columbus Museum of Arts and Crafts, and the Historic Columbus Foundation.

 

Columbus Street Scene, 1976. Razing houses and cutting trees.


Never before in our nation's history have the American people been so concerned, articulate and moved to take action about the plight of our decaying inner-cities and about the preservation of our historic buildings and monuments. While many interrelated forces combined to bring about the decay of our inner-cities and the destruction of our historic buildings, federal loan policies, a huge growth in population and a phenomenal increase in automobile ownership, were the primary forces in triggering the process of decay.

Uppermost among these forces, but seldom discussed, were the loan policies of the U. S. Government. Attractive FHA and VA loans made it possible for millions to build in the suburbs. Loans to maintain and improve houses in the older parts of the city received no government guarantees and were considered high risks by most lending institutions. This meant that loans for older houses were hard to get and, if granted, would require short terms and high interest rates. It became easy and fashionable to "sell out" and move to the suburbs.

The increase in automobile ownership made living in the suburbs become even more attractive. It was easy "to drive to work at eight and get away from it all again at five. " Soon the increase in automobiles placed tremendous pressures on city street systems, requiring that old streets be widened and that expressways be built. The widening of residential streets to carry more traffic, typically meant the loss of all street trees, increased noise levels, an increased danger to children, and a less desirable street on which to live, followed shortly, thereafter, by pressures to "rezone to commercial."


Martin J. Crawford House, c. 1835, stood at 209 Thirteenth Street.

Razed c. 1954 for automobile sales lot.


Routes for new expressways often took the shortest distance between two points with total disregard for the neighborhoods and historic areas through which they were routed. The automobile soon created a space problem in central business districts. Older buildings were ripped down, making way for additional parking spaces to help improve business. This process left ugly gaps between buildings, increased inconvenience and finally led to total disorganization of the district. Retail establishments quickly flocked to "convenient" shopping centers in the suburbs. Over the past thirty years, the function of the central business district has changed from the city's primary retail district to institutional-financial, and in many cases, the entertainment center. Characteristically, this district now lies surrounded by blocks of decaying real estate, which once had been the city's finest residential neighborhoods.

Typically, the process of neglect and decay of our historic neighborhoods began when the owner sold his inner-city home and moved to the suburbs. As more and more moved out and were generally replaced by lower income groups, who could less afford to borrow at high interest rates than the former owners, sales became less frequent and the former "owner occupied" property became "renter occupied" property. Disaster became imminent when the owner of inner-city housing first experienced a declining or even negative cash flow. Squeezed between increasing taxes, inflated costs and an inability to raise rents, the landlords reduced service and maintenance. The building deteriorated, and maintenance and services completely stopped. Unable to cope with such conditions, the tenants left.


Albert Gresham Redd House, built 1859, stood on Rose Hill near Hamilton Road.

Razed, c. 1955, for a parking lot and playground.


Looters could then strip salvageable materials from the vacant buildings and vandals accomplish their destruction. Eventually the owners would stop paying taxes, and the city would take title and board up the buildings, leaving them prey for derelicts and arsonists and a sure candidate for demolition. By this process everybody lost. The owner lost his equity, the city its revenue, the tenant his shelter and the people another historic structure.

In varying degrees, this process has been experienced by every moderate and major size city in the country, including our own city of Columbus. Today preservationists tend to spend more time trying to explain why a building should not be lost than why it should be saved! This is because the qualities which make old buildings important are oftentimes abstract. When we preserve and restore historic structures, we become more aware of the significance they held in their own time and are able to understand better our own time with the perspective afforded by knowledge of the past.


Broadway at Seventh Street, vacated, looted, vandalized, and burned.


In varying degrees, this process has been experienced by every moderate and major size city in the country, including our own city of Columbus. Today preservationists tend to spend more time trying to explain why a building should not be lost than why it should be saved! This is because the qualities which make old buildings important are oftentimes abstract. When we preserve and restore historic structures, we become more aware of the significance they held in their own time and are able to understand better our own time with the perspective afforded by knowledge of the past.


The Carnegie Library, Broadway and 15th Street., built in 1907. After several decades of being housed in temporary locations, the Columbus Public Library found a permanent home on “Mott’s Green” through a generous donation for $30,000 from the Carnegie Foundation. It was an early example of a public-private partnership; the city was to provide $3,000 annually for its upkeep. The Carnegie Library operated until Muscogee Manufacturing built Mill No. 7 in 1950 and totally surrounded the Library. During the development of the TSYS campus, parts of the Library were salvaged to become a part of the Mott House Plaza on the Riverwalk.


Historic structures may be divided into three broad categories of varying levels of significance and importance. Each of the three categories is usually preserved in a different way and for a different purpose.

Buildings or structures associated with personages in American history are generally treated as museums or monuments, in recognition of their illustrious former inhabitant's contribution to society.


Historic buildings or structures of unusual construction or outstanding design are most often treated as museums of architectural heritage, to preserve and display methods of construction, design, building materials and techniques of craftsmanship which are no longer being practiced.


The majority of historic buildings fall into the third category, "every day" or vernacular structures that were built by former generations, to house themselves, their business and institutions. Individually, these structures may be of little historic significance, but collectively they become very significant in that they give a community or city its identity. Preservation within this category offers the greatest opportunity to the preservationists and is usually accomplished through the technique of adaptive use, i.e., seeking a suitable new use for a structure originally designed for another purpose, or redesigning interior elements to present day requirements while preserving the exterior to retain the character of the building and the neighborhood.


Garrard-Tuggle-Averett House, 831 Broadway, c. 1847. William Waters Garrard constructed this single-story Greek Revival home. It was later acquired by Thomas Tuggle and the family would own the property until 1903. Eli Monroe Averett bought the property in 1904. E. M. Averett’s son, Charles C. Averett owned the home from 1921 until 1953 when the structure was demolished. The lot is currently used as a parking lot for the Columbus Marriott hotel, which occupies the old Empire Mill structure.


In practical terms, historic preservation is a way of adapting the old to the new. While preserving the integrity of an old structure, we add to it, making use of that which has already been built, and saving that which can innovatively be used again. On the eve of the United States' 200th anniversary, the country was shocked into discovering that its old beliefs in unlimited natural resources and energy are, in reality, myths. This discovery has done more to strengthen the preservationist's argument, "why the old should be saved," than anything else in recent years.

A preservationist can quickly affirm that it is naive to assume a historic structure has outlived its usefulness before considering new ways in which it can be adapted. Although the losses of historic structures in Columbus have been great, we must not lament what is gone, but apply our energies to preserve what remains. Fortunately, the city still has much of its architectural legacy left, and local preservation efforts have already performed exceptional feats. How successful these efforts will be in the future depends a great deal on the support Columbus citizens are willing to offer.


The Fontaine-Pennell House, c. 1879, was located on the northwest corner of Broadway and 7th Street, 703 Broadway. The structure was torn down in the 1960s to become home to the Fountain Court Apartments. The apartments were demolished in 1999 for Heritage Park. The property is now part of a larger revitalization project for Historic Columbus and the site will become residential once again.

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