Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Sad Ballad of SB 346

Earlier this year, state representatives proposed SB 346 ~ a bill that would alter the definition of a "governmental action" in the Georgia Environmental Policy Act (or GEPA) to exclude transportation improvements that "do not exceed $100 million in costs" ~ this is virtually every project, by the way ~ on the basis that "such project[s] shall not constitute a proposed governmental action which may significantly adversely affect the quality of the environment and the requirements." 

As a preservation planner working for the state, this was clearly an absurd notion. First and foremost, this would eliminate any form of screening for historic and archaeological sites, including unmarked burials, on essentially every state-funded transportation project in Georgia. Second, how does the cost of a project ~ especially when it is absurdly high ~ have anything to do with its potential to adversely impact the environment ~ cultural or natural? It would also significantly reduce the opportunities for work in the private sector of cultural resource management in Georgia.  

Area archaeologists, including members of SEAC and the Society for Georgia Archaeology, mounted an effort against the bill resulting in an amendment to address concerns over cultural resources. That amendment states "that an environmental evaluation shall be considered in the decision-making process, consistent with paragraph (3) of Code Section 12-16-2 [this is from GEPA, it just states that ‘Environmental evaluations should be a part of the decision-making processes of the state’], when it is probable to expect significant adverse impact on historical sites or buildings and cultural resources.” This is problematic ~ I will get to why that is a little later...

SB 346 was passed this morning. Two representatives spoke in favor ~ including the chair of the House Natural Resources & Environment Committee, Lynn Smith. Paraphrasing Smith, she asked if it is true that this will not allow GDOT to "ignore" architectural or archaeological resources? She stumbled over those words a bit, so it is possible she may have only been referring to archaeological resources and misspoke about architecture. Another representative with concerns over coastal heritage, spoke of how “well-vetted” this bill has been.  

Representative Sam Watson, who introduced the bill today, described it as potentially shaving 6-8 months off the life of each project. To put this into perspective, a fast transportation project from proposal to construction may take three years. 22 nays were overwhelmed by 146 proponents. Georgia’s representatives have spoken and their words reflect the state of historic preservation in Georgia: uninformed and leaderless. 

There is little doubt that those who rose to speak of cultural resources in the House today had the best of intentions, but even they demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of the law they voted to circumvent. Smith’s question ~ if asked, genuinely unaware of the answer ~ demonstrated an unfounded confidence in the knowledge of Representatives Beach, Mullis, and Watson, about the GEPA process, transportation planning, in general, and how cultural resources currently are and would be accounted for in project planning. There was no follow-up ~ Watson confirmed that GDOT will not be able to “ignore” cultural resources and she accepted his assertion.

There was no deception here. The individual presenting the bill even stated that this was on the heels of HB 170 (the Tranportation Funding Act of 2015) ~ a bill providing an excess of a billion dollars of transportation funding through the state, which eliminates federal involvement on the majority of those projects, and thus, circumventing Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Section 106 is arguably the single most important piece of legislation in preservation planning. While it may be another toothless law, it defines and mandates preservation planning itself. In less than a year, the State of Georgia has effectively circumvented the National Historic Preservation Act, Section 4(f) of the US Department of Transportation Act (which has teeth), and GEPA. Our sole consolation is the promise of an undefined process to consider cultural resources.

Speaking of that process, let's revisit that amendment: it references a vague, very base-level statement, taken directly from GEPA, that cultural resources will be considered when a significant adverse impact is expected. It’s an empty concession; the process remains undefined and it is unclear who would define it. Also, who decides when a “significant adverse impact” is probable? Would it be a coalition between the cultural resource specialists at GDOT and the Historic Preservation Division, as it has been, or will this be decided by a coalition of project managers and engineers without the expertise to anticipate these sorts of impacts? 

As I strain to deny myself the cynicism that feels so natural in this moment, we must face the unsettling fact that this bill was proposed to circumvent a simplified environmental process ~ those of us who work with GEPA understand, there is very little you can strip away from it. It is simply hard to imagine many seats at that table for preservationists or archaeologists. SB 346 included no measures for accountability, no checks and balances between agencies to ensure quality compliance.

The sad reality is that maybe this bill was well-vetted, but not by the right people. We are fortunate that Georgia archaeologists championed this cause, because without their effort, there would have been no legal protection for resources in the path of a billion dollars in transportation improvements.  The common defense of this bill was that numerous other legislation in place would account for environmental impacts. With the exception of known cemeteries, the only law for cultural resources is GEPA. Once more, the proponents of this bill fail to recognize that the environment includes more than our natural resources; it includes the built environment, historic landscapes, and trace elements of past lives that exist beneath the soil. 

So, while a mystery process is better than no process at all, that small success should be tempered by the loss of the fairly simple and effective process that was already in place. The indeterminate "they" will now proceed to revise a law they don't understand with the express purpose of shaving 6-8 months off project delivery at GDOT, which is unlikely to happen regardless. The State of Georgia breathes new life into the old cliché of the blind-leading-the-blind

So, here we are. How do you feel about it? If you are reading this, you must have some stake in historic preservation; if you stuck with me this far, you must really, genuinely care. I have shrugged off too many frustrations of late. I am pissed and disheartened. 

I am pissed, because this is important. This is too flipping important to have been developed and vetted by persons who lack any experience whatsoever with environmental compliance for cultural resources. I am pissed that representatives, whose interest is in transportation, were able to easily and effectively circumvent environmental legislation that should not have been in their purview. Did anyone else notice that the bill refers to "historical sites" ~ historical?! It is 2016 and virtually every person I encounter on the street ~ in all corners of Georgia ~ still believes that the "National Registry of Historical Places" is actually a thing and that it prevents property owners from making any changes whatsoever to their homes. It is clear that education about historic preservation is needed at all levels in this state. 

I am disheartened because more and more I am beginning to see my passion and profession reduced to the misunderstood nuisance that naysayers have always claimed it to be, and I feel powerless to combat it; that state representatives are undermining laws that they lack the professional vocabulary to properly discuss; and that the collective constituency to which I belong lacks the influence or presence to even be recognized as anything more than an interest group on this matter. But more than anything else, I feel responsible, because I did not do more to fight it ~ in the two months it has been presented and, more importantly, in the years before it was even an idea. We couldn't win this fight, because it was lost before it began. There was no concept of a resistance to it ~ no concern over combative agencies, no fear of public outcry in the media, or the retaliation of angry voters. Our voice was limited to 22 nays. 

I have a young son, a stressful job, other interests and commitments, and personal issues like everyone else that affords little time and energy to be a leader on something that is so dear to my heart. I imagine you could cut and paste that last sentence and apply it to nearly every preservation professional I know in Georgia. This is an exhaustive effort. Atlanta preservationists have experienced some recent successes in being heard and combating passive efforts to demolish local landmarks. How can we ~ a sea of passionate part-timers ~ expand this to the state at large? The effort to remain good stewards in the face of SB 346 will be carried on by qualified professionals in the state, I assure you; but the question is, what do we do now that this fight is over? 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Off the Beaten Path in Worth County

Sometimes you stumble upon a little slice of heaven. That was the case yesterday, when I went to check out an abandoned bridge down in Worth County.

I didn't know the surrounding area would feel so magical. This gorgeous wetland was still and quiet, despite being not that far from the current highway alignment. Several egrets took flight as I approached.

The bridge was probably constructed during the 1920s. The highway, US 82, was realigned during the 1950s. The bridge can be seen on this 1940 State Highway Map:

By 1958, the new highway alignment was in place, as seen on this topo map:

If I had known what I would find, I would've packed a picnic lunch and stayed a while, instead of eating Krystal burgers in the car on the way there. I didn't expect to be so overtaken by this seemingly ordinary stretch of abandoned roadway. The place was a reminder that magic and transcendence are often found where you least expect them.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Grant Park School: Gone but (not?) Forgotten

In 2013, I wrote an article for BURNAWAY Magazine about the importance of preserving neighborhood schools, and what we lose when they're gone. I mentioned Grant Park School as one that was a casualty of interstate construction, but recently someone commented and said that's not quite accurate. The original Grant Park School was lost as I'd reported, this commenter said, but a later Grant Park School still stands as The Arts Exchange. So I went to check it out.

The Arts Exchange - confirmed as the former Grant Park School - is a Spanish Colonial Revival style building hiding in the shadow of I-20 at the end of Kalb Street, a remnant street that was once part of a connected street network in the Grant Park neighborhood. The Arts Exchange opened in 1985 and won an award from the Atlanta Urban Design Commission. Despite being in use today, the building is in a state of disrepair - so much so that when I approached, at first I thought it was abandoned. The cornerstone dates its construction to 1930, and it is indicated on the 1931-32 Sanborn Fire Insurance map as "New Grant Park School."

The original Grant Park School is also visible on the 1931-32 Sanborn map. It was a two-story brick building with a basement, built in 1903. Its location at Boulevard and Kalb Avenue is now in the middle of I-20, as I had mentioned in my BURNAWAY article.

Sanborn Map courtesy University of Georgia online collection.

A c. 1911 photo shows children on the steps of the Grant Park School. Its brick walls and stone foundation, with basement windows, are evident.

Photo courtesy Atlanta History Center.

The Arts Exchange is located adjacent to GlenCastle, better known to preservationists as the Atlanta Stockade. That building is currently boarded up and appears vacant - a surprise to me, since as far as I knew, it had been low-income housing operated by Charis Community Housing for a long time. Another investigation for another time, perhaps. However, on a hill beside the GlenCastle parking lot, I noticed a cornerstone dated 1903, listing members of the Atlanta Board of Education. Perhaps this is the cornerstone from the original Grant Park School. 

It's always sad to find remnants of historic buildings standing alone, as if the isolated piece apart from its whole could be expected to convey the story that the building itself once embodied. However, better to preserve remnants, I suppose, than for places to vanish without any indication that they ever existed. But as preservationists, we strive for more, and as a society, I hope we can do better. Schools, in particular, have the power to bring us together in a way few other building types can. They deserve to remain in use as living buildings, not as stone markers decorating empty parking lots.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Possum Poke in Worth County, Georgia

Rural Georgia certainly has no shortage of stories to tell. And sometimes those stories surprise you, like when you are minding your own business, driving down a highway in Worth County, and you stumble upon what appears to be a roadside park of WPA or CCC vintage. And when you get out to explore, you (how long can I keep up this writing-in-the-second-person narrative?) discover a monument that appears to be several decades younger than the surrounding site - and commemorates a former governor of Michigan.

Roadside park along US Highway 82 in Worth County

Although I have given it my best as far as internet research goes, I haven't been able to find any information on the old roadside park. However - and I mean this is the least-clickbait-sounding-way possible - what I did find is, arguably, even better.

Monument to Governor Chase Salmon Osborn

As it turns out, Chase Salmon Osborn, the former governor of Michigan to whom the above monument is dedicated, once had a winter retreat and hunting lodge in Worth County, just outside the small community of Poulan. The property, called Possum Poke, still exists, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

"Big Poke" at Possum Poke. (Photo credit: The Chase S. and Stellanova Osborn Home Page.)

From historical sources, Governor Osborn appears to be flamboyant and multi-faceted in the way only a late 19th/early 20th century politician could be. He made money in newspapers, timber, and iron ore, and after a decades-long political career, settled at his winter retreat in Georgia with his adopted daughter (also his secretary and "companion"), Stella Brunt. There the two of them spent a lot of time writing books - 17 in total, including A Tale of Possum Poke in Possum Lane - and in 1931, Miss Brunt changed her name to Stellanova. She and Osborn saw the light while at Possum Poke, and worked tirelessly for the creation of an Atlantic Union. That's right, they were secessionists. Governor Osborn is quoted thusly:
If ever the great masses of people in the world who are living under despots are organized under despotism, the self-governing peoples, who are in a hopeless minority, will be forced to unite for self-preservation.
Chase Salmon Osborn as a young man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia.)

Governor Osborn passed away at Possum Poke in 1949, but not before marrying Stellanova Brunt, his adopted daughter, two days before his death, in part to ensure that she would carry on his vision of an Atlantic Union. And carry it on she did, for another nearly 40 years until her death in the 1980s. In fact, Stellanova Osborn was instrumental in getting Possum Poke listed in the National Register, as the only remaining place specifically associated with Governor Chase Osborn and the Atlantic Union.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Tate Depot

Built in 1916, the former Louisville & Nashville Railroad depot in Tate exemplifies the rural combination depot form and style. The combination depot, serving both freight and passengers, is generally a 1 or 1 1/2 story tall, three-bay building with a freight room at one end, waiting rooms at the other end, and offices in between. A projecting bay on the track-side of the building houses the ticket office. Many of these depots had segregated waiting rooms. 

L&N 364 at Tate GA Sept 1966. Photo credit: George Lane, SSAVE. Some photo rights reserved; see this link at Creative Commons. For source photo, see this page at Flickr. Courtesy of RailGA.com
A through-the-window shot of the interior
Detail of freight room doors.

Often, railroads would hire an architect to produce a single depot design and these would be reproduced down the line. Though not exact replicas, several depots along the L&N line share similar features.

Ellijay Depot, c. 1912. Photo by Leamon Scott, courtesy of RailGA.com
Woodstock Depot, c. 1912. Courtesy of RailGA.com
Blue Ridge depot, c. 1906. Courtesy of RailGA.com

The Tate Depot remains noticeably intact, but has clearly suffered from neglect over the last couple decades. An approved $400,000 TEA grant from 2006 should be addressing this, but the project appears stalled. Of particular concern is the termite damage at the building's NE corner. An ill-thought alteration replaced a brick pier with a wood pier that is now home to a seriously overlooked termite colony - the sill plate is as soft as cardboard.

Termite damage on the Tate Depot

Monday, January 27, 2014

Buddy Candler's Briarcliff Manse in Disrepair

Briarcliff, the Georgian Revival mansion built for Asa Candler, Jr in 1920 sits vacant, and has for quite some time. The property was bought by Emory University in 1998 along with a dozen other buildings associated with the Georgia Mental Health Institute. The mansion in all of its decrepit misery is, astoundingly, located in historic Druid Hills, right here.

In 1910 Asa Candler, Jr, known to many as "Buddy", moved from Inman Park to a 42-acre farm in Druid Hills. He ran a commercial farming operation on the property that was lauded for its use of electric lights and fans to provide better conditions for the animals which reportedly increased yields.

In 1916, Buddy hired architects C.E. Frazier and Dan Boden to design his new home. Frazier must have been well known in Druid Hills at the time, having designed several large "English-American" houses that decade. Little is known about Boden. Buddy enlarged the mansion in 1925 with the three-story 'Music Hall' that included an incredibly large Aeolian organ, now owned by Wesleyan College in Macon.

"Abandoned Mansion" photography by Brian McGrath Davis

Perhaps the most distinguishing element to the mansion's history is the collection of exotic animals Candler kept on site. The collection included a Bengal tiger, four lions, a black leopard, a gorilla, baboons, and six elephants. Candler donated the entire menagerie of animals to what would later become the Grant Park Zoo.

The mansion also included two swimming pools, one open to the public for 25 cents per person. The pool had a neon-lit fountain and a concessionaire to buy Coca Cola and snacks.

In 1948, the Candlers sold the estate to the General Services Administration for use as a veterans hospital, which never materialized. Instead, the Georgian Clinic (later known as the DeKalb County Addiction Center) opened there as the first alcohol treatment facility in the state.

Today, the building is boarded up and only occasionally used for television and movie location filming. From Brian McGrath Davis' photographs and others, it is clear that the building is slowly rotting away.

It appears from Emory's 2005 master plan that they would like to demolish the 1950s-era Cross-shaped health building, its associated 'Bungalow' buildings, and the numerous pre-fab and utility buildings on the property and build housing for employees - though this plan does not seem to have any traction yet. The fate of Briarcliff is unknown, though, according to a PR piece on YouTube its too expensive to rehab and too expensive to tear down.

Sounds like Emory needs to initiate a capital campaign for this Architectural treasure...

Exterior of Asa Griggs Candler Jr.'s house (1922) on Briarcliff Road, Atlanta, Georgia, September 1953, courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library

Thanks for the tip on this sad story from an anonymous comment on this post.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

East Tennessee, Virginia, & Georgia Freight Depot

Architect Unknown

"The Peters Street Freight Depot was originally a 2-story structure with twin turrets in a modified Italianate Style. It was built to serve Atlanta's 'produce row," as well as other shipping needs of a growing city. Raley Brothers, Inc., Wholesale Grocers, have leased this building for the past sixty years, and have made extensive changes and repairs. 

The second story was removed in the late 1940s because the roof was badly deteriorated and the present tenant did not need the space. A new entrance was made in the side of the building because the railroad needed more space to accommodate automobile carriers. This change cut off access to the old rear entrance.

According to railroad records, the annual report for July 1, 1885 to June 30, 1886 shows an Atlanta freight house 50x400 feet contracted for; records for fiscal year ending June 30, 1887, show the new freight depot at Atlanta was completed. The depot was used by the railroad until about 1915. It was then leased for use as a pickle factory for a short time. Raley Brothers moved into the building in 1917-18, and has occupied
it continuously since that time."

What was left of the depot finally succumbed to a fire in 1992. Today the site is a dog park, and probably waiting to be redeveloped (into apartments no doubt). The blog Return to Atlanta posted about the building (and the Atlanta Historic Resources Workbook) and has a couple old birdseye view maps of the depot (check out that Mansard roof!). The rest of the blog is worth a look too, though the author doesn't appear to be actively posting anymore.