DECATUR — I think it was just coincidence, but sometimes things happen for a reason. The same day I joined a walking tour of historic downtown Decatur, I saw reports of the recent row over proposed renovations to a historic building in Albany.
According to news reports, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and Albany Technical College sought approval from the Albany Dougherty Historic Preservation Commission to turn the old Albany Middle School into a residential and learning center. The proposal was rejected.
The plan was to preserve the building’s original facade, which is directly across the street from Phoebe’s main hospital, but demolish most of the building. The first floor would be home to Albany Tech’s nursing program, which would include classrooms, a career education health center, meeting rooms, a library/information center, and other amenities. Eighty apartments would be built on the second and third floors to offer students affordable housing.
This would nearly double the size of the old school building at a cost of about $40 million. I can well imagine this not only being an asset to the community, but also as part of a tour of Albany’s historic properties. The whole affair seemed to contradict Decatur’s approach to historic properties.
The Decatur Architecture Walking Tour we participated in was conducted by the Dekalb History Center and gave me a new perspective on how to celebrate the history of a community. We explored the floor plans, house types and architectural styles of some of Decatur’s historic gems and hidden treasures. The buildings ranged from private residences to public buildings, from mansions to one-room cabins, and from 19th century Victorian to modern Brutalist.
The tour started and ended with churches. The first was the Decatur Presbyterian Church, a historic cornerstone of the city of Decatur that was founded in 1825. Although the current building was built in the 1950s, it is listed as a “contributing property” in Decatur’s old historic district because it helps tell the story.
The tour ended with the Romanesque structure that was once Decatur First United Methodist Church. Located on the corner of Sycamore Street and Commerce Avenue and known locally as the Stone Chapel, the granite building was begun in 1899 and expanded over the years. It is currently being converted into a law firm since the congregation moved to a larger sanctuary a few blocks away in the 1960s.
After starting the tour at Decatur Presbyterian Church, we moved half a block to Sycamore Street. As we stood in one place and looked around, we learned about the neoclassical design style of the Decatur Public Library, the international 1960s style of the Decatur Recreation Center, and the brutalist design of an office building across the street that was built in the 1970s.
Brutalist design is a term that comes from the French term for raw concrete, ‘beton brut’. We saw a Queen Anne-style house, a four-square-foot house with hints of the Prairie style, and an 1830 schoolhouse with a teacher’s residence.
I’m not a student of Albany’s historic architecture, but I can well imagine someone developing a tour of the places, buildings, and people that make up history. I had some fascinating discussions with the late City Commissioner Tommie Postell about his memories of downtown Albany – especially the two historic hotels.
The New Albany Hotel and the elegant Hotel Gordon were both built in the 1920s. If I recall correctly, Mr. Postell’s father was an elevator operator at one (or both?) hotels, and Mr. Postell recalled going back and forth as a boy between the hotels to see his father. Both hotel buildings are still standing, one as an apartment complex known as The Flats @ 249 and the other being converted back into a hotel after years of being an office building.
Downtown Albany has examples of Neoclassical, Victorian, and many Brutalist designs. It has the rich history of the Harlem District, the strange history of a public library inhabiting a converted four-story car dealership, and the inspiring story of the Horace King Bridge House.
At one point in our Decatur history tour, we were standing outside someone’s tiny house—probably a servant’s quarters—dating back to the 1800s. Not much bigger than a gazebo, it was called a single-person cottage, a style that originated in a one-room log cabin. A few blocks away, we were stunned by the graceful beauty of a historic mansion that my wife wrote in her social media post as “I want to live here.”
Our guide paused to talk about a road that ran through the city in the 1960s and forced the demolition of some houses. But we did not dwell on what was lost. Instead, we heard about a 1960’s gas station that was built along that road and later abandoned. It was recently converted into a pizzeria in a phenomenon called adaptive reuse. I got the impression that there was enough beauty, interest and history to enjoy without being overly sentimental about what once was.
History is important to cherish, but not if it gets in the way of major improvements to the present. Historian Henry Glassie says that history is not the past, but a map of the past, drawn from a certain point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler.