Peachtree Road United Methodist Church aims to tear down a historic Buckhead Forest house for a new parsonage, raising preservation concerns.
The 81-year-old house at 3210 West Shadowlawn Ave. is listed as contributing to the Alberta Drive-Mathieson Drive-West Shadowlawn Avenue Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. However, that does not prevent demolition and the property has no urban historic protection. The church claims the house is “uninhabitable” and cannot meet its parent organization’s requirements for large parsonages.
David Yoakley Mitchell, executive director of the nonprofit Atlanta Preservation Center (APC), said “this iconic community continues to be threatened” since the historic district’s creation, with the demolition plan the latest example.
Economic interests and development time pressures can provide “an umbrella to remove these cultural contributions to our city with little concern,” Mitchell said. “Yet until the residents of these communities, these neighborhoods and this city begin to embrace the valuable story told visually through our buildings, structures and spaces, we will continue to place an assessment of identity that will undoubtedly be difficult to sustain.”
The nearly century-old church has been at its current location at 3180 Peachtree Road since 1941, the same year the West Shadowlawn house was built. Over the decades, the church has acquired several surrounding properties. These include two other West Shadowlawn houses also listed as contributing to the historic district: Numbers 3201 and 3218.
In recent years, the church demolished the house at 3201 and replaced it with a new parsonage for one of its employed priests. It appears that the demolition was carried out without any official or media announcement that it was a historically significant property.
Now the church has the same plan for 3210 West Shadowlawn, at the intersection with Mathieson Place, which it purchased in 2018. The property is in Special Public Interest District 9 (SPI-9), a specialized zoning area whose Development Review Committee (DRC) ) heard the plan a meeting on September 7. The proposal stalled until at least November because of a sidewalk issue unrelated to the historic status.
The DRC’s remit does not include historic preservation, and the issue was raised only by Mitchell as a guest at the meeting. However, he was not aware at the time of the property’s status as contributing to a historic district, and no one from the church mentioned it. Buckhead.com discovered that status through post-meeting research. Sellers could not immediately be reached for comment.
The historic district application was submitted to the National Park Service in 2014 by the Georgia Historic Preservation Division. The documentation says the neighborhood is historically significant as part of a building boom that followed a 1907 trolley line extension on Peachtree, and for its wealth of intact architecture dating from the 1910s through the 1960s. West Shadowlawn, the archive says, was named for a subdivision called Shadow Lawn, which began construction in 1922. The archive includes a photo of the house at 3210. The main church property is not included in the historic district.
Rev. Bill Britt, the church’s senior minister, told DRC that the plan is to build a parsonage to house a member of its clergy who currently rents elsewhere in the city. The existing one-story house would be replaced with a larger two-story version.
Mitchell encouraged the church to consider preservation options.
Project architect Brandon Ingram noted that many houses on the street date to the period from the 1920s to the 1940s. He said the church wanted the new parsonage to be “respectful” of that aesthetic and look “a little bit more vintage” rather than “a giant Buckhead McMansion.”
Mitchell questioned why they did not retain that aesthetic in saving the house, suggesting that the existing structure might be “more in keeping with the humility” of the clergy. He also saluted Sellers, noting that he knows her from her previous service as chair of the Atlanta Urban Design Commission, a city body that reviews demolitions or other changes to historic properties with legal protection or city ownership.
However, Britt and project lawyer Julie Sellers, who is also a member of the church, claimed that the house cannot be saved. “It’s really in unlivable condition,” Britt claimed, while Sellers said it looks better on the outside than on the inside.
Britt added that church trustees “spent a fair amount of time talking about preserving it, remodeling it — whatever it would take.” Another alternative, he said, was to convert the 3218 West Shadowlawn lot into the new parsonage and lease 3210. But the final analysis was that demolishing and rebuilding at 3210 was the most cost-effective approach.
He said another issue is the parent United Methodist Church’s (UMC) requirement for parsonages, which include a minimum of three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms and a covered garage. (The home page for the UMC’s North Georgia Conference posts slightly different standards: at least four bedrooms and two bathrooms.)
As for the possibility of salvaging some materials and incorporating them into the new parsonage, Ingram said, “I would absolutely love to use what we could.” But, he added, the house is not a “spectacular example” of architecture and lacks “superfine details.”
Mitchell said he is not an “absolutist” about preservation and that there are always discussions about preservation methods. He offered to visit the house to confirm the claims about its condition and possibilities, which church representatives did not immediately take up.
Mitchell said he hadn’t heard from the public specifically about this house, but he’s getting several calls about the loss of that kind of thing” and wanted to bring it to the attention.
The project ended up being stalled until at least November due to a sidewalk issue.
Sellers initially said she thought no zoning would be needed. But then DRC and City Planner Alex Deus reminded her that SPI-9 and other zoning include streetscape standards that would likely require new 6-foot-wide sidewalks and a 4-foot-wide planting strip along both street frontages.
The DRC was inclined to recommend a variant of the West Shadowlawn frontage to preserve an existing, smaller sidewalk so that it does not clash with the rest of the street. But the DRC wanted more study into adding a sidewalk at Mathieson Place, especially after hearing it is heavily used for worship services and activities. However, it may have challenges with tree removal, a retaining wall and a storm sewer running through the property.
Sellers said the adjustment to the variance request would mean the church could not apply for a special administrative permit, required within SPI-9, until November after all. So that gives it time to study pavement options. Now it may also face more pressure for conservation. The project has not yet been formally presented to local neighborhood organizations, the church team said.
After the meeting, Sellers could not immediately clarify how the church currently uses its third house on the street, 3218 West Shadowlawn, and what the future plans might be. The historic district contributing property dates to 1940, according to Fulton County property records.
The bigger picture
Redevelopment on West Shadowlawn and its sibling street across Peachtree, East Shadowlawn, show some patterns that raise broader questions about historic preservation and the limits of the SPI-9 standards.
East Shadowlawn is also lined with houses from the same period, many of them converted to commercial use. A new trend is to demolish the historic house and replace it with a similar house-like structure for commercial use. That raises the possibility of rehabilitation and reuse at the site, but those conversations haven’t happened since there’s no historic district and the DRC’s responsibilities don’t include preservation. However, the DRC also often raises environmental efficiency issues, and historic preservation is increasingly placed at the national level as such an issue because reusing a building requires less energy and waste than demolition and new construction.
Additionally, both are small residential streets, while SPI-9’s standards focus on larger-scale, urban-style projects with such requirements as wide sidewalks and significant amounts of ground-level windows. The DRC has repeatedly recommended variances from these standards on East Shadowlawn, as it is poised to do for this West Shadowlawn project.
Asked after the meeting about the broader issues on these types of streets, DRC Chair Denise Starling said she understands historic preservation can become “pretty difficult,” but that more environmental standards could be a plus for both SPI-9 and its adjacent Special Public Interest District 12.
“We’re probably reaching a point where we need to do a quick refresh of the SPIs with a green focus overall,” she said.