August 1—DECATUR — I guess it was just a coincidence, but sometimes things happen for a reason. The same day I took a walking tour of historic downtown Decatur, I saw reports of recent brouhaha about proposed changes to a historic building in Albany.
According to reports, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and Albany Technical College were seeking approval from the Albany Dougherty Historic Preservation Commission to convert the former Albany Middle School into a living and learning center. The proposal was rejected.
The plan was to preserve the original facade of the building, which is located directly opposite Phoebe’s main hospital, but to demolish most of the structure. The first floor would house Albany Tech’s nursing program, which included classrooms, a healthcare career training center, meeting rooms, a library/resource center, and other facilities. The second and third floors will contain eighty apartments to provide affordable housing for students.
This would nearly double the size of the old school building at a cost of around $40 million. I can well imagine that this is not only of value to the community, but also included in a tour of Albany’s historic properties. The whole point seemed to contradict Decatur’s approach to historic properties.
The Decatur Architecture Walking Tour we took was run by the Dekalb History Center and gave me a new perspective on how to celebrate a community’s history. We explored the floor plans, home types, and architectural styles of some of Decatur’s historic gems and hidden treasures. Buildings ranged from private residences to public buildings, from mansions to one-room cottages, and from the Victorian of the 1800s to the modern Brutalist.
The tour started and ended with churches. The first was the Decatur Presbyterian Church, a historic cornerstone of the city of Decatur, founded in 1825. Although the current building was built in the 1950s, it’s listed as a “contributing property” in the Old Decatur Historic District because it helps tell. story.
The tour concludes with the Romanesque building that was once the Decatur First United Methodist Church. Located at the corner of Sycamore Street and Commercial Street, the granite structure known locally as the Stone Chapel began in 1899 and has expanded over the years. They are now converted into law offices since the congregation moved to a larger temple 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 stopped 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 a 1970s office building across the street. .
Brutalist design is a term that comes from “concrete brut”, the French term for raw concrete. We saw a Queen Anne style house, a four-square house with hints of Prairie style, and an 1830s schoolhouse with a teacher’s residence.
I’m not a student of Albany historical architecture, but I can imagine someone visiting the places, buildings, and people that make up their history. I had fascinating discussions with the late City Commissioner Tommie Postell about his memories of downtown Albany, specifically the two historic hotels.
The New Albany Hotel and the elegant Hotel Gordon were built in the 1920s. If I remember correctly, Mr. Postell’s father was an elevator operator at a hotel (or both), and Mr. Postell remembered that as a child he used to go back and forth between hotels to see his father. Both hotel buildings are still standing, one is an apartment complex known as The Flats @ 249, and the other is being converted back into a hotel after many years of office building.
Downtown Albany has examples of Neoclassical, Victorian and many Brutalist designs. It features the rich history of the Harlem District, the bizarre history of a public library living in a converted, four-story car dealership, and the inspiring story of the Horace King bridge house.
At one point on our Decatur history tour, we stopped outside the tiny house of someone from the 1800s – possibly a maid’s room. It was not much larger than a garden shed and was called a one-story house, a style that originated as a one-room log cabin. A few blocks away, we marveled at the ornate beauty of a historic mansion that my wife wrote on her social media post with the caption, “I want to live here.”
Our guide paused to talk about a road that ran through town in the 1960s, which forced the demolition of some houses. But we didn’t dwell on what we lost. Instead, we learned of a gas station that was built in the 1960s and later abandoned along that road. It has recently been converted into a pizza parlor in a phenomenon called adaptive reuse. I get the impression that there is a lot of beauty, interest, and history to be enjoyed without getting too emotional about what it once was.
Valuing history is important, but not when it stands in the way of important developments for the present. Historian Henry Glassie says that history is not the past but a map of the past drawn from a particular point of view to be useful to the modern traveler.