Telling stories

Posts Tagged ‘Historic Preservation’

Lighting Macon’s Past and Present

Posted by southwrite on July 22, 2014

lights-on-macon-04[The second  of a three part series on Macon’s College Hill Corridor.]

Preservation is always high on the to-do list of cities with a good stock of historic properties. In Macon, Ga.’s College Hill Corridor, they’ve taken it one step beyond simple upkeep to showing off an amazing collection of fine homes.

Lights on Macon, an illumination tour of this hilltop neighborhood of Intown Macon, got started in 1995. In the decades since, it’s grown to include more than 112 historic and architecturally significant homes – with more being added each year. It’s also remained a unique feature of the city that is unmatched anywhere else.

A self-guided walking tour features houses that are theatrically lit with carefully positioned spotlights trained on unique design features, such as a sunburst in the gable of a late Victorian and the 30-foot Doric columns on a classic Greek Revival. Homes range from simple bungalows to stately mansions.  Signs on front lawns designate the stops along the route. And, the best part is that this is no seasonal occurrence, but takes place every night of the year.

lights-on-macon-05A 1988 study had suggested that Macon “put a fence around the InTown historic neighborhood and charge admission. Or better yet, show it off with free nightly programming!”  The end result was Lights on Macon.

With a compact network of historic residential streets between Mercer University and downtown, the College Hill Corridor was ideally suited for an illumination tour that would provide something to do every night of the year. Some 60 architecturally significant houses and structures are now part of the tour.

The nightly tour got its start when the local CVB invited lighting consultant Ken Dresser, who had designed lighting for presidential inaugurations along with Disney’s electric light parade to makes suggestions for illuminating city landmarks.

“When we brought him here (to College Hill), he said ‘why don’t you do architectural lighting,’” recalls Maryel Battin, a preservationist and member of Historic Macon Foundation. “You’ve got these amazing houses, but you don’t want to blast everybody with light. It’s got to be subtle, so use low voltage and highlight the architectural details. And, don’t just do it at Christmas do it year round.”

lights-on-macon-03The tour and the lighting of homes have been managed by the InTown Macon Neighborhood Association. Over the years non-profits such as the Peyton Anderson and Knight Foundation have contributed funds to buy the lights. The Association installs the lights, but the homeowners are responsible for paying for the electricity (equivalent to a couple of lamps says Battin) and replacing bulbs when they burn out.

The number of homes grows each year and there is always a waiting list of homeowners who want to be a part of the tour.

“When we first stated the tour we believed we were the only neighborhood association in the country that had done a program like this,” says Battin. “Today, I can’t find anything like it, except people doing individual houses. So this is a very unusual idea that it’s a neighborhood project rather than just individual owners doing it.”

The tour is self-guided. All you need to do is download the free map and tour guide from the association’s website. You can complete the walk quickly, but more likely once you begin looking at the homes and illuminated features you’ll want to linger.





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Everything Old is New Again

Posted by southwrite on June 21, 2014

Atlanta's Margaret Mitchell House

Atlanta’s Margaret Mitchell House

Living in the South you soon realize that history isn’t found in buildings. In fact, in many communities there aren’t many, if any old historic structures from earlier times –not like New England and certainly not like Europe where history is measured in centuries and sometimes millenniums.

One reason is the Civil War which devastated the Southern states and particularly Georgia thanks to Sherman and his well-kept promise during the infamous march to the sea to “make Georgia howl.”

Much was laid waste in the war, but much would be destroyed afterwards – and not by the Yankees. Following Reconstruction and the dawning of The New South, Georgia, and Atlanta in particular, acquired a particular distaste for the old and historic. Perhaps it was a way of forgetting the past and proving that the city wasn’t just some backwater. Beginning in the 1960s and moving forward, Atlanta began thinking of itself in much grander and less regional terms. By the 1980s were proclaiming it an “international city.”

It was modern and forward facing and no longer had time for either the old building that were spared Union torches or even those built soon afterwards.

While working for a small private college in North Georgia, I found myself traveling down Atlanta’s Peachtree Street. At the wheel was a trustee I was interviewing for a laudatory profile in the alumni magazine. He was rich, a successful developer and very much committed to raising new buildings up out of the dust of old Atlanta.

“When I see one of these old buildings I don’t see a waste and an opportunity,” he said.

And, he certainly helped contribute to the loss of what little remained of Atlanta history. For a while it seemed that the city was determined to erase everything that remained of the old to usher in the new and profitable.

The developers  largely succeeded, but not entirely.

One remarkable survivor of that era is the now preserved Margaret Mitchell House. This three-story, Tudor Revival built in 1899 was where the author  lived and wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning Gone With the Wind. Truth be told, the famous author never much cared for the building she referred to as “The Dump.”

It had been a grand home on this fashionable residential section of Peachtree. By 1919 it was subdivided into ten tiny apartments. Mitchell and her new husband, fellow writer John Marsh, moved into Apartment No.1. In those days it was known as the Crescent Apartments and later renamed the Windsor House. Mitchell moved on to better accommodations – particularly after the success of her bestselling novel and the classic motion picture. It remained apartments until 1978 when it was abandoned.

During those years, this section of Midtown became something of a desolate stretch populated by the poor, the runaways, the addicts and the occasional hippie. The house was sometimes a temporary home for the homeless and slipped further into disrepair.

Beginning in the 1980s, local preservationists tried to pull together enough funds to save and restore it. That was rough going in a city that didn’t much care for history or all that much for the arts. Atlanta designated it a landmark in 1989.

It’s something of a miracle that the house survived It was torched more than once. Perhaps the fires were started by the homeless trying to keep warm. I imagined it was a developer outraged that such a valuable piece of property was being kept off the market. With help from German automaker Daimler-Benz, the property was finally purchased and restored. It opened as a museum in 1997.

The house looks very much like it did when Mitchell was living there.

The first time I walked through Mitchell’s restored apartment my imagination was swept back to Atlanta between the world wars and teetering on Depression. It’s filled with period furniture and an old typewriter. I saw her sitting there typing; creating a grand portrait of a South that no longer existed. She was still there looking out the leaded glass window. I also thought about all those who had wanted to destroy this treasure and was happy, profoundly happy they had not succeeded.

That feeling of being in the past leaves when you step out and look up Peachtree to the towering white façade of the Federal Reserve building and the many other modern skyscrapers that line Peachtree Street now. It’s a different world.

It’s a shock.

These days Atlanta and small towns and cities through the state are friendlier to the past. There’s been a growing realization that historical sties mean tourist dollars and economic development. It’s not universal by any means. Big players in Atlanta such as Georgia Tech have moved to tear down historic buildings when it suited their expansion plans. Elected officials in small towns around the state can still be found pushing for demolition rather than preservation.

Yet, we still have the Mitchell house and other historic structures. We still have pieces of the past that we can treasure. I’m glad for all that have been saved.


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