In Tuesday’s column, I argued that the planned apartment building next to Forsyth Park along East Bolton Street would be too massive for the neighborhood context.
I should have also added that there are a couple of historic residential properties on the north side of East Bolton Lane that will be absolutely dwarfed by their proposed neighbor.
The planned development also raises an interesting question that we should revisit from time to time.
As we move deeper into the 21st century, which buildings from the previous century should we officially recognize as historic?
The Commercial Building at 906 Drayton St., which was built about 60 years ago on the site of the old Pape School, will be demolished to make room for the new apartment complex. Even if the current plans change, the existing building will likely be gone soon.
The Commercial Building is a noncontributing structure in the Victorian District, according to the map maintained by the Metropolitan Planning Commission. That classification obviously makes sense if we are worried about retaining only the Victorian characteristics of the neighborhood.
However, many architects and preservationists would argue the longtime home of Independent Life Insurance Company has architectural significance.
According to the 2016 book “Buildings of Savannah” from the University of Virginia Press, the Commercial Building “displays a sophisticated play of modernist volumes and planes that contrasts sharply with traditional, revivalist, and classical structures of its neighborhood.”
Robin Williams, chair of architectural history at the Savannah College of Art and Design, was the lead author on “Buildings of Savannah.” I recently devoted a column to Williams’ research on historic pavement.
Consider some of the other contributing and noncontributing structures in the general area.
St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church at 31st and Bull streets, which dates to the mid-1950s, has been classified as noncontributing, although the church’s properties immediately adjacent are considered contributing. The old Sears building between Henry and Duffy streets, which dates to 1946 and was significantly altered over the decades, is also considered noncontributing.
Farther south in the Thomas Square Streetcar Historic District, a number of older, modest commercial properties are also classified as noncontributing, including the current homes of Henny Penny Art Space &Café, Starlandia Supply, Cotton &Rye and Atlantic.
Those buildings may not date to the streetcar era or earlier, but they represent architectural styles that helped define the neighborhood.
For what it’s worth, I hope the Savannah community will take steps to think more broadly about which buildings should be considered historic. The character of our neighborhoods has been enhanced significantly by architecture from the mid and late 20th century, and the value of those properties will likely become clearer in the coming decades.
A visit to Alexandria
I spent much of last weekend in Alexandria, Va., for a family reunion. We stayed in the Old Town neighborhood, a heady mix of old and new – historic homes, new residential developments, hotels and commercial uses that rely significantly on tourism.
The impressive Torpedo Factory Art Center, which is managed by the city of Alexandria, dominates a couple of the busiest blocks of the riverfront along the Potomac. With 82 artist studios, seven galleries, the Alexandria Archaeology Museum and lots more, the massive building lures tourists without feeling “touristy.”
Restaurants along the riverfront obviously attract visitors, too, but on the day I arrived, I found myself at a happy hour supported largely by locals.
There has been considerable controversy in Alexandria in recent years about the scale of new development along the riverfront and about threats to the historic city’s character. Those are familiar themes to Savannahians, but Alexandria seems to be doing a better job of balancing residential and tourist interests than we are.
Of course, Old Town Alexandria has some qualities that differ markedly from downtown Savannah.
Alexandria’s balancing act has been facilitated by the density of the city, the relatively limited amount of land available for development, the gradual slope to the Potomac, the lack of high-capacity roads like our Bay Street and the strong demand for expensive housing in the Washington, D.C., metro area.
In theory, the latest plans for Savannah River Landing should add significantly to the residential presence on our riverfront, but we need to implement a variety of other strategies if we want to make River Street for more connected to the rest of the Landmark Historic District.
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via email@example.com. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.