The Bandwagon to Historical Preservation

You don’t have to travel to Paris or Rome to see a city stopped in time.  Historical preservation is sweeping the New World, even the smallest American town. 


Athens made it into the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of Dozen Distinctive Destinations for 2009 in January.  Athens’ eagerness to preserve historical sites in the city is responsible for this honorable recognition.


Historical preservation is not only taken seriously in Athens; it is a national trend that swallowed the Clarke County community decades ago.  The trend still goes strong as more sites are being historically preserved and other towns and cities establish new historic preservation foundations.


In 1959 the Athens Historical Society was founded with the purpose “to collect materials, especially original and source materials pertaining to the history of Athens,” according to its constitution.


The Athens Clarke Heritage Foundation started in 1967 and a group made up of “citizen experts” on historical preservation started in 1986, both aimed to historically preserve sites in Clarke County, said Milton Leathers (Athenian native, historian, and former volunteer president of Athens Clarke Heritage Foundation).


 “The preservation of Athens was influenced by Savannah and Columbus,” said Leathers.  “They had already begun foundations designed to historically preserve their city and Athens followed.”  Savannah’s historical preservation organization started in 1955 and Columbus was soon afterward. 


The 1960s saw a big wave of historical preservation in American towns and cities.  Buffalo, New York; Franklin, Tennessee; Santa Barbra, California; and Santa Fé, New Mexico; among other cities that share a spot with Athens on the of Dozen Distinctive Destinations’ list, have historical preservation foundations that started in the 1960s. 


“I’m sure the same influence we got from Savannah and Columbus went on to other towns,” said Leather. 


Now rural Georgian towns are adopting historical preservation organizations.  Bainbridge and Bowdon now have historical preservation organizations that started in the 1980s. 


The many heritage foundations have been successfully established throughout the U.S. and they are successfully preserving. 


In the past five years Athens Clarke Heritage Foundation has preserved 198 individually owned areas, 114 in the downtown district and 84 on the Reece Street district, said Amber Mason, head of the Planning Department for the ACHF.  Some are building and some are vacant lots.


The Heritage Foundation for Franklin, Tennessee has successfully preserved 38 sites and over 140 acres of Civil War battlefields in the past six years, said Mary Pearce, executive director of the Heritage Foundation of Franklin.


The Historic Preservation Commission in the small town of Bowdon has protected a handful of houses and churches in the past 3 years. 


What is it that makes historical preservation so appealing?


“Historical preservation is about tangible evidence of our past,” said Amy Kissane, executive director of Athens Clarke Heritage Foundation.   “It gives a sense of identity.” 


“Historical Preservation has given Franklin economical benefits,” said Mary Pearce.  “There are many outsiders that tour here in Franklin to visit our Civil War sites.”


”Of course there are economical benefits; many tourists want to see historical downtown,” said Kissane.  “However, I don’t think that should be the reason to preserve.  I think the main reason is for the sense of identity.  I’d hate to imagine a world of big boxed stores.  I think that would have a negative psychological effect.”


“That is how we would have to sell it to the city,” said Leathers.  “We’d have to show how it’d up tourism. Not that there is a problem with that.  We didn’t care about tourism; we just wanted to save the building.”


Leathers finds it “a bit ridiculous” that the historically-preserved label has been commercialized so much.  When he drives through small towns and sees their attempt to create a historically preserved district he says he wonders what someone from England would think.  “England!  Now that place has history,” Leathers chuckles. 


These historically-minded cities have adopted city ordinances to better protect their city’s history.  Athens has the Historical Preservation Ordinance which says what can and cannot be done to historically preserved sites.   The mayor has the power to choose which sites should be deemed historically preserved.  If the area is designated as historically preserved then the owner cannot change the building’s façade.  If someone wanted to change the façade of a preserved area, a planning commission of seven people must approve. 


Pearce described a similar process that one must go through to change a historically preserved area in Franklin. 


“I don’t think this trend will click with time.  They will probably start preserving the first indoor carwash 20 years from now,” she said.


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