The Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation kicked off its new annual series of guided walking tours through some of the city’s most historic districts Sept. 11. ACHF past president and neighborhood resident Kristen Morales (also a Flagpole contributor) led the tour group through the Buena Vista historic district, an area once home to the working class during Athens’ early-20th Century manufacturing boom.
Located to the north of Prince Avenue and west of Boulevard, the Buena Vista area was originally outside of the Athens city limits, providing an escape from city property taxes to its residents—blue-collar streetcar operators and millworkers, employees of the Southern Manufacturing Company and students of the State Normal School (an old teaching college, now the location of UGA’s Health Sciences Campus). Today, of course, the neighborhood is an urban one, but many of the homes remain virtually unchanged since their turn-of-the-20th Century construction, and offer a glimpse into what “county” life was like a century ago.
Many of the attendees were lifelong Athens residents, or have spent at least the majority of their years in the city. So what was so interesting about a few old houses that could get locals out of their comfortable AC on a muggy Sunday afternoon?
For Rosemarie Goodrum, a longtime Athens resident, the learning never stops. “Growing up in Boston, the history is everywhere,” she says. “I wanted to have the same experience here.” With her husband, Goodrum bought a house in the Bloomfield historic district north of Five Points and realized in order to protect its history, “I needed to get involved.” She is now a trustee of the ACHF and was an avid asker of questions throughout the tour.
As Morales led us through the small yet eccentric Buena Vista area—past the old county stockade (jail) that’s now used as storage for police records; a purple house where Peter Buck of R.E.M. once gave guitar lessons; the site of an early-1900s soda company, Deep Rock Ginger Ale Co.; as well as the Town & Gown Players’ first location, later turned county cannery—you could find a virtually untold story of Athens. But why?
“It’s hard for the people who have lived in these neighborhoods for decades to see them as ‘historic’,” says Morales, who herself has only lived in Athens for around 10 years. In her time as a Buena Vista resident, she’s seen the demolition of unprotected, century-old homes, which turned into properties sold for over five times the value of the original lot (think $88,000 turned $500,000). But it was the fate of a rare, green-painted double shotgun house that originally made her think, “Oh, there’s something to this neighborhood,” she says.
Since the Athens-Clarke County Commission designated Buena Vista a historic district after a four-year battle, neighborhood homes now must undergo an approval process by the Historic Preservation Commission for any desired changes to the exterior structure (not including paint color). Morales, for example, is applying for a “Certificate of Appropriateness” on her own home, with plans to install a dormer on the back of the house and a skylight on the side. “I’m pretty psyched to be putting this [policy] into action,” she says. “It’s funny because we are the ones asking for changes,” after leading the fight against developers and and a handful of property owners to preserve Buena Vista homes.
The district itself is a small, non-contiguous patchwork of historic structures settled next to new construction. That disorder is due to the area’s rural origins: Large lots used for farming provided more space in between houses. As time passed, newer homes were built in between older ones that would now be considered historic. Yet many of those older sites (the stockade, for example) and homes are still not included within the district, and are susceptible to being torn down at any time.
New development isn’t necessarily bad, though, and it doesn’t necessarily have to look old, Morales says. “In fact, I prefer the size and scale of a [new] house to be of the time period,” instead of trying to match original details, she says, while pointing to a newly built house that she says would have better fit the look of the neighborhood if it had been just a little smaller.
When renovating older houses, however, the details matter. “Popping out old windows is like taking out the eyeballs of the house,” Morales says. “It’s subtle, but it has an effect.”
To learn more about the upcoming Athens Heritage Walks and to hear more untold stories of Athens’ neighborhoods, visit achfonline.org/heritagewalks. The next tour will be Sunday, Oct. 9 at 3:30 p.m. through the Pulaski Heights neighborhood. Tickets for the walks are $12 for ACHF members and $15 for non-members and can be purchased through the site.
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