What are we leaving behind? – Mezzanine June/July 2022
By Steven Uhles
It was the largest of the structures in every way. Its towering mass and impressive facade dominated the landscape, occupying acres of land at the corner of 8th and Broad streets. The then newly constructed Bell Auditorium was its neighbor, and a spacious park, decades before Augusta Common, stretched out before it. I guess it was quite a sight and a real architectural feat. I guess so because I’ve only seen pictures of them in aging postcard boxes. You see, Augusta Union Station was demolished in 1972, long before I came on the scene. In its place, the Augusta Post Office was erected.
Let me recognize some things. The last passenger train left Union Station in 1968. A significant structure has long stood idle. Also, it looked like Augusta might have needed a central post office. But the absence of the old Union Station from the landscape and, for the most part, from the collective memory makes me curious about the nature of this community – or the approach to civic planning not only in terms of heritage architectural but also artistic.
Remembering Rome or Athens – those in Europe, not North Georgia – we measure these societies by the things they left behind. At some point (most estimate around AD 500), performances, battles, and other miscellaneous displays ceased at the architectural marvel of Rome’s Colosseum. It was not demolished and replaced by a medieval letter sorting station. Instead, it was preserved and repurposed. In the centuries that followed, it served as a castle, a cemetery, and even the first example of an apartment building and commercial center before becoming Rome’s main tourist attraction in the 18th century. The Romans, it seems, were keen to build a city that would continue to thrive while preserving its past.
I bring this up because in recent years I have noted very little concern for what Augusta will leave behind. There have been some notable preservation efforts – the Church of the Sacred Heart in the 1990s, the Enterprise Mill and the Miller Theater more recently – but there have been just as many buildings destroyed or, even worse, left to decay. abandonment until destruction becomes the only practical course of action. . We’re talking about the resurrection of Broad Street, and while many 19th and 20th century shop windows have found new life, there are still a few that are slowly disappearing behind walls of warped plywood.
I’m not saying we should approach the fate of every structure — or statue and mural — like a herd of starry-eyed Pollyannas. Augusta is a growing, contemporary, and hopefully forward-looking community. It’s awesome. I hope to be a part of guiding this community into a successful 21st century (and beyond). But I remain concerned that there are conversations – important ones – that are often taken too lightly or not at all.
What are we leaving behind? What does it say about us as a community? What is the historical significance of the things we reject or, more criminally, ignore? There are a few examples. The rooftop penthouse of the Lamar Building in Broad Street, built in 1976. Although much derided and perhaps stylistically at odds with the building it tops, the penthouse, colloquially known as the Toaster, was designed by IM Pei, one of the greatest of the 20th century. important and innovative architects. Yet today it sits empty, broken glass on the empty floor and a piece of plywood blocking part of the structure’s panoramic view.
The building was recently purchased with the intention of being restored, but I wonder what fate awaits the toaster. It will almost certainly become a point of aesthetic interest in the coming decades. But will Augusta choose to plaster over her past, declaring that the toaster is too out of step with contemporary style to survive? Is this an appropriation of Union Station waiting to happen? One thing that works in its favor are the challenges presented by dropping an 18-story structure into the sky.
Much more vulnerable is the Woolworth Building on Broad. Architecturally, it is a rare and magnificent example of Art Moderne commercial space. While the long stretch of a soda fountain is gone, enough of the building remains to deem it worth preserving. And despite an almost constant flirtation with enthusiastic investors, the building has still not found its savior. The plywood, something of a constant in this discussion, stays firmly in place. I suspect that as Broad Street evolves, its situation may become more perilous. As the building continues to disintegrate, property values continue to appreciate. Soon it will become more profitable to tear it down and put something much less attractive or historically significant in its place. Just ask the radio station that once belonged to James Brown. It’s now the fortress that is the Richmond County Board of Education – a building that didn’t necessarily require the location.
Considering what we leave behind of course means more than preservation. When we build, how much discussion revolves around form while talking about function? How much around the functional life? What will it take to preserve a structure or a work of art? Our recent wave of murals – a trend I particularly like – immediately comes to mind. Are we placing this art on buildings that will survive? What are we doing to mitigate exposure to the elements? We appreciate them today. How many tomorrows will they have?
That said, there are always forward-looking projects that are developed with the future in mind. My current favorite idea is Leonard ‘Porkchop’ Zimmerman’s seemingly eternal quest to turn the JB Whites water tower into one of his famous smiling robots. For my part, I hope he will succeed. It is, in my mind, something worth leaving behind.
Opening Photo – JB Whites Water Tower