Downtown Athens is a place of constant change. With new restaurants and boutiques at every corner, Athens can seem unrecognizable compared to its former self.
Anchoring the town to its past are the historic buildings downtown. The amalgamation of buildings dating back to the early nineteenth century give Athens much of its personality and unique appearance.
Many of the buildings are showing their wear after a hundred or so years. With a new program in place by the Athens Downtown Development Authority, the historic buildings owners are able to receive up to $10,000 to put towards renovating the facade.
To learn more about the historic buildings of downtown Athens, I took a walk with former University of Georgia Campus Architect, Danny Sniff. Sniff, who has a masters in historic preservation, spoke about specific building’s histories, popular architectural designs in Athens and how new facade projects were being handled.
The order of images in this gallery mimic the route Sniff and I walked. The captions provide context to our location, but more importantly the remarks made by Sniff about the building. Click on the first image to read the caption, and continue through the gallery by clicking the right arrow.
To learn more about downtown Athen’s historic buildings, check out the following links.
“This just recently was renovated. It was just a blank facade, and they came in and painted it. They punched mid-century or early modernist windows in. The windows have a steel frame and they renovated this very nicely. The windows are all in scale and in proportion to what you would have seen in 1942. It’s simple lines, but yet, it was respectfully done. Then at the street level is where most towns will allow a lot more flexibility. This storefront facade is distinctively modern. In a lot of ways, this is an example of a building that just a few months ago was just a blank area that now suddenly has new life to it with the windows. More importantly though, it was just well done.”
“Look back to the Double Barrel building. You can look up at this facade, which is from the 1960s, and that’s what the Porterhouse building looked like. You can just imagine how different it would look by punching in some windows and changing around the details. Again, it needs to be done respectively and in good taste. You always want to be respectful to the era. That’s why I think the Porterhouse is good example of a facade renovation.”
Renovations taking place on the Clayton Street facade of the Porterhouse building pictured before. Mid-century windows are being placed in the front. The building, under a new owner, is being renovated into apartments.
227. E Clayton St., owned by Fred Moorman, was the first building to complete restorations through the Facade Grant Program. While the Facade Grant Program only works towards facade restoration, Moorman is renovating the second floor interior as well. He plans to turn the level into apartments. He also plans to construct a third level for apartments, which will lie behind the facade to not disrupt the historic aspects of the building.
Formerly George Dean’s clothing, the historic building now hosts popular fast-casual eatery, Zaxby’s.
“From street level, most municipalities give a little more flexibility with the architectural guidelines. However, if there’s historic fabric here, in other words, if there’s still stuff that remains from the original building they would be much more restrictive. The original, probably turn of the century, building front was removed in the sixties and the storefront at the street level was gone. That allowed him [Moorman] to do things that maybe aren’t the best historically. These little blocks of glass looks very historic, as it is something you would see in the 1920s. If we were in a place that had much stricter guidelines for historic restoration, this probably wouldn’t be allowed. People who walk past it would say, “Wow that is from the 1920s,” and it really isn’t. This should have been done in a more modern way. It does add confusion. It isn’t too far away era-wise from the original building. It was at least twenty or thirty years later you started seeing this glass blocking. It could have been a lot better.”
220 E. Clayton St., built in 1883 and is owned by Rusty Heery. It was the first to receive funding through the Facade Grant Program. The need for restoration spurred from fire damage in 1979. The right upper facade was badly burnt, and when it was rebuilt no historic or architectural details were restored.
Heery had to find workers to custom make tin sheeting and small wooden circles to meet the original facade work. Heery also worked with the University of Georgia to match paint colors for the facade with old photographs of the building.
“They only replaced what was really bad as opposed to replacing the whole thing. This is a stamped tin. The original was probably too hard to find, so they just filled it in with a blank piece of tin. This is what you would call just a ‘cheap ass job’. The bracketing is broken. This is because we just don’t have a strong code for renovation in Athens.”
197 E. Clayton St., built in 1883, is the third building to receive funding through the Facade Grant Program. This building homes four local businesses: Wuxtry Records, Bizarro Wuxtry, Native America Gallery, and Frontier gift shop.
“In my opinion, he should be using the original windows. The problem with vinyl windows is that people would see them and assume that they are a part of the original structure. It’s an error. You want a group of buildings to look as original to the era of the brick as you possibly can, with exceptions made to the storefronts only. This is what’s important to downtown. People see this eclectic, special collection of historic buildings from different years. By not putting it back to its original state, it doesn’t contribute the character of downtown. You could argue it takes away from it, because it’s so inaccurate. With the facade itself, it’s obviously in need of a coat of paint. Wear like this is due to wind and sun exposure. If he plans to paint it an ‘interesting color’ I am not really a fan of that. He should be respecting what’s there.”
Native America Gallery owner, Tim Stamey, is the project leader for the facade restoration. After receiving the grant, Stamey was met with opposition by the Historic Preservation Commission. The dispute centered around using modern vinyl-clad windows in place of the “historically appropriate” wooden frames. Stamey argued for the windows, because of a decreased cost and easier maintenance moving forward. Eventually, the windows were approved. The facade will also receive a new coat of paint. Stamey wants to choose an interesting color to draw interest to the otherwise institutional-looking building, but will not have the final say.
“Lamar Lewis has one of the most iconic facades downtown. Awesome masonry work here. It looks like tiles, but it’s done in cement blocks. It’s probably 2 foot by 2 foot blocks. Somebody had laid down the pattern and poured it. It’s probably the thickness of a brick about 3 or 4 inches. It likely has wire running behind it that they hooked to the brick. This type of masonry would have been done in about the mid 1950s.”
“In the 1960s the store front would be all glass. But by using this granite with the glass, plus the masonry above, it tells me it’s more 1950s. This architecture tells a story of strength and modern design.”
“At the top of my head I see two or three different influences. You see a very New York twenties influence with the square windows, or even late 1890s. These doors look pretty original, it’d be interesting to see what’s changed here. I doubt very much has changed. This definitely is Elberton granite with Tate marble, both sourced from places in Georgia. Here’s a local using local materials. They probably found influences in magazines coming out around that time period to give it this New York, Soho look. This probably has much more of the original ‘fabric’ because of the Tate granite. It would have been quite expensive, but you see incredible detail in all of these buildings. To an architect, this shows that they cared about these structures and wanted to make them well.”
Cuts were made into the Tate granite. This is from the Greek temples, they would do this on blocks. It’s more decorative to add this instead of just having a blank facade. This chamfered finished edge around also adds detail and permanency by the architect.”