By Ansley Walker
Within the past few years, the face of downtown Athens has morphed from a small retail based community to a bustling town with large chain businesses. All the change has Athenians concerned and confused about the disappearing face of the Classic City. Down the street at College Square big changes are happening, but not changes that people ought to fear. In fact, they may not even notice the difference.
The historic buildings downtown act as the backbone to the town’s unique and charming character. With the popularity of local boutiques and restaurants, the structures that hold these shops are often overlooked, and as a result, their appearances have
deteriorated. Weathered and worn throughout the years, the 100-year-old
buildings need help and the owners have been presented with an opportunity to
restore their buildings to the original condition.
In the past year, a shift towards restoring the appearance of old buildings downtown began with a new program launched by the Athens Downtown Development Authority. The program allows that $10,000 be awarded to business owners within the Downtown Athens Historic District, who propose renovation or repairs to bring the exterior of their building back to its historically appropriate condition. The Facade Grant Program was created with the hope that by providing a financial incentive, building owners downtown would invest in restoration to improve the appearance of their storefronts, said program manager Christi Christian.
“We are very interested in maintaining the historical character and appearance of our downtown buildings,” Christian said. “They play a huge part in that Athens charm that draws visitors to our beautiful city every day.”
While a recently new program, Christian spent months researching historic preservation programs throughout the state and thought about what best suited Athens’ needs. To the receive the grant, the proposed projects need approval from the Historic Preservation Commission. As well as a “certificate of appropriateness” from the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department. From there, the Facade Grant Committee, which Christian serves on, considers the projects within the scope of the ADDA’s annual$15,000 budget for the program.
Recipients of the grant are awarded half of the total project cost, or up to $10,000. While owners may have additional plans for the building’s interior, the grant money is to be allocated for external renovation and repairs with the exclusion of signs and awnings. The grant money is awarded based on project completion, through a reimbursement plan.
So far, three businesses have taken advantage of the grant. The first building to receive funding through the program is located at 220 E. College Ave. across the street from its owner’s namesake, Heery’s.
Rusty Heery’s project to restore the upstairs facade above Subway spurs from fire damage dating back to the 1980s. The right side of the building was badly burned, and while it was rebuilt, no architectural details were put back.
“Taking on this project became much bigger than we ever anticipated,” Heery said. “You can’t find people to do the work that was around in 140 or 150 years ago.”
The main problem with historic buildings is that the materials needed to restore the property are simply obsolete in modern construction. The amount of custom tin work and small decorative details needed to restore the building perfectly drove the price to around $100,000, or in Heery’s words “cost prohibitive.” A year later and Heery says the project is almost done.
“Very few people will ever even notice that the work was done, but I’ll notice,” Heery said. “Other college towns can be so sterile, and even if they have 50-year-old structures, they don’t have the character like buildings in downtown Athens.”
Coincidentally, another building undergoing restoration through the program is located catty-corner to the Heery’s project. The Wuxtry building, famed for a record store that brought together lead members of the band R.E.M., exists in poor condition today.
Native America Gallery is one of four stores that resides within the building and owner Tim Stamey proposed the restoration to the building. While not the property owner himself, Stamey recognizes that maintenance to the external structure is necessary. Restoration will not only positive for its appearance, but preservation work also promotes responsible energy use and can prevent water damage.
Stamey was met with what he calls “creative conflict” when the Historic Preservation Commission rejected his proposal to use the industry standard vinyl-clad windows in place of large wooden windows. The commission said that use of the new windows would go
against what is considered “historically appropriate.” Stamey countered that vinyl windows were used in renovation to the buildings two decades ago before the area was a local historic district.
Historically appropriate windows almost always means wood-framed windows which are more expensive, harder to find and harder to maintain than common, modern vinyl-framed windows, says Christian. With restoration work today, trying to perfectly match windows or other details with their original materials can be illogical and dangerous.
A few months later, and the windows are being manufactured now and paint colors are being chosen for the facade. Stamey said the opposition was a good thing and that it made him double check that he was making the right choices concerning the building.
“Historic preservation is not a cookie cutter thing or always black and white,” Stamey said. “You have to work with the property. It’s a case by case issue. Always do what is best for the building.”
At the end of the day Stamey says preserving the uniqueness in every building is the main objective. The ideal restoration brings the building back as close to its original condition as possible, while making it easy to maintain moving forward.
Christian says the ADDA is “thrilled” to have projects going on in such a visible, high-traffic spot on College Square, with the hope that students and passerby’s who usually don’t think to the history and importance behind downtown architecture will give the structures another look.