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Two cities unite to preserve their past
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This week, I spent a good bit of time wading through a ton of material to learn about historic preservation. This was after learning that Social Circle has received its designation as a Certified Local Government. The CLG Program is a federal-state-local program to promote historic preservation at the local level. The Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources assists local governments in applying for a CLG designation, which also requires approval by the National Park Service.

CLGs are considered active partners in the Federal Historic Preservation Program and are afforded opportunities such as technical assistance, limited grants for specific projects and improved communication and coordination among local, state and federal preservation activities. Most importantly, a CLG designation increases the stature of a community which places great value on its historic assets.

There are now 86 CLGs in Georgia. Two of the most recent ones are the cities of Social Circle and Porterdale. Both of these cities are united in their passionate desire to preserve and protect their historic resources.

The city of Porterdale, with a current population of about 1,500, was first settled around 1830 and built overlooking the shoals of the Yellow River. (For those of us who didn’t know, a “shoal” is a place where a body of water is shallow and may be dangerous for navigation.) Porterdale was incorporated in 1917 and named after local mill owner Oliver S. Porter. The town was built around its textile mills and most of the homes in the historic district were owned by the mill until the 1960s when employees were allowed to buy their homes. The closing of the mill in the late 1970s precipitated a great decline in the prosperity and economic growth of the city.

There are approximately 300 mill houses in the surrounding mill village. Asked about the architectural style of these homes, Porterdale City Manager Bob Thomson said, “Sometimes I’ve seen houses such as these described as being in the ‘vernacular’ category, which usually means structures built by craftsmen using locally available materials without the assistance or intervention of a trained architect or design professional.” Another city source describes the houses as “saddlebag, gabled ell and bungalow house types.”

I visited Porterdale for the first time last week and was impressed with its architectural integrity. In fact, I felt that I was looking at a town as it had existed in the 1930s or maybe earlier. Except for possibly a few stray buildings of more recent vintage, the original mill buildings, commercial structures and surrounding village are intact. The original mill was converted into loft apartments by developer Bruce Gallman which has generated a lot of interest. These loft apartments are truly impressive; many of them command stunning views of the river.

City Manager Thomson said that the benefit of the city’s CLG designation is that, “it recognizes the formal commitment the mayor and council have made to protect the town’s rich heritage, as well as allowing us to apply for funds from grant sources unavailable to communities without the designation. Through assistance from the State’s Historic Preservation Division, it will help us stop the continuing degradation of the historic and cultural fabric of the only fully intact cotton mill village in Georgia.”

Similar to Porterdale, Social Circle also experienced a severe economic decline when its mill, a major employer, closed in the 1970s. Founded in the early 1820s, Social Circle was incorporated as a village in 1832, as a town in 1869 and as a city in 1904. The current population is approximately 4,500. In addition to milling and farming, the city also served as a transportation hub for train traffic until the lines were destroyed during Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War.

There was no overall design in the original development of Social Circle’s historic district. Architecturally, many styles and periods are represented including Greek revival, Gothic Revival, Second Empire, American Victoria, Colonial, Georgian and many others. The city applied for a National Register of Historic Places designation in 1979, which was approved in 1980. The city maintains an inventory of historic properties within the boundaries of the National Register District, which was expanded in 2002 to include an updated survey of historic property prepared by the University of Georgia Center for Community Design and Preservation. The city also has a number of ranch style homes at least 50 years of age that qualify as historic properties under new state guidelines.

Porterdale and Social Circle have much in common. Both trace their origins to the early 1800s. Both had economies based or partially based on textile production. Both suffered economic decline when their mills closed and due to changes in our pattern of working, shopping and living. Both cities have well defined historic districts. In Porterdale, it’s the entire town. Both cities recognize the importance of historic preservation not only as an economic development tool but as a means of honoring and valuing their historic past.

Porterdale has just broken ground on a major grant-assisted restoration of their beloved gymnasium, built in 1938 and gutted by fire in 2005. According to City Manager Thomson, this building is of iconic significance to those who grew up or lived in the city. The cost of the renovation is $950,000; however, the gym will now become an open-air facility because of the prohibitive cost of restoring the roof.

In Social Circle, Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Tom Brown recently concluded a successful negotiation in reaching an agreement with the First Baptist Church in Social Circle to forestall demolition of the 1850s era home of the late Celeste Dupree until the parties can find someone who will move it to another location. The city has fought the decline in its historic downtown in several ways including applying for a Better Hometown designation in 1998, developing a master plan for Cherokee Road in 2009, and last year, completing a strategic plan extending the city downtown development to the south which incorporates a number of historic structures. The city has also completed Phase I of its downtown redevelopment plan which involved painting the entire downtown center.

I’ve learned that historic preservation is not simple as many people believe it to be. For one thing, it can be expensive. It also requires time and patience to work through the numerous legal requirements for repairing and/or eliminating derelict buildings which often conflict with historic preservation objectives. I somewhat facetiously posed the following question to those most involved in historic preservation: Why should we preserve our history?

“All too often it is easy to brush aside history,” Social Circle Mayor Hall Dally said. “In Social Circle, we are proud that our original 1832 town is on the National Historic Register. The CLG designation comes with responsibility of preserving all we can for future generations.. Our goal is to find the tools (grants, ordinances and tax credits) to help the property owner afford rehab and maintenance. Historic stewardship promotes economic activity from visitors who come as well as those who see what we have and decide to join us here. I believe our city’s growth is, in part, due to our preservation of our buildings... The city is working on improvement plans within the district to help meet everyone’s goals of enhancing the district and improving the quality of life in Social Circle. We all want the vibrant downtown that existed in our past to return and again make us a hub of activity.”

“My roof leaked, floors squeaked, windows and wall were cold and drafty, crooked walls and cracked ceiling and, oh yes, bad plumbing and heating,” said Dena Johnson, president of the Historical Preservation Society of Social Circle. “However, I am not talking about my present historic home in Social Circle. I am talking about our former brand new custom-built home in Gwinnett.

“Old homes truly get a bad rap. The construction and materials are far superior to those used today. I do not do or spend anything different than I would in a new house, whether it is a remodel, repair or renovation. In fact, I spend less. All home owners need to be a good steward to maintain their homes despite the age of the home.
“It is the historic district that brought us to Social Circle. It was not jobs, tourism or yet another same old, same old subdivision. We could have found that in many other communities. We wanted the small-town feel, surrounded by beautiful historic homes, to escape our daily work lives in Atlanta.

“When talking to visitors as to why they came to Social for a visit, it always is the same: to eat at the Blue Willow and walk or drive in the historic district. If we do not continue to fight to save our older homes our city will ultimately lose much of its historic character that we have come to love and appreciate.”

Madeline Burgess is an active volunteer in Social Circle and the wife of former Mayor Jim Burgess.