By Charles Lawrence, Guest Contributor
I hope you have heard the story about the plight of a small, unassuming, historic brick building at 152 Nassau Street in downtown Atlanta. The AJC recently noted, “Before Dolly, Cash, Hank, and even Jimmie Rodgers, Fiddlin’ John Carson sat in a downtown Atlanta loft and sang … two songs, “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane’ and ‘The Old Hen Cackled’ that would become the first hit record in the musical genre known today as country.” It’s a great story, and the connections between music history and 152 Nassau Street don’t end with Carson. Ralph Peer, an executive with Okeh Records, recorded all kinds of southern music, gospel, folk, and country at 152 Nassau, before packing up and returning to New York City.
Now, nearly 90 years later, Margaritaville Resorts, a brand based on a hit song by Jimmy Buffett’s 1977 hit song, is on the verge of tearing 152 Nassau down. This is a story of an unassuming little brick commercial building in downtown Atlanta, the one-time home of a ground-breaking recording session, and the irony-wrapped threat of demolition for a Margaritaville, owned by the same Jimmy Buffett
It’s a good story but it’s understandable that few are willing to take action to save 152 Nassau, or the other little old building caught up in all of this, at 141 Walton Street. Both buildings, though about 100 years old and recognized as historic local landmarks, are only three-stories tall, maybe 30 feet wide, and a half-block long. Maybe 4,000 square feet each of commercial space. The dense downtown fabric of similar buildings that once surrounded them is long gone, replaced by parking lots, mostly, and bordered by Centennial Olympic Park, among other entertainment destinations. 152 Nassau and 141 Walton Street are the last of their kind.
And frankly, it’s easy to look past one moment in history, regardless of its significance, and not see anything but two small, old buildings. But, what nearly all the stories missed is that reusing small, old buildings is an essential ingredient to developing a culturally rich, vibrant, and authentic downtown – regardless of their history.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs said that “Cities need old buildings [plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings] so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.” This claim has been studied numerous times, and every time the results are conclusive: small, old buildings matter.
Small, old buildings provide space for creative class and startup industries. Atlanta, ranked with New York and San Francisco for its startup culture, could use more, not fewer, small old buildings. It’s vital that cities, and the citizens within them, work to reuse older, smaller buildings and look for ways to infill new development into the existing urban fabric instead of demolishing perfectly good buildings.
Sure, 152 Nassau is the birthplace of the country music industry and 141 Walton housed a film-exchange, distributing Gone With the Wind among other films, but neither is a Grand Ol’ Building. Neither inspires the kind of awe that the Fox Theater or Swan House do. They are small, old buildings and without them, downtown loses another part of its authenticity. What exists around Nassau and Walton Streets is the result of the same thinking that allows two more small, old buildings to join the well over 500,000,000 tons of demolition waste produced each year. There’s that too.
I’d like to suggest to anyone reading this, that you contact the Mayor’s Office, or your City Council rep., and tell them why the buildings are historic and worth saving, but I know most of you won’t. But maybe you will because reusing plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings is good for cities. Or, maybe because you don’t want to see so much material waste. Or the thought of wasting embodied energy bothers you. Maybe you would like to preserve the public process and allow the community to decide on how its few authentic remaining streets get revitalized.
(Charles Lawrence is an Architectural Conservator and Preservation Planner. He has over a decade of experience bringing new life to old buildings. He is also a founding board member for Historic Atlanta, a not-for-profit that works to save and thoughtfully use historic places.)