By Steven Uhles
It was the grandest of structures by all accounts. Its imposing bulk and impressive façade dominated the landscape, taking up acres of real estate at the corner of 8th and Broad streets. The then newly constructed Bell Auditorium was its neighbor and a spacious park, decades before the Augusta Common, stretched out in front of it. I guess it was quite a sight and a real architectural feat. I guess so because I’ve only seen photos of it in boxes of aging postcards. You see, Augusta’s Union Station was torn down in 1972, long before I came onto the scene. In its place, the Augusta Post Office was erected.
Let me acknowledge a few things. The last passenger train departed Union Station in 1968. That’s a long time for a significant structure to lie dormant. Also, it sounded like Augusta might have needed a central post office. But the old Union Station’s absence from the landscape and, for the most part, collective memory makes me curious as to the nature of this community — or the approach to civic planning not only in terms of architectural legacy but its artistic one as well.
In remembering Rome or Athens — the ones in Europe, not North Georgia — we measure those societies by the things they left behind. At some point (most estimate about 500 A.D.), the performances, battles and other assorted exhibitions ceased at the architectural wonder of Rome’s Colosseum. It was not torn down and replaced with a medieval letter sorting station. Instead, it was preserved and repurposed. Over the centuries that followed it was used as a castle, a cemetery, even an early example of an apartment building and a shopping mall before eventually becoming Rome’s primary tourist attraction in the 18th century. The Romans, it seems, were concerned with building a city that would continue to thrive while preserving its past.
I bring this up because in recent years I’ve noted very little concern for what Augusta will leave behind. There have been a few notable preservation efforts – Sacred Heart Church in the 1990s, Enterprise Mill and the Miller Theater more recently – but there have been just as many buildings destroyed or, worse yet, left derelict until destruction becomes the only practical course of action. We talk about the resurrection of Broad Street, and while many of the 19th and 20th Century storefronts have found new life, there are still quite a few that are slowly slipping away behind walls of warped plywood.
I’m not saying that we should approach the fate of every structure – or statue and mural – like a flock of starry-eyed Pollyannas. Augusta is a growing, contemporary and, hopefully, future-facing community. That’s great. I hope to be among those who lead this community into a successful 21st Century (and beyond). But I remain concerned there are conversations – important ones – that are often taken too lightly or not had 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 are discarding or, more criminally, ignoring? There are a couple of examples. The penthouse on the roof of Broad Street’s Lamar Building, constructed in 1976. Although much derided and perhaps at stylistic odds with the building it caps, the penthouse, colloquially known as the Toaster, was designed by I.M. Pei, one of the 20th Century’s most important and innovative architects. Yet, today it sits empty, shattered 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 intent of restoration, but I have to wonder what fate awaits the Toaster. Almost certainly it will become a point of aesthetic interest in the next few decades. But will Augusta have opted to plaster over its past, declaring the Toaster too out-of-sync with contemporary style to survive? Is it a Union Station appropriation waiting to happen? One thing working in its favor are the challenges presented by bringing down a structure 18 stories in the sky.
Much more vulnerable is the Woolworth Building on Broad. Architecturally, it is a rare and beautiful example of an Art Moderne retail space. While the long stretch of a soda fountain is gone, there is enough of the building remaining to deem it worthy of preservation. And despite a nearly constant flirtation with enthusiastic investors, the building has yet to find its savior. The plywood, something of a constant in this discussion, remains firmly in place. I suspect, 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 far less attractive or historically significant in its place. Just ask the radio station once owned by James Brown. It’s now the fortress that is the Richmond County Board of Education – a building that did not necessarily require the location.
Considering what we leave behind does, of course, mean more than preservation. When we construct, how much discussion revolves around form while talking about function? How much around functional lifespan? What will it take to preserve a structure or piece of art? Our recent spate of murals – a trend I am particularly fond of – immediately springs to mind. Are we placing that art on buildings that will survive? What are we doing to mitigate exposure to the elements? We enjoy them today. How many tomorrows will they have?
That said, there are always forward-facing projects being developed with the future in mind. My favorite current idea is Leonard ‘Porkchop’ Zimmerman’s seemingly eternal quest to transform the J.B. Whites water tower into one of his famous smiling robots. I, for one, hope he succeeds. That, in my mind, is something worthy of being left behind.
Opening photo – JB Whites Water tower
Appears in the June/July 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.