Parts of the historic Douglass House were reduced to rubble Friday, and it will be a while before the dust settles for battle-weary preservationists.
“It sets a terrible precedent,” said Ethiel Garlington, executive director of Historic Macon Foundation.
Garlington was one of several people who tried to save the home of Charles Douglass, a prominent black businessman in the early 1900s.
Even after the excavator tore off the back porch, Summer Bozeman was on the phone out front, trying to find someone who could help save remnants of the two-story brick house at 873 Pine St.
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“It’s just a shame,” Bozeman said. “There are a lot of nice things coming out of there. I was hoping something could be salvaged and sent to the Tubman (African American Museum), but it’s terribly short notice.”
Owner Lou Patel said he is saving mantels and planned to give one to the Douglass family and use the other in the doughnut shop he’s building next door. The Douglass House property will be used for parking.
Even Patel was not happy about the demolition.
“I hate this had to happen,” he said, as crews were removing doors and fixtures from the house. “I wish they would have moved it or could have moved it.”
Patel secured a demolition permit Thursday after a Savannah engineer found several areas throughout the structure that are near collapse.
John Kern, president of Kern & Co., stated in a Nov. 3 letter to Patel that the building was “beyond repair at this point and needs to be demolished to eliminate itself as a safety hazard.”
Neglect over the years allowed moisture to rot the roof, deck, framing, flooring and ceilings. Multiple instances of termite damage, deteriorating brick and sinking foundation piers also were cited.
Last month, the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission voted 3-2 against demolition, but evidence of structural damage overrides their vote.
“Safety supersedes all,” said Tom Buttram, director of Business Development Services for Macon-Bibb. “P&Z is the design arm; we’re the safety arm. Building codes have nothing to do with aesthetics.”
About a week ago, Buttram’s office informed Patel he would need to make the building structurally sound or tear it down.
The Warner Robins businessman plans to build a Dunkin’ Donuts in the adjacent vacant lot where the Tremont Temple Baptist Church stood. The historic church that hosted Martin Luther King Jr. also was in disrepair and was torn down in March after P&Z approval.
Again, Historic Macon and others opposed demolition, but no plan materialized to save it.
Patel said he has gone to great lengths and expense in preparation to move the Douglass House.
“I’ve done everything I could to save it,” he said while sitting in his car outside the house Friday.
State Rep. James Beverly originally signed a contract to move the building, but that deal and other efforts to save the house fell through.
This fall, Urban Development Authority Chairman Chris Sheridan gathered financial donors who pledged $90,000 of an estimated $121,000 needed to move the building.
Sheridan was in the process of confirming those donors when the engineer’s report recommended demolition.
He said the fight to save the building has exposed cracks in the preservation process.
“Regardless of what anybody says, this building was very savable, if people willed it to be so,” said Sheridan, who is a building contractor.
Once the literal and figurative dust-up settles following the demolition, he hopes revisions will be made.
“Every person that looks at Macon from out of town says our most important asset in downtown is our historic building stock,” Sheridan said. “The process we have followed has not been true to our historic zoning ordinance.”
Garlington said the demolition overshadowed Macon’s recognition at the National Trust for Historic Preservation convention this week in Savannah.
“It’s embarrassing for us to be held up in such high regard on the national level, yet we’re still fighting historic preservation battles waged generations ago,” he said.
Garlington, too, believes policy changes are necessary.
“Our code clearly has a flaw when people can skip the whole P&Z process,” he said. “All they have to do is present one letter.”
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. Telegraph writers Oby Brown and Linda Morris contributed to this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.