Originally created 04/22/00

City's historic buildings get protection



SAVANNAH -- Dozens of historic buildings that dot Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and nearby streets don't look any different today than they did yesterday. But 44 sites won a battle against time Thursday.

The Savannah City Council added the buildings and properties -- some dating back to colonial days, others just 50 years old -- to a list of buildings that get an extra layer of protection from bulldozers and wrecking balls.

Owners will now have to win city approval to demolish the buildings, which are in various stages of renovation and decay. For history buffs and preservationists, the change is an example of good coming out of bad.

Now that the buildings are protected by the zoning ordinance, owners requesting a demolition permit must get the approval of the city's historic review board. If it doesn't approve the request, the board can enact a 12-month stay to prevent demolition.

Alderman David Jones said Thursday that council's action is belated, but appreciated.

"If demolition would have continued along that street, there'd be nothing to remind us that we had businesses and lived on MLK," Mr. Jones said. "It was the mecca of the black community. It should have happened a long time ago."

The ordinance signals a new city approach toward preservation.

Patricia Lee, who runs the Allure Salon and Day Spa on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, is happy the city is recognizing the importance of Savannah's black history. In the decades before desegregation, the street thrived.

"The kids here don't know some of what their ancestors went through just to get them to this day," she said. "The beatings some took, the hardship, the ridicule."

But the action is more than a gesture to one group of people. It's also an investment in the boulevard's future, and an attempt to woo tourists to other parts of the city.

The buildings don't inspire images of hoop skirts and top hats, and they may not lure tourists as easily as the more romantic mansions do. But Beth Reiter, the city's preservation officer, said people are beginning to realize the importance of preserving the recent past.

"We'd be doing a disservice to demolish some of these buildings," Ms. Reiter said. "Are we just going to have a blank from 1920 to 1960 and say nothing happened? That's not true."

History can't be frozen at one point, Ms. Reiter explained. It's constantly evolving. The juxtapositions of unique buildings from disparate decades add to Savannah's charm. And she says the street's missing teeth -- its empty lots -- provide developers with a chance to build from scratch.

"The historic buildings are the reason developers come to Savannah," she said. "There's plenty of room in between."