Recently, I’ve read with sadness and intrigue about a new subdivision being proposed less than a few miles away in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia. The proposed development combined four parcels with two existing houses and will create eight buildable lots. In the process, one 1928-historically significant (yet unprotected) residence will likely be torn down. I’m sad the old house will be torn down. I’m intrigued at the uproar from some members of the community. The mixed emotions emerge from living in a residence which was once similarly situated.
The Meredith House was built in 1938 up on a hilltop nearly 350 feet from the road below on a nearly twenty-acre parcel. When completed, there wasn’t another house in sight. In fact, there wasn’t another house within a quarter mile in all directions. Within a year or two, that had changed. Within seventy years, there were over a hundred surrounding houses and two schools. By 2008, plans to subdivide the remaining Meredith House property were drawn up. The subdivision created five buildable lots. In the process, one 1938-historically significant (yet unprotected) residence would be torn down, over 150 specimen trees would be felled, and over 1500 dump trucks of dirt would be hauled away to tear the hill down as well.
At the time, there was some uproar from some members of the community. However, nearly all the lots surrounding the Meredith House were significantly smaller and zoning regulations allowed subdividing the property. Economic conditions ultimately changed the narrative and saved the Meredith House. Nothing less. Nothing more.
I don’t know if it’s uniquely American (or not), but we don’t like to be told what we can (or cannot) do with our possessions. This includes our houses and land. If an individual lives on an acre of land where only a half acre is required for a buildable lot, then that individual is generally free to divide the property into two buildable lots. The broader community and neighbors have little to no say in the matter. It’s the individual’s ‘right.’
In an expanding community, land will become a more valuable commodity. As undeveloped land disappears, developers have to move further and further away from a community’s core or increase the density of currently-used parcels closer to the core. Both of these scenarios have occurred in the Atlanta area, which has created both urban sprawl and in-fill housing. Some of the community’s vitriol seems directed at the developers. Why not? They’re easy prey.
This is misguided. The developers are only trying to meet the demands of the same community decrying the ‘greedy’ behavior. If the community was shrinking, the available supply of housing would meet demand. The developer would have no financial incentive to subdivide land and demolish historic houses. Yet, the community would then decry the loss in property value, economic gain, and prosperity.
Add an old house to this equation and things get even more complex. Most residential construction is not completed with a 1000-year lifespan in mind. In fact, “the estimated average housing lifespan in the United States is 130 years” according to a 2020 Journal of Architectural Engineering article. Yet, another survey showed the median age of owner-occupied housing the in the U.S. in 2015 was only 37 years old. The discrepancy may be a function of mean and median. Older houses generally have more deferred maintenance requirements. An entire genre of television emerged based on this phenomenon starting with This Old House.
Old houses need updates and repairs. This could be costly and make the house a Money Pit. Somewhere along the way, the land value exceeds the house’s value. That is, the house only has value in the eyes of the beholder and not true economic value. The Meredith House likely lives at this point (and has for some time).
In 2008, the Meredith House was worth significantly less than the land it occupied. Only during a significant housing recession did the home’s value contribute value to the underlying land. Based on recent neighborhood developments and the remaining property acreage, the Meredith House would most certainly be at risk of demolition again.
Which brings us to historic preservation. Given the relative youth of the United States, the definition of “historic” here is fifty years or older. The National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) is “the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation.” Shouldn’t all historic properties be registered? In my opinion, yes. But, they aren’t. The process is detail-oriented, documentation-heavy, and time-consuming. I should know – – the Meredith House was listed on November 30, 2018 after five years of arduous (yet rewarding) work.
The Meredith House is the only owner-occupied single family residence listed on the NRHP within the confines of the Buckhead neighborhood from the last decade. There are only fourteen houses listed from the neighborhood in total. Only 231 properties in Fulton County are listed on the NRHP, which is under one percent of all parcels. Why aren’t more houses listed in the NRHP? Again, simple economics.
Having a property listed on the NRHP does not restrict the demolition, renovation, or alteration of the property by the owner. The National Register of Historic Places is simply a register. However, the public’s perception of restrictions likely prevents homeowners from seeking out the designation. The designation then detracts from value – – because perception (of restrictions) is everything. (And, your homeowner’s insurance premiums will rise because you now live in a historic structure).
Few people are willing to spend a bunch of time researching a properties history, writing a thesis on the property, submit and present the tome to a government agency for critique and judging – – only to having ‘won’ the prize of a listing on the NRHP to likely decrease your property’s fair market value. Remember, you have just documented all the property’s flaws and unadulterated features for the world to view at their leisure. It’s a whole lot easier to sit back, do nothing, and let the land value rise.
To be clear, we love the Meredith House. But, like any long-standing relationship, there are days of pining for separation. Separation from the leaky roof. Separation from the leaky, single-paned windows. Separation from the inoperable original steel-casement window cranks. Separation from the original two-pronged electrical outlets. Separation from the slick-as-ice-when-wet original slate walkway. Separation from the flying squirrel family claiming squatters rights in an attic nook.
Most homeowners of historic houses have made a poor financial decision. I know we have. We have opted to exchange the usual and customary home-owning investment return for a property we love. Don’t feel sorry for us. The land value still appreciates. The house we occupy generally does not. We will continue to try to be good stewards of the property and do not intend to become our own slumlords. The Meredith House is not a museum, not run as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, not backed by a foundation, does not have capital campaigns, and does not have a GoFundMe account. A number of visitors of the Meredith House commented: “Oh, I looked at this house when it was for sale.” To which, I reply: “Ah, you were wiser than we were.” My retort is, at least in part, meant tongue in cheek. Owning a historic home is truly a labor of love.
So, to the members of the community in an uproar over an unprotected, historic home being demolished to meet the desires of a growing region, I would challenge you to put your money where your mouth is. First, consider buying a historic home for yourself. Make the commitment of time, energy, and money. List the property on the National Register of Historic Places, which permanently documents the property. Second, consider supporting historic renovation projects and organizations. Again, make the commitment of time, energy, and money to those properties undergoing preservation. Third, consider supporting lawmakers and legislation that would make it more financially feasible to preserve historic properties. These could be grants, tax credits, or tax abatements for single-family historic homes on the local, state, and national level. Currently, these are paltry and provide little to no incentive for the private, owner-occupied historic residence. Finally, try not to disparage the ‘greedy’ homeowner or developer when you read about the potential demolition of a historic house. Let your anger and sadness compel you to help change the economic incentives.
I used to wonder who would tear down this old house. Now, I wonder who (ultimately) wouldn’t tear down this old house.