What is that thing?
Thousands of us drive past it every day on Moreland Avenue. Many even wonder what it might have been, this, a hulking concrete structure just south of the IGA complex between East Confederate and Custer avenues on the west side of Moreland.
Last fall, I finally asked my neighbors about this odd structure, and discovered that it was once a vibrant Citizens & Southern (C&S) Bank, built in 1965 by Atlanta architect Kenneth Johnson as C&S Bank's flagship modernist branch.
But this week, the Atlanta Preservation Center identified our concrete and iron climbing helix as one of its 2011 Most Endangered Historic Places. The APC says:
"This building’s remarkable design is a response to its site located immediately to the west of Moreland Avenue and adjacent to a shopping center at 25 feet below street level. It is conceived as a curving set of six levels of spaces spiraling up around a central open court connecting the two levels of the site. The building’s inward focus emphasizes views of the plantings and fountain of the central court, avoiding the visual cacophony of Moreland Avenue."
Published in the August 1969 issue of Interior Design magazine the design is described as “…making the work spaces come alive with movement and creating a kind of ‘sculpture in motion.’” Johnson partnered with the Atlanta-based interior designer, William Trapnell, on many projects, including the C&S commissions…"
APC adds that a demolition permit was filed with the city in late 2010, just about the time we started the Facebook page.
The Atlanta Preservation Center’s list will bring fresh attention to this crazy-unique mid-century modern classic; in recent years it has become what many consider to be an urban eyesore. The property is overgrown, all of the windows gone, the courtyard is overgrown and squatters have left their unique urban art – and mounds of trash – behind. The “floating vault” so visible from Moreland has obviously been the home of drug-users and the graffiti they left behind is disturbing.
Since last November when I toured the building with some friends and created a Facebook page: Save This Crazy-Unique Mid-Century Modern Classic for the Community, I’ve learned a lot about this building, its history and its enduring hold on hundreds of people from all over the country.
The Facebook page has generated comments from citizens – including the Mr. Johnson’s granddaughter and former customers of the bank – as well as notable architects and architectural organizations. It’s clear that if the property were saved, it would be extremely difficult for it to be used as a public building. The climbing helix structure requires you to take a step up to the next level every few steps, and we’re told that adapting it to comply with Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements would not only be prohibitively expensive but also a logistical nightmare.
So what should be done to save this structure?
A New Idea: Museum Tracking the Lifespan of an Urban Treasure
Since actually seeing the state of its destruction last November and starting the Facebook page (Save This Crazy-Unique Mid-Century Modern Classic for the Community), we’ve heard from both citizens and architects about its their perception of its undeniable and abiding value.
Maybe an approach to preserve it involves the story of its lifespan, as an example to the community, design and architectural students, and preservationists of what can happen when we neglect our treasures.
Financially, its salvation has become more affordable: the price of the property has been reduced from $750,000 last fall to less than $230,000 earlier this spring. With this scheme, the owners wouldn’t have to invest in a complete restoration.
If a Mid-Century-Modern-Loving Angel would buy it, secure it and clean it up — in the sense of taking away all the garbage, tires, pruning the overgrowth, etc. but leaving the graffiti — it could be a new kind of urban museum, an example of the lifespan of some of our urban treasures, and an object lesson in preserving our architectural treasures.
The museum could feature photos from its heyday, its blueprints, and narratives about its creation, definitely from its creator, and also from people who were customers there. And the museum — not a memorial, but a celebration — would be as unique as the design and the structure itself. Long shot? Sure. But Mr. Johnson took a leap with that design.
I wonder if someone in Atlanta with deep pockets would be willing to take an equally large leap on a different kind of preservation of this incredible property! Perhaps it could be operated — especially for architectural students — through a partnership between DOCOMOMO Georgia Chapter (DOcumentation and COnservation of buildings and sites of the MOdern MOvement in Georgia); the American Institute of Architects, Atlanta Chapter; the Atlanta Preservation Center; the Atlanta History Center; Bank of America (which absorbed the banks that absorbed C&S)... and others, and staffed by docents.
Can this building be saved? Maybe. Should it be saved?