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Stop Moving Historic Structures

A fantastic new website, Savannah Agenda, is helping citizens understand our local government, businesses, and most importantly, the relationship between the two. Several recent posts have Savannahians pretty ticked. First, there is City Council’s vote to move the Waving Girl Statue down River Street to a new hotel development. (More on the Waving Girl here and the council vote here.) Second is a proposal to move a historic building two blocks so yet another new hotel can be built. The 119-year-old building, located at the corner of Lincoln and East Bryan streets, houses local favorite Abe’s on Lincoln. It’s a bar. Don’t judge, it’s important to us.

Picture from the City of Savannah Municipal Archives, posted on their Facebook page.

This proposal, combined with several other social media posts I’ve seen recently has inspired this rant: STOP moving old structures. There are good reasons that relocated structures are rarely eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

  1. Most importantly, when you move a historic structure you divorce the structure from its archaeological site.
  2. Relocation is almost always done so a property can be freed up for development, and the archaeological site is destroyed.
  3. Poorly done relocation destroys the larger landscape and viewshed.
  4. Finally, the idea that history should just shove over for new development is deeply arrogant and myopic. Only saving a historic structure while sacrificing an archaeological site is poor preservation at best and short-sighted arrogance at worst.

There are extremely rare circumstances when moving a historic structure is warranted. For example, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet away from the coast in 1999. Climate change and erosion had undermined the lighthouse to the point it was in danger of toppling. Clearly, a case where moving a structure was necessary for both preservation and safety reasons.

The relocation option needs to be taken off the table except in extreme circumstances. Planning commissions need to stop allowing it, and historic preservationists need to stop condoning it.

“sometimes ownership isn’t just a matter of who holds a mortgage with a bank, or whose name is on a property deed. A community can feel a sense of ownership for a historic site or a natural wonder in its midst.”

SOURCE: Altamont Enterprise Opinion page
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History Matters, to All

I was delighted to hear the Girl Scouts of America received an Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant to make Scouting and all Girl Scout programs more inclusive. From the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace blog: “Access for All: Advancing Girl Scouts’ Commitment to Disability Inclusion is a two-year initiative led by the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah, Georgia, that will consist of trainings, conversations and activities promoting inclusion, empowerment and equity for those living with disabilities. The trainings’ goal is to spark an ongoing conversation about disability history, culture, rights and advocacy within the Girl Scout Movement.”

As a former employee, I had a truly memorable experience while leading one Girl Scout troop tour of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace. One young Girl Scout had several disabilities including some difficulty walking, and perhaps some difficulty hearing (I can’t remember precisely). She was blind. But she loved art and was thrilled to learn that Daisy (Juliette Gordon Low) was also an accomplished artist. Another employee produced a pair of white cotton museum gloves. With the gloves on, we allowed her to touch Daisy’s sculpture Girl with Tortoise. This artist plaster original was in the front parlor at the time. She was able to “see” the sculpture through her touch and truly connect to another artist and the Girl Scouts’ founder.  The wonder and amazement on this young woman’s face still brings tears to my eyes. 

Girl with Tortoise sculpture. Image from the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace website.

We were not serving her remotely adequately with a traditional tour. But with some quick thinking, we improvised and created a lasting, special memory we all treasure. But most importantly, we made history come alive to everyone in that room. We made Juliette Gordon Low a vital, creative, force of nature again in her childhood home. 

More from the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace blog: “‘Many people don’t know that Juliette Low had profound hearing loss throughout her life, making her birthplace the perfect location for Girl Scouts’ new initiative, Access for All, to offer inclusion training for the birthplace staff, Girl Scout troops and their leaders, and other local audiences,’ explained birthplace Executive Director Lisa Junkin Lopez. Perhaps because of this hearing impairment, which worsened in adulthood, Low uniquely understood the value of Girl Scouts for girls with disabilities. As a result, the organization has long been inclusive of girls with disabilities, and it aims to serve all girls equally.

Staircase at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace