Letter to the Editor | Nichols House: History or Barrier to Progress?

| October 27, 2014

Dr. Richard T. Sager, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Valdosta State University:

As I sat down to write this piece, it occurred to me that exactly twenty-two years ago I was moving into my 1928 Colonial Revival home on Park Avenue. About a year and a half earlier than that, May 12, 1991 to be exact, I had taken a tour of homes designed by the architect of my new, rather old home: Lloyd Greer.

Mr. Greer, often referred to as Valdosta’s premier architect, had designed a large number of homes, churches, and public buildings, all over the city of Valdosta. His designs covered a wide variety of architectural styles from Spanish Mission, Mediterranean, English Vernacular Revival, Art Deco, International, and he worked at his craft for more than forty years, passing away in 1952.

Mr. Greer’s last project, which was completed by his associate, W. Connor Thomson in 1953, was so much different from the other designs for which he had received architectural acclaim, that it caused quite a stir. Greer had designed a ranch style that reminded many people of the internationally famous designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius.

Nichols HouseIt was not just modern; it was “Ultramodern”. The Nichols family, which commissioned this final Lloyd Greer project, wanted a house reminiscent of their native California, with lots of brick and wood and glass, featuring a bi-nuclear floor plan with a wing of bedrooms and bathrooms separated by a kitchen, living and utility rooms wing by a so-called hyphen of entry foyer, den, and hallway. It looked nothing like the grand Crescent downtown or the World War II era Alden Avenue American small houses about four blocks north of its 400 Baytree Road site. It didn’t even particularly resemble the traditional “neo-Valdosta” (as one of my colleagues referred to the ranch style houses sprouting up all over the City–three bedroom, 2 bath, living, dining, carport, brick veneer). Even the furniture in the Nichols House was built into the home, much the way that Frank Lloyd Wright built his into Taliesin and many of the other homes he designed.

When I decided that I wanted an older home, I asked a realtor friend to show me everything on the market in Valdosta at that time that might fairly be considered historic. I was able to narrow the list to six, five of which were designed by Lloyd Greer and that had been on the tour the previous year. All but one of the Greer Five had the architectural features that identify a home as a Lloyd Greer design: principally arches everywhere. If the fireplaces aren’t arched, the ceiling are, or the telephone nook is. But the Nichols House, which was on my realtor’s list to see lacked those features, because it is a wholly different style.

To some people, it is an inferior style. Postwar ranch styles have become so commonplace that, even though those built within the past fifty years are considered by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Places to be historic, many people scoff at the notion that a house built after they were born could be historic, Therefore, trying to protect “modern” historic properties is always a heavy lift.

I must confess that I much prefer Lloyd Greer’s earlier work to his later. I also like Rembrandt more than Picasso and Van Gogh more than deKooning. And I like my 1928 Colonial Revival more than the 1953 Ultramodern. That’s why I bought it. However, the Ultramodern is a whole lot more rare, particularly in this region of the country. Arguably, it is unique. My Colonial Revival is somewhat protected from destruction by a Demolition Company’s wrecking ball because it is in a National Register of Historic Places Historic District. The Ultramodern is not.

When the neighbors in the Alden Park Neighborhood saw that wrecking ball coming, they tried to rally. They hired a renowned architectural historian: he said the Nichols House is historical. They did further research, and asked the Valdosta Historic Preservation Commission to designate the Nichols House an historic property: the VHPC did so. The Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was asked if the Nichols House is historic: they say it is.

So, who says it’s not? The Developer who wants to demolish it along with a whole bunch of other adjacent properties says it’s not. The group of fraternity alumni who own the Nichols House, and allowed it to deteriorate through neglect, and then tried to sell it for half a million dollars in a soft market, says it’s not. Six of the seven members of the Valdosta City Council, who tried so desperately to attract a Charleston Company to develop another apartment complex across from the VSU Fine Arts Building, only to have that company put the project on hold say it’s not.

So whether the Nichols House is historic or not is really a moot point. It stands in the way of progress. Preservationists don’t seem to understand simple economics. Sure, everyone likes old houses. Those “painted ladies” in San Francisco. Those gorgeous mansions in Newport. Those antebellum manor houses in Natchez.  Who wouldn’t want to live in one of them? But they are expensive to maintain, veritable “money pits”, anyone who has ever owned one will tell you. What is the “highest and best use” of a property two blocks from the Baytree Road approach to VSU’s beautiful campus? Is it a historically significant architectural gem, or a four bedroom, four bath apartment complex, with one hundred eighty parking spaces for college students, surrounded by empty rental houses and other four bedroom, four bath partly empty apartment complexes with hundreds more parking spaces?

Valdosta has had an historic preservation ordinance since the early 1980s. We passed it because all up and down beautiful Patterson and Ashley Streets, old Victorian homes and turn-of-the-century buildings were being demolished to be replaced by convenience stores and other commercial buildings, which were admittedly unattractive, but cheap to build and cheap to maintain. Ladies of the Garden Clubs joined forces with preservationists and professionals- turned -preservationists to end the destruction of our community. We looked north, east, and south and saw what was happening in cities like Charleston, Savannah, and St. Augustine.

Historic preservation meant not just more beautiful cities; it meant more prosperous cities, as well. Historic tourism is good business, and worth the cost of streetscape projects, encouraging preservation, promoting amenities. But, how quickly we forget. Each time we demolish an old house in the name of progress, a part of our community fabric is ripped apart. I know of no one who travels to cities to marvel at their four bedroom, four bath student apartments, with their one hundred and eight parking places.

Dr. Richard T, Saeger is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Valdosta State University. He is a long time member of the Valdosta Historic Preservation Commission. He also served as a member of the Georgia Alliance of Preservation Commissions and is a member of the Board of the Valdosta Heritage Foundation. He is a 2014 Recipient of the Harold M. Bennett Lifetime Achievement Award for Historic Preservation

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6 Comments on "Letter to the Editor | Nichols House: History or Barrier to Progress?"

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  1. Right on! says:

    Great work sir! Valdosta doesnt need another eyesore apartment complex with more asphalt and cement. but the city council is convinced that more parking lots and more apartments means more development. but it really means less culture.

  2. J Schnetzer says:

    I so agree, but I have learned in my 47 years that there are many that do not grasp the past. They look only to the future and do not care about distruction of where we came from! I have been in that house and it reeks of urine and disrepair, but it is still worth saving. How do we teach our children about the past when all they see is blue and white signes everywhere? I know that we live in a college town, but the college does not need to destroy our town to make it there own. Savannah put classes in old buildings, they did not destroy the old buildings. Save one for the great memory of our town!

  3. Tina says:

    Sure….the best thing for VALDOSTA is another apartment complex for the noisy and RUDE college kids from ATLANTA. The City should buy this house and renovate it into a museum. But no theyd rather put in another apartment complex with a sprawling parking lot. Whoever thinks that is development and beautification has never seen what a nice town looks like. Valdosta –> Backwards USA.

    • Momma says:

      Ironic, that historical preservation in ATLANTA
      is revered and began many years ago. Same
      with Trees Atlanta. Probably begun by some of
      those “rude” college kids after seeing what can
      happen in backwards places like Valdosta.

  4. Nancy says:

    Great article! I so hope that wiser heads prevail and the Nichols house is saved. C’mon Valdosta leadership!

  5. Teri says:

    Save the house.There is enough apartments in that area already.