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Constitution Crisis

Architects' group aims to save a local shrine to modernism


Saving a historic building in Atlanta, the city too busy to care about its past, has rarely been easy.

For instance, every two years, the Atlanta Preservation Center releases its list of some of the city's endangered buildings, as it did earlier this month. But the list has no legal authority and seemingly carries little weight among developers or property owners. Bulldozers took down a row of 1920s apartments on Peachtree Road the day before they appeared on the center's 2003 list, and the Alcoa Building next to the Temple in Midtown was demolished last year.

Which is why a group of Atlanta architects have taken up the cause of saving the Atlanta Constitution Building, a streamlined brick office building that represents one of the city's earliest forays into the modernist style.

Built in the era of legendary Atlanta Constitution Editor Ralph McGill, the building sits at the corner of Alabama and Forsyth streets at the edge of "the gulch," the warren of train tracks that lies two stories below street level. It opened in the first week of 1948 with street-level shops lining the sidewalk.

The Constitution's tenure there was brief; the company merged with the Journal in 1950 and moved around the corner into that paper's headquarters. The papers moved into the current headquarters on Marietta Street around 1972. Beginning in 1950, the Constitution Building served as Georgia Power headquarters, then housed short-term tenants. The city bought the building in the mid-'90s and made repairs, hoping to rent it during the 1996 Olympics, but no one took the bait and the structure has been vacant ever since.

Gracefully rounded corners and curves, as well as strong horizontal lines of windows, distinguish the Constitution Building as an important post-war contribution to the American modernist movement, says architect Thomas Little.

Little is president of the Georgia chapter of DoCoMoMo, shorthand for Documentation and Conservation of Architecture of the Modern Movement, an international organization founded in the Netherlands to preserve historic modernist architecture.

The group's focus on the Constitution Building, however, isn't merely academic. The seven-story structure - two floors are below street level - is slated for destruction to make way for the Georgia Department of Transportation's long-planned multimodal station, which will serve as a hub for passenger rail, bus lines and MARTA.

The problem, Little says, is that the DOT started with the assumption that the Constitution Building would be destroyed and has never considered how it could be adapted for reuse as an element of the station, which is what his group is advocating.

"We want to ensure that the city understands the significance of the building before it gives it to the DOT," he says.

The DOT is receiving $106 million for the first phase of commuter rail, including the multimodal station and upgrading track between Atlanta and Lovejoy. Renovating the Constitution Building likely would take all that money, an official says.

The building remains on the wrecking-ball hit list.

scott.henry@creativeloafing.comVisit to see how you can help or to buy a "Save the Constitution" T-shirt.

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