Signs of history, signs of change.

“We have caught the sunshine in the bricks and mortar of our homes and have builded therein not one ignoble prejudice or memory,” said Henry Grady, managing editor of The Atlanta Constitution in the 1880s.

Mills Lane IV quoted Grady in the introduction to the 1971 Beehive Press edition of The New South: Writings and Speeches of Henry Grady. Lane wrote that Grady fostered the idea that “slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction were in the past” and “had faith in industrial development, economic nationalism and orderly social change.”

Events Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., show that we seem to take one century step forward and two century steps back. I tell my Chinese and Korean language students that we are a baby country compared to their ancient civilizations. It does often seem when we talk about race, we babble, or talk around the issue, or ignore it for as long as we can.

Painting by Panhandle Slim installed on side of 19th-century house in Savannah

Paul Suszynski certainly spoke clearly at the most recent Historic Site and Monument Commission meeting when he said that the only people opposed to the Panhandle Slim painting of Nina Simone on the side of his historic home were “old white guys.” He said it while acknowledging himself as one of the same. He said tour buses would stop, tell the story of the Simone song, “Sunday in Savannah,” and people would take pictures with the sign.

Few people were in the audience, but one man rose quickly in protest and board member Delores Engle said she resented that board members could be considered racist for opposing the sign on a historic house. She said she liked the art. She just didn’t think it was appropriate where it was currently placed and pointed to the objection of Historic Savannah Foundation about the lack of visual compatibility.

This was round two of the homeowner’s attempt to keep the Nina Simone art on the wall.  Round one had been at the Historic District Board of Review. Both boards had to OK the placement.

Preservation staff for Savannah had also originally cited lack of visual compatibility, but they changed their recommendation to approval once the review board had ruled the painting was compatible with its surroundings.

Ellen Harris, Director of Historic Preservation and Urban Planning said once that was decided, staff moved on to the other standards such as theme, design and artist qualifications.

The Historic District Board of Review had had a somewhat nuanced discussion of the breadth of history and whose history the board was charged with preserving before they voted 4-3 to approve the art.

When the issue moved to the Site and Monument Commission for round two, chairman Eli Karatassos led the discussion about frustration with signs going up willy-nilly without permission and applicants asking for forgiveness. He pointed out that the Walls of Hope project that had put Panhandle Slim paintings on multiple buildings had already had art approved after the fact and had even been given dispensation so that staff could give approval.

Although the picture and words of Simone look much like the Walls of Hope art, and it was listed as such in the staff report, Erika Hardnett, a representative of that group said the Simone art was not part of their efforts, although she supported the Simone petition.

The 3-3 vote of the Site and Monument Commission meant Simone had lost round two and she came down, but Harris said Friday that Suszynski has already reapplied to put Simone back up. The board seemed to suggest they might look more favorably on a request for permission rather than forgiveness especially if the artwork had a coating to protect her from the weather and possible graffiti.

The only other mural on the Site and Monument Commission agenda was the botanical illustrations proposed for the façade of Carlstedt’s Wholesale Florist warehouse on Barnard Street. One neighbor objected, but the board passed that project unanimously.

Carlstedt’s Wholesale Florist successfully petitioned the Site and Monument Commission and the Historic District Board of Review to change these panels on their shop at 515 Barnard Street.

SCAD graduate and artist Kyle Millsap will paint the botanical panels that will be installed on Carlstedt’s. He has painted large scale murals for Parker’s Market, Byrd Cookie Company, and is working with the new West Elm Hotel.

Gene Carpenter who worked with Mills Lane on his books and other projects said she thought he had his hand-painted signs commissioned as an education tool about the Beehive Foundation. “I think they were just an extension of his restorations – beautiful signs for beautiful restorations and a way to cohesively tie all of his restorations together — an ID, so to speak, for his work.”

Gwathney House with sign announcing it would be restored

When Lane started the restoration of the 1823 Humphrey Gwathney House on Broughton Street, his painted sign showing the new façade competed for attention with the glowing “Used Car” sign next door. The business that had installed the Welsh Pawn Shop signs on the basement floor of the house had moved down the street and later to the southside.

Gwathney House before restoration

The Gwathney House has seen its ups and downs. It was raised to make space for the pawn shop in the 1880s when Grady was writing about the New South. In the early 1990s Lane worked with architect Harvie P. Jones and had the building lowered to return it to its original elevation. Hydraulic jacks were used to prevent damage to decorative elements and preserve the interior plaster. The late 19th-century alterations such as Victorian window headers and brackets were removed. When the wall around the side porch was removed, louvers in the porch rail were found and restored.

View of Gwathney House, 401 E. Broughton Street, after the house was raised an extra story and a pawn shop set up on the ground floor

The description of the restoration of this house and others in these blog posts are based on Lane’s records; discussions with architects; and coordinated writing efforts with Gene Carpenter; Lane’s partner Gary Arthur; and Dirk Hardison who from 1998 to 2006 worked as the Architectural Design Consultant for Historic Savannah Foundation, a position that Lane funded to assist homeowners to achieve historically accurate renovations. Versions of the descriptions have appeared in publications that the Beehive Foundation has helped produce.

Completed exterior restoration of Gwathney House at 401 E. Broughton Street

Enslaved people likely helped build the Gwathney House and most of the other early downtown grand houses. How we show signs of that history and contributions of the many who followed and continue to lead will fill more than one agenda.

Simone sang after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed:

One more
Sunday in Savannah
Hear the whole creation shoutin’
Praise the Lord

See them flinging out the banner
While the congregation says amen

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.

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