Some people look at an old house or run-down mill property and see the worst.
Elizabeth Barker sees the historic value -- both economic and cultural -- of the structures.
For the last eight years, she has been the executive director of the Historic Columbus Foundation, an organization at the forefront of the community's preservation movement.
Recently, she sat down with reporter Chuck Williams to talk about her job and passion for it.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
Historic is defined, I guess, in its simplest terms through the National Trusts and the National Park Services, as anything over 50 years old.
That's a lot of Columbus, Ga.
It most definitely is. We have a lot of historic neighborhoods that are not necessarily historic districts.
Obviously, the oldest historic district here is the Downtown Historic District, right?
Correct. It was designated as a historic district initially in 1968. And it went through some boundary changes a couple of times -- a couple of tweaks -- but its initial designation was in 1968.
Why is it important to have neighborhoods or buildings designated historic?
Designation from a national level allows for a property owner to be eligible for tax credits and other tax incentives. It does not provide any local protection -- that comes only with local designation, which then involves the Board of Historic and Architectural Review. It is a city volunteer board.
When you look at what is historic in Columbus, what's the most historic structure in this city?
That's very hard to say. You can go simply by age, which the Walker-Peters-Langdon House is our oldest house here in the city. The log cabin which we just moved to Heritage Park is the oldest known structure. It's about 1800. And also St. Elmo, which is one of the earliest homes that was built as well.
What is Historic Columbus' role in protecting those places?
Our role? I think a varied one. From an advocacy standpoint, it is a part of our mission to advocate the benefits of historic preservation, to encourage more investment, to encourage more understanding about how to maintain historic property, and to ensure that it will continue to be around.
How did the historic movement start in Columbus?
Columbus actually has been on point with national movement from
Day One. The National Preservation Act was passed in 1966. Historic Columbus was founded in 1966. Initially you had focus being on house museums, which was Historic Columbus' initial focus along with determining what were your oldest areas in town that you try and designate as a National Register district and are trying to protect. Then it morphed into historic downtowns in that redevelopment, and further out to historic neighborhoods in the suburbs. So, you can sort of track what we've been doing over the past 50 years with how the move has been moving. ... The Housing Authority of Columbus was also an early and vital partner to the success of revitalizing the original city. Without their additional investment to purchase endangered properties and then put them into sympathetic hands, that neighborhood would not be as intact as it is today.
The original start though was in saving houses in the Historic District and the Springer, right?
The original impetus was, for Columbus itself, the saving of the Springer Opera House. There had been a lot of loss in Columbus in the '40s and '50s and early part of the '60s due to a variety of reasons, whether it be arson fires or some people not wanting to maintain their properties and would rather pay less property taxes.
Would this be a lesser place without the Springer Opera House?
Yes, most definitely. The Springer Opera House is the reason for it all. It was the line in the sand. It's what made people, especially that small group, really wake up and (say), "We're not going to take this anymore. And we need to preserve what makes us special in Columbus." That was the beginning.
When you look at the Springer Opera House today -- and you've got newer, flashier facilities -- where does the Springer stand in all of that?
The Springer stands right at the head of it. It is the most unique theater building that we have here in town. It tells a great story and it is also a wonderful facility from a theatrical standpoint as well. And they continue to grow and improve and make their product upon the same level.
When you look at the new stuff like the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts and then you look across the street at the Springer, how do they complement each other?
They play very well together from a standpoint of a facility and what each can provide to a customer, and also just from a different experience. I think they can fill different roles that a community of our size needs from a size and scale -- kind of, with the RiverCenter being a larger physical structure -- and it also has so many other different entities that are involved with it that are so wonderful culturally as well: the Schwob School of Music and the Columbus Symphony. So, it can fit that role of providing a home for those as well, whereas the Springer couldn't function with all of those needs.
Is the revitalization of downtown Columbus being done in a historical way as well as an economic way?
I think so; most definitely. I don't believe that what we're seeing today in Uptown would have been possible had it not been for the years of work Historic Columbus put in with building up the foundation in the original city historic district with the economic tools that we as an organization have been providing through our revolving fund and through our facade loans. Those are economic tools to spur private investment.
This organization not only preaches economic investment, it participates with those loans, right?
The facade loan program is a $5,000 interest-free loan for a private homeowner to do anything to the outside of their home, whether it is to reroof or repaint the outside. And it gets paid back over five years in time. So, when that gets paid back it frees up additional funds to be able to do it again.
Do you have to live in the Historic District to do that?
Yes, at the moment. That is the way that program is set up.
There are how many districts?
There are 11 historic districts.
Give me a couple of examples.
The Columbus Historic District, which is the original city downtown. There is High Uptown, the Liberty Heritage Historic District, Waverly Terrace, Weracoba-St. Elmo, Wynn's Hill-Overlook, Dinglewood, Peacock Woods-Dimon Circle, Wildwood Circle-Hillcrest, Bibb City and Wynnton Village. And we also have one National Historic Landmark District, which is the Industrial Riverfront.
When you look at the Rivermill District here, it's not what it was 25 years ago.
No, it's not.
Twenty-five years ago, there were textiles working down there. Today, there is none. Twenty-five years ago, did you see the possibility of $1 million loft apartments in that area?
No, not at all. I think I would have been clairvoyant if I had. But seeing the adaptive reuse capabilities that exist within our large historic buildings on the river, yeah, most definitely.
When you look at the adaptive reuse -- let's take Eagle & Phenix Mill -- from the standpoint of historical preservation, is it good or bad?
I would think it's great.
Historic buildings tell a story. They evolve. They grow. They change. And with structures like the Eagle & Phenix that are large and will no longer serve their original purpose, they have to grow and adapt. I think having residents and having restaurants and having different uses in them that require different needs is a wonderful thing.
Will we see more of that up and down the river?
I hope so.
Why is City Mills important? Why not just tear it down and start over and let somebody build something new on the river?
Well, outside of it being part of the National Historic Landmark District, it is the most significant building left in Columbus to restore of its kind. It is the oldest industry in Columbus. While there are buildings not from 1828, City Mills as an industry began in 1828.
It as a grist mill.
It was a grist mill.
Fifty years ago, the Springer Opera House was in an urgent situation. Is this on the same scale 50 years later?
I think so.
Why is this on the same scale as the Springer Opera House? Why does it have the same importance?
In my opinion, my sole opinion, it is one of he most important things that we ever had the opportunity to be part of.
That's a strong statement because y'all have done a lot of things over the years.
In the last couple of years, this organization has gotten a significant financial gift from Mrs. Weezie Butler.
What has that $1.5 million gift from her estate meant to this organization?
It has meant a tremendous amount to this organization. She was so generous to bequeath that gift to us, and of course Mrs. Butler was instrumental in starting Historic Columbus as well. Her gift was not restricted.
Which is unusual to nonprofit organizations, right?
It is highly unusual, and we are wanting to be transformative with it like we believe she would want us to.
And the City Mills project is part of that?
Yes, it is, definitely.
Would you be able to do this without that gift?
No. ... At this point we would not be able to enter into this partnership without it. We are going to be fund-raising for the project as well, but we are using Mrs. Butler's gift almost as a challenge.
You were talking about historic structures saved. Let's talk about historic structures lost. Last September, this community lost the Mott House. How significant was that?
That was devastating for the community and for TSYS.
What did you think when you heard the Mott House had burned or was on fire?
I really didn't want to believe it because it was one of those things that I just couldn't wrap my head around. I even waited a day or so to actually go down there because I just couldn't look at it.
Nearly a year later, it's still emotional to you, isn't it?
You're emotional talking about it right now.
Well, it was very emotional for a lot of people and for the TSYS family. And we have been so blessed that they are continuing to share the story of the Mott House and Muscogee Mills, and the importance of that site to this community with their new plans to memorialize the site.
Let's talk a little bit about historic preservation. How does someone become a historic preservationist?
Well, I think the easiest way is you find yourself having passion for something -- a building or a neighborhood -- that makes you want to protect it.
Where did your passion for that come from?
I grew up in downtown on Seventh Street.
How old were you when you moved there?
I was born there.
So, there weren't a lot of kids down there?
No. My parents were one of the first families to move back into the Historic District area. They bought their house in 1971, and it was sort of an early project of Dr. and Mrs. Butler. They restored it in 1968 to sort of be like a showpiece for other people to understand what those buildings can look like, what houses can be. So, the house sat empty for three years, perfectly restored, until my parents -- actually, as my father said, it was my mother's decision. She drove around down there and found the house and told him what he was going to do.
So, your passion came from growing up in the District.
I don't think I had another choice, quite frankly, or either my brain never gave me another choice. I've always known my neighborhood was different and it was special and I liked it. And my parents also took me to different historic sites all over the region and down the Eastern seaboard.
Williamsburg and Jamestown ...
You're getting ready to go to college: Are you thinking, "I want to be a historical preservationist?" Is that why you left here to get the education to do it?
For college, I didn't know what I wanted to do at that point. I knew I always loved history, but I never thought that I would make a good teacher. So, when I graduated from Huntingdon I worked for Historic Columbus. They asked me to come and be membership manager and it just all seemed to fall into place -- it made sense. I absolutely loved graduate school.
That was even more of a confirmation to me with the different classes and things. I loved every moment of it and I learned so much. And I realized honestly that I loved preservation as a career, but the only place I've really wanted to do it was here.
When you ended up back here, was Mrs. Biggers still the director or was Virginia Peebles the director?
Virginia was the current executive director and she was the third director. Biggers was the first executive director, followed by Patti Howard, then Virginia, and then Susan Lawhorne.
The two longest serving ones were Mrs. Biggers and Virginia, right?
They are both very active in this organization.
Yes, and I'm very thankful for that.
As someone who runs a nonprofit organization, do you lean on them? They have obviously been in your job, they understand this community -- do you lean on them?
In what ways?
I lean on them probably more than they would like for me to sometimes -- wonderful sounding boards, talking through different projects and aspects of how maybe to deal with something, and most recently the scope of our 50th anniversary.
Both of them are very strong women who have played large roles in the preservation, so they have their opinions, right?
Oh, my first day in class up at Georgia, John Waters, who was head of the preservation department, we were doing roll call and it was, "Elizabeth Barker, so is your goal in life to be Janice Biggers?" And I look at him and said, "Yes sir, it is. It's not a bad goal."
That speaks to Columbus being known on a state level for historic preservation.
Yes. Janice made certain Historic Columbus was known not only on the state level, but also on the national level. She was involved with the National Trust for many years, along with the National Park Service.
What foundation did Mrs. Biggers set for this organization?
She set it all. In my opinion, one of the most important foundations Janice set was the collaborate nature in this organization -- from a tour level, to working with other cultural arts partners about tourism, or working with the city and other non-profits to help further the overall development and mission of preservation, and showing how preservation can be woven into development.
Mrs. Howard came in and then Virginia came in and stayed -- what? -- 15 years or so?
She was here 13 years. And Mrs. Howard's focus was education. She really expanded our educational program tremendously through the "Our Town" book series and having put all of that into the school system. So, she set the foundation for our educational programs.
What did Virginia do?
Virginia took it all to the next level. She was really able to show why preservation was relevant, why it was needed outside that one Historic District, how it could play a vital role in bringing back our early suburbs, and for Midtown to be able to be formed. ...
This organization with all of its lofty ambition and goals doesn't exist without the generosity of the community, right?
Most definitely. We are solely here because of the generosity of our members and supporters, yes.
A lot of that generosity began with older more affluent families in this community. Why did they take an interest in historical preservation 50 years ago with the Springer and the Historic District?
Historic Columbus was so blessed to have leaders in our community interested in preservation from the beginning. Their desire was simply to make Columbus the best it could be for all. They were able to see the need for preservation in our community and respond to it. People like Clason Kyle, Weezie Butler, Janice Biggers, Ed Neal, Betty Corn, Joan Mize Holder, Sara Bickerstaff, Brown Nicholson, Dexter Jordan Sr., Bill Turner, the Woodruffs -- Emily, Jim and Barnett -- and so many more. It was their vision that made Historic Columbus and our work possible.
If you weren't in historic preservation, what would you be doing right now?
I've always been interested in antiques as well. I don't know specifically, but something with interior decorative art, maybe on a research level or something. I don't know.
One of the benefits of your job is you're working in a beautiful home, The Rankin House. Is it a pleasure to come to work every day in an old house?
It's wonderful to come to work every day in this space.
When people come in to talk to you about gifts or talk to you about projects, to be in this building, does that help to kind of make a statement?
I think that it certainly shows that we're vested in what we do.
In what way?
Well, she's not a cheap girl.
Restoring old structures is not cheap.
No, it's not.
What's the biggest high you've had in the eight years you've been the executive director of Historic Columbus Foundation?
Outside of them telling me that I was hired, I think City Mills, for me, is one of the biggest things I've been involved with.
So, that's going to make the next couple of years very important.
It really is, and just from that site of the mills' perspective, along with how it can help be that southern anchor for City Village, and for that revitalization effort that we're involved in.
And that's Mayor Tomlinson's effort to restore the area between Bibb City and TSYS.
Yes, and Historic Columbus is the project administrator for that effort.
What's the worst thing that's happened in your tenure here?
The Mott House. And the Bibb Mill. ... Those two losses I think have been horrible.
You said a minute ago a university professor asked if you wanted to be the next Janice Biggers. Have you become the next Janice Biggers?
No. There will never be another Janice Biggers, but hopefully I can make her proud.