Editor’s note: The Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2016, and we’re beginning the celebration early by highlighting Athenians who have been key players in the start of the organization, and also looking at what Athens was like in the early years of ACHF. Today we’re talking with Lucy Tresp, who, with her husband Lothar, was among the first to take on urban renewal and question its consequences.
The 1960s were a turbulent time in Athens. And not only because the civil rights movement was making its way into the University of Georgia and local schools.
It was also a time of upheaval in the fabric of the city itself.
That’s because in the 1960s, the city began a campaign that was all too common among cities across the country. Called “urban renewal,” the idea was to remove blighted older structures and replace them with more “modern” ideas. In some cases this was an office building or a grocery store. In other cases, it was a parking lot.
And when a parking lot was proposed for the lot where the Taylor-Grady house stood, that’s when a cross section of Athens — members of the Junior League (then known as the Junior Assembly), the Athens Historical Society, UGA professors and long-time residents banded together to stop the madness. Lucy Tresp, who along with her husband Lothar Tresp was among the first to join a fledgling group called the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, says that proposal by Winn-Dixie to turn the Taylor-Grady house into a parking lot was what pushed her into action.
“It was a groundswell, because urban renewal was supposed to clear out everything and be the ‘next great thing,’” says Tresp. “The Taylor-Grady house was an estate, and it was to be sold for $35,000 and Winn-Dixie bought it.”
As founding members of the Athens Historical Society (Lothar was a history professor at UGA, and as a native Athenian whose father co-owned the Athens Hardware Company, history was near and dear to both), Tresp said they were actually out of town when the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation was officially formed. But as soon as they returned, they signed up.
At the time, she recalls, the grand houses lining Milledge, Prince, Dougherty and other streets were beginning to get run down. For some, the families who had once kept them up no longer could, or there were no longer heirs to take care of them. Some were divided into apartments and others became rooming houses. They looked shabby and unkempt.
“They were large, expensive to operate, expensive to maintain. Servants had virtually disappeared after World War II, and people didn’t want them,” she says, recalling her grandmother’s house on Hill Street. “To keep a house like that going, it took 24 tons of coal a winter to heat it.”
Zoning was also an issue, she says, and the city saw removing the old homes as progress — not a link to Athens’ rich past.
When Winn-Dixie made a move to build a parking lot on Prince, it helped glue the movement together. Members of the Junior League raised the money to restore the house after the city helped to purchase the property.
“It was not in good shape,” she says. “We had a huge attic sale. The Junior League — Junior Assembly at the time — restored it.”
Not long after, the Church-Waddell-Brumby house came under fire, and Tresp recalls the city planned to move it to behind the Taylor-Grady house, where Athens Community Theatre is today. But the efforts of the preservationists kept it in its place — more or less.
“A lot of things were going, and continued to go. The twin houses between the Taylor-Grady and the President’s house,” she says. “It was thought they would try to move the Brumby House and put it where the little theater is behind the Grady house. But it was all about taking the phone lines down and they ended up just moving it into a backyard and turning it around.”
Still, despite the losses, Tresp is grateful that the community came together to support the protection of what’s left.
“I don’t think we’d have what we have if they hadn’t gotten to (starting the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation),” says Tresp, adding that the sororities and fraternities also deserve credit for preserving many of the stately homes. “It was exciting times.”