Atlanta architect Peter Hand discusses the possibility of repurposing the Langdale Mill
VALLEY — A Sunday afternoon presentation on the Valley area's connection to classical architecture and City Beautiful planning transitioned into an interesting discussion between presenter Peter Hand and members of the audience gathered for the quarterly meeting of the Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society. An Atlanta area architect who has a stake in purchasing Langdale Mill, Hand talked about the possibility of repurposing the 1888-era building to capitalize off of recreational tourism that could be heading toward the middle portion of the Chattahoochee River.
This is not just idle talk now, given the huge success of whitewater rafting in Columbus and the economic promise of the coming Great Wolf development off Exit 13 off I-85 in LaGrange. Whitewater rafting is attracting lots of people to Columbus, and Great Wolf is expected to be a big draw for the LaGrange area. This presents a greater opportunity to create traffic for the Chattahoochee Blueway, a 22-mile portion of the river between West Point Dam and Lake Harding. The Georgia side of the river across from Valley is undeveloped. It's in a natural setting that's much like it must have been when Native Americans paddled the waters of the Chattahoochee in dugout canoes.
"I think we have a phenomenal opportunity to do wilderness canoeing and kayaking," Hand said. Langdale Mill is in a perfect location for river paddlers to stop and spend the night, purchase needed supplies and dine in a cafe that looks out over the river. The mill building could be repurposed to do that. Some of it would have to come down, but the significant portion of the building — the 1888 part — could be spared. There are some conceptual drawings that seize upon the "Strength Woven In' theme. Hand said that he has visualized building a structure near the river that provides shade for pedestrians and has reminders of the cotton duck that used to be made there. "It would be a pleasant stopping place," he said.
There are some significant problems that will have to be overcome, one involves the risk of potential flooding, and another the creation of a foundation to manage the new development. Recent FEMA maps of the site show that the Langdale Mill site is within a 500-year flood plain. Should a disastrous flood take place, the ground floor of the mill site could be several feet under water. Some major sewer lines cut across the property toward a wastewater treatment plant. That's another potential problem. The flood risk problem is due in part to Langdale Dam. The risk lessens considerably if it would be taken out to restore the natural flow of the river. The Langdale and Crowhop dams are included in a recent study that shows that as many as 84,000 dams and powerhouses in the U.S. are no longer needed. Any decisions on these dams would be made by Georgia Power, the owner. Langdale Dam hasn't generated hydro power in several years now. The company may see the continuing presence of these unused structures as a liability problem and could decide to remove them. Jimmy Stewart, who's with the Middle Chattahoochee River Stewards, compared the removal of historic dams (something that's already happened in Columbus) to the removal of covered bridges in favor of concrete bridges in the first half of the 20th century.
"We will be losing something if we tear them down," he said. "Crowhop is a really special place. Anyone from the local area who has never been there needs to go. We could lose it one day." Stewart admitted to being somewhat on the fence on this issue. "I can see both sides," he said. The removal of the two river dams would make canoeing and kayaking this part of the river much easier and safer. Stewart said he liked the idea of having fish ladders around the dams. That would both help with the migration of such species as the shoal bass and would give paddlers an easier way around the dams than the current practice of portaging. The historic dams wouldn't have to be taken out by doing this. A foundation would be in better position to negotiate with companies like Georgia Power.
"They won't donate it to anyone other than a foundation," Hand said. A new foundation could not only administer the Langdale site, it could also manage other local former mill sites. It would appear to be a good idea for future land use.
"A public process is needed to decide what to do with the dams," said Hand. "Good ideas sometime fail to come to fruition because of a lack of information." There needs to be a collective will on the part of the public to support a foundation. Should this come to pass, it could serve the local community much in the way the Callaway Foundation and the Ray Anderson Foundation have benefitted local communities. Hand was asked where the money would come from to repurpose the mill.
"Good ideas are the solution," he said. "If the ideas are good enough, and they are promoted well enough, the money will be there. Investors need to know they are getting something in return for their money." Hand said that he'd discussed river tourism with Matt Swift, a very visible advocate of the Columbus project. "He told me that if anyone didn't think it was a good idea they should come to Columbus and see what's happened there," he said. A flat water paddling course along the Blueway is the kind of thing that would attract college-age young people from Atlanta to Montgomery.
"They will come here and get excited about the river," Hand said. "It could start a new revolution. Valley has very low property tax and very affordable housing. They'd look at that and think, 'Wow! What's to miss by being here?'" Hand said he's talked to a number of businesses about locating in the mill and has encountered the same problem over and over again. The area's demographics are not good.
"There's an aging population here, and a descending disposable income," he said. The success of Zaxby's and Steak & Shake on Fob James Drive tends to defy that logic.
"I'm an optimistic guy," Hand said. "I feel that there's a lot that can be done at this location." Hand said that he'd studied Langdale Mill for a good 10 years now and is amazed at how well flood water had always been diverted away from it.
"It's absolute genius the way they did it," he said. "There's a catch basin in the meadow, and the water from Moore's Creek goes underneath the mill and around it through a canal. The CV Railway serves as a big dike. This building is so clever. I'm constantly amazed at the genius that went into it." Hand said that neo-classical architecture is evident in some of the historic buildings in the local area and mill village areas such as Shawmut and Fairfax were laid out in themes consistent with the City Beautiful movement of the latter 19th and early 20th century. Shawmut, for example, was patterned after Washington, D.C. Not many towns in the U.S. can claim this distinction and there's some proud history behind this. French-born American architect and civil engineer Pierre L'Enfant is credited for designing the layout of the streets of Washington.
Prior to coming to America, L'Enfant worked for the landscape architect who designed the gardens at the Palace of Versailles, long considered among the most beautiful in the world. Hand said the historic buildings in Langdale, noted for their arched windows, clearly bear the influence of Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), one of the most influential people in the history of architecture. Inspired by the great past civilizations of Greece and Rome, Palladio's work can still be seen today in the city of Vicenza, Italy and in the Palladian Villas of the Vineto, both listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In more recent times, Palladio-style architecture can be seen in the work of Phillip T. Shutze (1890- 1982).
A Columbus native and a Georgia Tech graduate, Shutze designed some of the most beloved buildings in the Atlanta area including Swan House, located on the grounds of the Atlanta History Center; the Academy of Medicine, located on West Peachtree Street; the East Lake Golf Clubhouse; the Citizen's & Southern Bank in downtown Atlanta; the original 1924 Henry Grady High School and its 1950 addition, and "The Temple," located on Peachtree Street. Several of the buildings he designed are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Hand said he met Shutze when he was a young architecture graduate from Georgia Tech. While doing some volunteer work, Hand had gone to Shutze's office in the Candler Building to seek a donation for the United Way.
"He was 87 at the time," Hand recalled, "and I'd gone there to seek a $100 donation. I told him that he was one of the most renowned architects in the world and should easily agree to give $100 to a cause as worthy as the United Way, but he turned me down.That was on a Thursday, and I told him I'd be back every day until he made a donation. I came back Friday and again on Monday, and he turned me down both times. On Tuesday he relented and made the donation." Hand said he'd wondered out of curiosity if Mr. Shutze had a local connection since his middle name was Trammell. A member of the audience, Stephen Johnson, said that he was right on the money with that.
Johnson said that he'd done some research on microfilm and had discovered in a local newspaper that Shutze was the valedictorian of the graduating class at West Point High School in 1908. From there he went to Georgia Tech, where he graduated with a B.S. in architecture in 1912. He later earned a Bachelor of Architecture from Columbia University. After winning the coveted Rome Prize in 1915 he spent several years in Europe studying the works of the great masters like Palladio. The Trammell name is prominent in the early history of the local area. In the 1840s, for example, Elisha Trammell owned most of the land in what is today Langdale and Fairfax and built the first mill on the Chattahoochee River where Moore's Creek empties into the river.
– By Wayne Clark Times, News News Editor