The Decatur Downtown Historic District was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. Plans for the city were laid out in the 1820s and many of those early buildings are still intact today.
Lynn Speno, who works for the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said it’s hard to imagine a city like Decatur flourishing without the help of the railroad.
“The railroad in Georgia played a big part in development in almost every small town because that was the main means of transportation in the early 20th century,” Speno said.
Plans for the city of Decatur, named after naval hero Stephen Decatur, began in 1823 and consisted of a courthouse, with two streets leading to the center of the square. The arrival of the railroad in the 1840s spurred commercial and economic development, and helped the small city grow into the metro hub it is today.
“Students came to Agnes Scott College by rail and people were able to easily travel into Atlanta,” Speno said.
Decatur’s significant historic period spans 1823-1967. Speno said many of the city’s historic buildings are still intact and being used today such as the old courthouse, which now houses the DeKalb History Center, and the old bank building that currently houses a Starbucks in addtion to several other shops and restaurants on the Decatur Square.
The official historic district is bordered by North McDonough Street on the west, East Howard Avenue on the south, Hillyer and Commerce streets to the east and East Ponce de Leon Avenue to the north.
In addition to places such as the old courthouse and bank, many Decatur homes and buildings
are examples of architectural styles built in Georgia cities from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.
City of Decatur Planning Director Amanda Thompson said in 2009 the city performed a historic resources survey, which identified all parts of the city that could be added to the National Register. Thompson said being added to the register benefits the city for several reasons, including tax incentives.
“Cakes and Ale is an example of one of those
projects for us,” Thompson said. “The owners saved upward of $600,000, and for us that’s a win because they’re renovating Decatur historic buildings instead of just tearing them down and building a new one, and it’s a win for them because of the tax write off.”
Thompson said each city is defined by its physical form and that allows people to distinguish downtown Decatur from Alpharetta—the differences between its buildings and streets. She said being added to the register helped ensure more of the city’s historic buildings would remain intact.
Decatur’s strategic plan, developed in 2010, has a section dedicated to historic preservation. Thompson said during the process of developing the plan, residents asked the city to try to add any building deemed eligible to the register. Now, she said, hundreds of residents and property owners in the city have access to tax incentives to pay for renovation and restoration work.
“I think the main thing to emphasize is that if a property is listed on the National Register it’s voluntary, it’s a recognition and tax incentives, but the owner doesn’t have to participate,” Thompson said.