By Melody Harclerode
Take a historically rich, yet underutilized commercial building in a booming Atlanta real estate market, and be prepared to hear about proposals to completely demolish the structure. Once a modest two-story office building at the corner of Ponce de Leon Avenue and Juniper Street, the Gulf Oil Building by architect I. M. Pei could have taken this course.
Now a ninety-eight year old Fellow in the American Institute of Architects for his accomplishments in the field of architecture, Pei received acclaim with his design for the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston; and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris.
Before the accolades, Pei designed one of his first projects in 1949 far from the limelight of Paris. The Gulf Oil Building in Atlanta building expressed the Modernist style of architecture that would typify his future work: a minimalist approach to ornamentation and strong clarity and simplicity in the design. In spite of its architect and the interesting history, the Gulf Oil Building lost its appeal to office building tenants over the past decade lacking amenities, such as restaurants and retail spaces. However, its prime location in Midtown as a site for new infill development added uncertainty to the future of this structure.
Rather than a complete destruction of this landmark, Davis Architects and the developer Faison Enterprises pursued an alternative approach for the underutilized building. The Gulf Oil Building was taken apart: window by window, marble panel by marble panel, and steel column by steel column. For months, the site of Gulf Oil Building was barren until contractor Balfour Beatty Construction reconstructed the main façade of the historic building as part of a new multi-family project called 131 Ponce. The reconstructed portion of the old building is now used as the clubhouse and leasing office for the remaining 280-unit development.
Since its demolition, the loss of the original Gulf Oil Building has aggravated historic preservationists, some architects, and architectural buffs. Rather than seeing the destruction as a total defeat, the rebuilt building can be seen as a partial victory. At the least, the 131 Ponce project acknowledges the architectural significance of the original structure. Through stronger financial and tax incentives, perhaps more real estate development teams will find that a fully preserved historic landmark can be enriching for their investors, the building users, and the public.
Melody L. Harclerode AIA, a local architect, promotes the power of architecture and design as the Program Coordinator for the Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance (arabiaalliance.org) and the President of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (aiaatl.org).