Georgia was founded in 1733 as one of the thirteen original American colonies. Since then, its history and its landscape have been shaped by the activities and interactions of three peoples: Americans of European decent, African Americans, and Native Americans. For two centuries prior to English colonization, the Spanish with their African servants and slaves explored what would later become Georgia. The presence of Europeans and Africans in the “New World” was preceded by thousands of years of Native American occupation.
The 12,000-year history of what we now know as Georgia has left its mark all across the state. Not only in metropolitan areas, where the signs of civilization are everywhere, but also in the most remote mountain valleys, along and in rivers and streams, across vast stretches of field and forest, deep in seemingly inaccessible swamps, on coastal marshes and islands, even underwater off the coast--there is hardly an acre of Georgia untouched by the past.
The Historic Preservation Division (HPD) estimates that approximately 250,000 historic buildings exist in Georgia today. About one quarter of them are located in the state's larger urban areas, about one quarter are in smaller cities and towns, another quarter are in the state's mid-20th-century suburbs, and a quarter are dispersed across rural areas.
Just 5% of Georgia's historic buildings date from the antebellum period (pre-1861). Less than 3% date from the Reconstruction period (1865-1877). About one-third of the state's historic buildings date from the New South era (1877-1919) with its prosperous cotton agricultural and industrial economy. Another third date from the period between World Wars I and II (1917-1945), with the greatest number dating from the 1920s and fewer from the Great Depression years. The remainder of Georgia's historic buildings, approximately 25%, date from World War II to the 1960s -- but this number is expected to increase as more mid-20th-century buildings are identified through ongoing field surveys.
Houses are the most prevalent type of historic building in Georgia. They make up approximately 80% of all existing historic buildings. Houses range from large, high-style mansions to small, plain vernacular dwellings. The oldest well-documented house in Georgia continues to be the Rock House in McDuffie County, dating from 1786, although Wild Heron Plantation outside Savannah may predate it by three decades. The newest historic houses in Georgia are mid-20th-century Ranch and Split-Level Houses like those in the Collier Heights National Register historic district on the west side of Atlanta. White-columned antebellum plantation houses are quite rare; the most common type of 19th-century house is the Georgian Cottage, and the most common types of historic houses in the state are early 20th-century front-gabled Bungalows and mid-20th-century Ranch Houses.
Houses with their landscaped yards and associated domestic archaeological resources form a special category of historic property known as "Georgia's Living Places." In rural areas, historic houses serve as the centerpieces of farms and plantations. In communities, houses grouped together create historic neighborhoods.
Commercial buildings including stores, offices, and other places of business are the second most numerous type of historic building in the state, but they comprise only about 7% of Georgia's historic buildings. Most of them tend to be concentrated in communities, often forming cohesive business districts or "downtowns," although some like the country store are found in sparsely settled rural areas and others like the corner store are situated in residential neighborhoods. Common commercial buildings include one- to three-story small-town "storefront" buildings, larger city business blocks, and urban skyscrapers.
Industrial buildings in Georgia are not numerous, constituting only 2% of all surveyed buildings, yet they represent some of the largest, most highly engineered, and most economically important historic buildings in the state. They include factories, textile mills, grist and saw mills, warehouses, cotton gins, ice and power plants, loft-type manufacturing buildings, and warehouses. In many smaller Georgia cities, a distinctive form of self-contained community, the mill village, is found around some industrial buildings, usually late 19th- and early 20th-century textile mills. Rural gristmills with their dams and millponds often are located in isolated areas near sources of waterpower.
Community landmark buildings are a small but diverse group of important historic buildings that housed community institutions such as local governments, religious groups, civic organizations, and schools or served important community functions such as railroad transportation. Common examples include courthouses, city halls, post offices, churches and other places of worship, lodges, clubhouses, theaters, auditoriums, gymnasiums, libraries, jails, hospitals, fire stations, depots, and community centers. Although they account for only 5% of all historic buildings, community landmark buildings are prominent due to their large size, architectural treatments, strategic locations, community functions, and historical associations. They are often focal points in their communities.
Agricultural buildings are found in most areas of the state, usually grouped with other buildings, structures, and landscape features on farms or plantations. They typically include farmhouses, tenant farmhouses, barns and sheds, storage and processing buildings, detached kitchens, smokehouses, blacksmith shops, and offices. Historically, agriculture dominated land use in the state, and agricultural buildings were numerous across the entire state. Today they are relatively rare and in more urbanized areas of the state have virtually disappeared.
Another kind of historic structure, less commonly recognized, is the structured environment: the large-scale, two-dimensional plans or patterns that underlie historic development. Historic structured environments include city plans, courthouse squares, agricultural field patterns, land-lot lines, suburban subdivisions, and the layout of parks, gardens, cemeteries, and yards.
A wide variety of archaeological sites exist in Georgia. Some are complex "stratified" sites, with various layers representing different periods of occupation and use. Other complex sites are the "multi-component" locations of prehistoric villages and towns with distinct civic, religious, residential, and even industrial areas. Less complex sites may represent a single activity or use, such as hunting or fishing, manufacturing or quarrying, agriculture, or camping. Major river valleys, ridgelines, and the Fall Line have yielded the greatest numbers of archaeological sites. Less-well-known sites are being found underwater, on river bottoms, in coastal marshes, and off the coast on the continental shelf.
- Historic sites are places where an event or activity took place but where there were no buildings or structures associated with the event or activity or where the associated buildings or structures no longer exist. Historic sites are important primarily for the events or activities that took place there, although significant archaeological resources also may be present. Historic sites may have distinctive natural features, such as a mountain or cave or tree, or they may simply be the place where something important happened, such as an open field where a military engagement took place. The most commonly recognized type of historic site in Georgia is the battlefield.
- Traditional cultural properties are sites that have pronounced historic value to a specific racial, ethnic, or cultural group and that continue to play a vital role in contemporary cultural life. Such sites may be distinctive natural places (such as a mountain top) or historic environments (such as an ethnic neighborhood), or they may be simply a revered spatial location, a special place. Their value is evidenced through tradition, oral history, continuing traditional uses or practices, or common cultural knowledge. An important difference between traditional cultural properties and other types of historic properties is that the traditional cultural property derives its primary significance not from its physical, structural or archaeological features but rather from its direct and continuing associations with important historic cultural beliefs, customs, or practices of a living community. Relatively few traditional cultural properties have been documented in Georgia--they include the Ocmulgee Old Fields in Macon and New Echota in Calhoun County--although it is likely that many exist.
- Historic Districts
The most common type of historic district in Georgia is the residential neighborhood. Another common type is the downtown central business district. The Waynesboro Historic District in Burke County – Georgia’s 2,000th listing in the National Register of Historic Places – comprises an entire historic community. Other equally important but less numerous types of historic districts include industrial and warehousing areas, school campuses, military installations, parks, and waterfronts. Farms with their houses, outbuildings, and field systems also comprise historic districts. Georgia has several vast archaeological districts, such as the Etowah Valley, and several large rural historic districts containing multiple farms, rural communities, and historic rural landscapes, such as the Sautee-Nacoochee Valleys in White County and the Johnstonville-Goggins historic district in Lamar and Monroe Counties. The largest historic district in Georgia in terms of acreage is McLemore Cove in Walker County (50,141 acres); the largest historic districts in terms of numbers of contributing historic resources are Kirkwood (1,788) in DeKalb County and Collier Heights (1,757 contributing resources) in Fulton County. The smallest historic district in Georgia is a row of three shotgun houses along a street, all that remains of a once-extensive historic African American neighborhood.
- African American Historic Properties
Overall, the pattern of historic properties associated with African Americans in Georgia is similar to the statewide profile in terms of types of buildings and periods of development. However, significant differences distinguish African American historic properties in at least five ways:
First and foremost, there are proportionally far fewer extant historic properties associated with African Americans. Although African Americans historically made up approximately one-third of the state's population, less than 10% of the state’s historic properties are known to be directly associated with African Americans. Part of this disproportion is due to the fact that many historic properties associated with African American history have been lost through demolition, neglect, or replacement. Another reason is that until recently African -American associations with extant historic properties have not been well documented; with continuing advances in historical research, more historic properties associated with Georgia's African American population are being documented.
Second, there are differences in the relative numbers of the different types of extant historic buildings associated with African Americans. Houses constitute a smaller percentage, while community landmark buildings make up a much larger percentage. Two-thirds of African American community landmark buildings are churches, compared with one-half statewide. Another large percentage are schools. Very few historic African American owned-and-operated farms have been documented, although a number are represented in National Register listings and Centennial Farm designations; conversely, many farms and plantations in the Piedmont, Coastal Plain, and Coastal regions were worked and even managed by enslaved African Americans prior to the Civil War and by African American tenant farmers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but relatively few associated buildings and structures remain.
Third, the environmental setting of Georgia's African American historic properties differs from the statewide profile. Greater percentages are in urban areas including smaller cities and towns. Correspondingly smaller percentages are located in rural areas. Far fewer are in suburban areas; the city of Atlanta is an exception, with its extraordinary collection of 20th-century African American suburbs stretching westward from the Atlanta University Center to Collier Heights. Another difference in the environmental setting is due to racially segregated settlement patterns. In many communities, all African American historic properties are situated in the same relatively small area. As a result, large and small houses, community landmarks and places of work, industries and recreational facilities, all are juxtaposed in a distinctive community amalgam that is different from white-occupied historic areas where "zoning," whether by ordinance or practice, tended to separate disparate land uses and building types. In rural areas, many African American houses are clustered in distinctive hamlets, sometimes with a small country store and occasionally a church and school.
Fourth, there are significant differences in the architectural characteristics of houses associated with African Americans. The percentage of vernacular (or "no academic style") houses is much higher, and there is a greater prevalence of smaller house types and forms such as shotguns, hall-parlor houses, double pens, and saddlebag-type houses.
Finally, with regard to historic landscapes, African American associations are not well documented in existing surveys. Distinctive landscape traditions dating from the antebellum period through the mid-20th century, characterized by strong cultural associations and symbolic meanings rather than visual aesthetics, have been recognized in the past few years. In other cases, documented African American landscapes such as the swept yard have virtually disappeared.