Monday, April 27, 2020

Residents of this coastal Georgia town helped save a tabby building that survived the 1863 burning of Darien, a scene in the movie 'Glory'

The Adam Strain building presides over tabby ruins (Landmark Preservation)
Missy Brandt Wilson grew up surrounded by history and Spanish moss in Darien, a coastal Georgia town that once rivaled Savannah for port activity. She was particularly fascinated by the Adam Strain building, a picturesque two-story structure that overlooked rows of tabby ruins and the waterfront.

Over time, the condition of the shuttered circa 1813-1815 commercial building declined.

“I would put my hands on the building and pray on it, and say, ‘Please hold on until someone can save you,’” said Wilson.

View of waterfront (Landmark Preservation)
That the Darien landmark was still standing on the bluff during Wilson’s teen years was something of a miracle. It had survived two fires – most famously during the Civil War when Federal troops torched Darien in June 1863 – and several hurricanes.

Darien’s destruction by black troops, under orders from a virulently anti-slavery white officer, caused a howl of protest across the South and even in newspapers in the North. Those favoring emancipation were split on whether the act was barbarity or a necessary message. (The burning of Darien was made famous in the 1989 film “Glory.”)

The Strain building was repaired after the war and saw a rebirth for several decades before it was used for storage following World War IIMade of oyster shell tabby and stucco, the oldest structure in Darien was beloved by its 2,000 residents, who worried for its future as its appearance worsened.

The years rolled on. The building’s condition had become so precarious by 2008 that the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation placed it on its "Places in Peril" list.

Now, after several campaigns to save the Strain -- including a time where it looked like the building would be demolished -- Wilson’s and others’ prayers have been answered: A Marietta, Ga., couple has purchased the building and an annex and plan to restore them.

Milan and Marion Savic have taken on a big project. They must first stabilize the crumbling building before restoration begins. Their hope is to eventually lease the building for retail space and open a museum in the one-story adjoining annex.

“We want to bring it back to something beautiful,” Marion Savic recently told the Picket. “We are not tearing something down to bring something else in.”

Extensive framing inside the Strain (Landmark Preservation)
Residents and officials hope the Savics’ investment will have a significant economic impact. Darien, hit hard by the economic slowdown a decade ago, wants to attract more retirees who live along coastal Georgia and motorists who get off Interstate 95 to take in history, the small shrimping fleet and the natural beauty of the area.

The preservation of the Strain building, which sits on the southeast corner of Broad and Screven streets, is just one piece – albeit a significant one – in any plans to boost the small downtown district, which has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.

The Savics are committed to doing their part, and observers credit preservation-minded residents and social media for their role in helping to save the building from demolition.

Among those the Savics have hired for the project is preservation planning consultant Rebecca Fenwick of Ethos Preservation in Savannah. Like others, she touts the building’s tabby construction, distinctive roof line, large buttresses, corner quoins, metal shutters and stepped gable parapet.

“It stands very proud overlooking the river,” Fenwick says. “Here is a building still standing. Your heart cries out, it has been vacant so long.”

Tabby building sat above busy waterfront

As legendary coastal Georgia historian and author Buddy Sullivan points out, the Adam Strain Building did not attain its name until after the Civil War. The builder’s name is not known with certainty.

Supports were added after fires, hurricanes (Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation)
But the construction techniques may well have been inspired by planter and slave owner Thomas Spalding, who used tabby on nearby Sapelo Island. Tabby is a type of cement made from crushed oyster shells and was popular in the region for several centuries leading up to the Civil War. Stucco is placed on the exterior to protect it from water damage.

Very few tabby structures remain along the coast.

Sullivan says the town’s heyday in the first half of the 19th century was due to the Altamaha River, which delivered agriculture goods, including cotton, from the state’s interior. Rice and other crops were grown in McIntosh County and surrounding counties.

The Strain building was used to store cotton prior to shipment in 1861 and 1862 before the Union naval blockade clamped down on Georgia’s coast.

In an article he wrote last year for McIntosh Life, a special section of the Darien News, Sullivan described a conjectural drawing of how the waterfront likely looked by the mid-1830s, a few years after Scottish Highlanders settled there.

Warehouse ruins near the Strain (Wikipedia: Jud McCranie)
“The two-story building later known as the Strain Building is shown in the sketch as an upper bluff structure. The waterfront is depicted as being alive with activity: schooners loading baled cotton, Oconee boxes unloading cotton, traffic in dray wagons, coaches and horses along the shore, and cotton factors inspecting the latest deliveries from upriver.”

Fire raged through town during Civil War raid

By then, Savannah was well into it ascendance of being Georgia’s principal port, as more goods were being sent there by railroad. Darien’s economic fortunes suffered a small downturn in the decades before the Civil War.

Then war came, and the Federal blockade of Southern ports put a squeeze on the South.

By summer 1863, coastal towns knew that where the Union army was going, emancipation of slaves was soon to follow. That fact permeated society in Darien. Most of the town’s 500 white souls had fled before June 11, frightened by the blockade and the deployment of African-American troops on nearby St. Simons Island.

On that day, Darien was largely vacant.

Darien held little strategic value to the Union, but Col. James Montgomery, commanding the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, supposedly believed it was a safe haven for blockade runners.

Col. James Montgomery
Montgomery apparently had another reason for shelling, looting and burning Darien, leaving only a few buildings standing among the charred ruins.

Steven Smith, site manager for Fort King George Historic Site in 2013 when the Picket wrote about the town’s burning, said Montgomery “wanted to make a political statement. Here was a town built on the backs of slaves.”

Montgomery ordered Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the famed 54th  Massachusetts Infantry to participate. While Shaw didn’t mind the looting to help resupply his troops, he opposed setting the town to torch. He apparently relented under threat of court-martial.

The 2nd South Carolina Volunteers was largely comprised of freed slaves, while the 54th Massachusetts had many freedmen and business professionals.

The 54th Massachusetts was in the area to recruit freed slaves, destroy Southern crops and take out Confederate assault works.

Scene from "Glory" shows Federal troops arriving
Sullivan says while the Strain building’s interior was lost to fire set by Union troops, the exterior walls held up. Most of the town was destroyed, including virtually all the waterfront.

Darien was slow to rebound from the war, and the timber industry for decades largely replaced the rice-based economy.

It found new use as grocery, hardware store

Around 1870, Adam Strain, a Civil War veteran of the 5th Georgia Cavalry, purchased and restored the building.

Sullivan wrote in McIntosh Life: “Strain utilized his building in a variety of ways from the 1870s through the 1890s. He specialized in groceries, dry goods and hardware, as well as operating a prosperous ship chandlery to furnish the numerous sailing vessels frequenting the ports at Darien and Doboy Island to load cargoes of raw timber and processed lumber.

An 1885 insurance map indicated the building was a general store with sleeping rooms upstairs.

Strain’s two sons, William H. Strain and Robert A. Strain, assumed ownership of the business after their father’s death in 1897, renaming it Adam Strain’s Sons.”

1890 Sanborn insurance map shows Strain
building at SE corner of Screven and Broad
The Strains put a new wood framing inside the building. It currently supports the existing second floor and is independent of the tabby. “It was an upgrade of the building at the time,” said Fenwick, the preservation consultant.

Wilson likens it to a building within a building.

At some point over the years, it was used to store antiques and house or produce shoes. “There were hundreds of children’s boots and shoes all over the place,” Savic said. She estimates the building has not been used for about 50 years and what remains inside dates since the Civil War.

The annex served as a bank from 1913 and 1961 and until recently was the site of law offices.

As for the larger building, it was sold from the family estate after the Strain brothers died in the 1920s and was used primarily as a commercial warehouse and other uses described above.

By then, Darien’s timber fortunes had almost ceased to exist and the town turned to fishing and other small industries.

'The building means so much'

Over the years, town residents and those who moved away lobbied for the boarded-up Strain Building to find new use and jump-start more activity downtown.

“The building means so much to so many people,” says Mandy Harrison, executive director of the Darien-McIntosh County Chamber of Commerce. “People get their prom and wedding photos taken there.”

Strain interior (Landmark Preservation)
The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation continued to advocate that it be kept and restored. “Raising public awareness of the development threat to the building holds promise to galvanize local and state-wide commitment to broker a reasonable resolution for this iconic structure.”

A 2009 report by a planning group said Darien considered the Strain "an important historic resource and is urgently working to ensure its preservation." The price tag for buying, stabilizing and restoring the building was estimated at $2 million. Nothing came of it at that time.

Meanwhile, the Savics -- who maintain two businesses in Marietta -- were longtime visitors to St. Simons and would occasionally stop by Darien. They fell in love with its homes and history. They made several offers to the property owner but could not agree to terms.

Last summer, the then-city manager said a local resident had filed a safety complaint; an inspection by a hired structural engineer found the building to have extensive wear and damage and to be uninhabitable, the Darien News reported. The engineer suggested it be demolished.

The situation came to a head in July 2019 after the city issued a demolition permit and orange barrels were put in front of the building. The demolition request was made on behalf of the Strain owner, the newspaper reported.

“I was pretty sure the wrecking ball was coming in 24 hours,” said Wilson, once chairman of the  McIntosh County Historic Preservation Commission. She now lives in Athens, Ga.

Downtown has grown since this view of the Strain (Courtesy of Kit Sutherland)
At some the point, the order was postponed. It was clear no one wanted to see a huge part of the town’s history gone. (The Picket reached out to the current city manager but received no reply.)

The Savics eventually reached a deal with the owner. They will spend several times that in stabilizing, repairing and transforming the building into an attractive beacon.

“A good wind storm could probably knock it down,” Savic told the Darien News in early February.

What couple has planned for the Strain

As of mid-April, the Savics were waiting for final engineering plans for the project. It’s possible stabilization work can begin by May 1 and continue for three to six months.
While interior structural elements are there, contractors will stabilize walls, rebuild some tabby areas and then place new stucco on the exterior.

“Everything that is usable will be taken out and stored during the restoration process. Everything that is usable will be put back in,” said Savic.

The building was full of boxes, shoes and more (Landmark Preservation)
The couple wants the Strain building to meet requirements for the National Register of Historic Places and they will pursue economic incentives, including federal and state tax credits, available for such preservation.

Given the current look of the building interior, the Savics are planning for the Strain to have a post-Civil War feel.

They expect the Strain will have retail space, “some sort of businesses where people can gather, community space. Part of it might be an event space.”

Town's story is bigger than the Civil War

The Savics are thinking of using the annex for a maritime museum, emphasizing Darien’s timber, cotton and rice past, and perhaps its small shrimping industry. Among a handful of museums in the area is one dedicated to the burning of the town during the Civil War, but it is not fully staffed.

1921 photo includes Strain building at far left (Courtesy of Kit Sutherland)
Kit Stebbins Sutherland, a retired historic preservation planning consultant living in Atlanta, grew up in Darien and owns a house lot near the Strain building.

She believes the story of Darien should go beyond its early days and the Civil War. She is particularly interested in the second heyday of the town after the end of slavery.

The main commercial activity used to be in an west-east direction, following the Altamaha River and other tributaries to the Atlantic Ocean. Construction of Interstate 95 to the west forever changed Darien, Sutherland argues.

Blessing of fleet in 1973, Strain building in back (Courtesy of Kit Sutherland)
Traffic was diverted to U.S. 17 (which runs north-south) in the early 1970s and much of the eastern side of town was demolished to handle the U.S. 17 widening, Sutherland told the Picket.

The other down side, she says, is that Darien was basically bypassed when that section of I-95 opened.

Sutherland wants the area – which touts its affordability relative to other coastal communities -- to have better schools and economic opportunities and a more proactive and progressive approach to preservation and growth.

She laments the loss of what the downtown used to look like -- its benches, awnings and trees. “It is a very pedestrian unfriendly streetscape.”

A belief that project will provide big boost

To be sure, there is growth occurring in Darien. Near the Strain are fish and Mexican restaurants, a produce market, wine shop and other retail.

High-end condos going up along the waterfront have a colonial Spanish look. While increased investment in Darien was welcome, the look is not pleasing to everyone; critics believe the style detracts from a classic Darien waterfront aesthetic.

The approval of the design brought “out the inner preservationists,” Wilson said.

Stabilization is expected to start soon (Landmark Preservation)
The Savics, meanwhile, are in it for the long haul. They have a home on nearby Union Island and eventually will live in the area for much of the year.

Harrison, with the chamber of commerce, says Darien is on the way up.

“This is a place where you can come slow down. We have a lot of ecotourism and historical tourism,” she says. “Everybody who comes here falls in love. You get out of the rat race and into calmness.”

(July 11 update: Stabilization has yet to begin. A permit has been acquired but power lines need to be relocated and steel fabrication for the work completed.)

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