IN 55 YEARS of marriage, Lee and Emma Adler have established their place in Savannah history as the dynamic duo of the historic preservation movement. When it comes to taking up causes, it can be said that "they wrote the book," figuratively and literally, on how to stay the course in advocating for community change.
In 2008 it’s hard to fathom that in its infancy, historic preservation in Savannah was a counter-culture value, mostly advocated by progressive young people in their late 20s and early 30s. They joined forces with a few Savannahians of their parents’ generation willing to lobby against the policies of the Chamber of Commerce and city hall.
One of the Adlers’ first counter-culture moves was to take up residence downtown, while most young marrieds were moving to newer areas like Wilmington Island or Magnolia Park.
In a lecture last week, “The Places Preservation has Taken Me” Emma recalled that in the 1950s, with Savannah’s downtown languishing, the local business community considered Jacksonville, Florida’s boom of center city construction as a model worth emulating. Few saw economic benefits to preserving history.
In addition, “there was great interest in Savannah grey brick. It was in great demand for building new ranch houses” in suburban developments south of downtown, said Emma during her remarks.
“I remember an electricity was in the air. A sense of ‘if something isn’t done...’” said Emma in her lecture at First Presbyterian Church, sponsored by The Learning Center at Senior Citizens, Inc.
For most of the Adler’s advocacy career, Lee has served in the formal historic preservation roles: president of Historic Savannah Foundation, founder of Savannah Landmark Rehabilitation (a short-lived affordable housing non-profit), and as trustee and trustee emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“This talk ought really to be called ‘The Places Preservation has Taken Lee,’ said Emma, noting that of the 36 countries they’ve visited in their life together, at least half a dozen—Japan, Peru and Thailand among them—directly resulted from Lee’s preservation roles.
Despite her deference, Emma has hardly hovered in Lee’s shadow, instead focusing her individual efforts on public schools and history education. She served on the board of the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System; was the engine behind saving and creating Massie Heritage Education Center; and championed Savannah’s Georgia Day events.
Although few today would consider the Adlers counter-culturalists, their advocacy roles have always included support of so-called left-leaning ideals, like livable affordable housing and quality public education. Lee and late civil rights activist W.W. Law joined forces and became friends in their work to preserve historically African American neighborhoods.
Emma’s lecture on Wednesday focused mostly on her international travels, sprinkled with details culled from her stacks of spiral-bound journals.
Describing afternoon tea in the United Kingdom, “she knows how to cut a castle down to size,” said Emma about Betty Hussey, the widow of international art historian Christopher Hussey.
A conference in Japan included Lee’s presentation to a team of preservationists, using maps of Savannah translated into Japanese. Emma recalled a visit with a Japanese official — “Mr. Hiyashi’s cat sat on my lap. His name was Tomas” — and a meal that included “a little maple leaf with a carefully arranged slice of melon. It was the most poetic thing. You hardly thought you were supposed to eat it.”
Omitted from Wednesday’s remarks were some of the less exotic places Emma has been taken by her preservation efforts: City Hall’s council chambers, the Metropolitan Planning Commission hearing room, the Letters to the Editor section of the daily newspaper, and countless institutional conference rooms to graciously but forcefully resist erosion of James Oglethorpe’s downtown plan.
Not every battle has been won. In their 2003 book, Savannah Renaissance, Emma and Lee pull few punches as they describe the loss of the old Desoto Hotel, demolished in 1966 by C&S Bank. “I’m sure they’ve regretted it,” said Emma last week, bemoaning the loss of the old hotel’s Romanesque design.
As for today? Many of us would think that Emma and Lee have succeeded in their lifelong campaign. Historic preservation is clearly a part of Savannah’s established way of doing things. Yet Emma isn’t resting on her laurels.
“I think we’re building too many hotels. I think our sense of building in scale is probably gone,” she said.
When asked what success she was most proud of, Emma was uncharacteristically at a loss for words; but from his seat in the audience, Lee did not hesitate.
“You and me,” he called out.
Based on what they’ve done for our city, I have to agree.