GSU class delves into DeKalb property’s past

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The assignment would have been unusual for almost any class. Students stumbled through rooms lit only by their flashlights, explored a granite-walled basement, counted the pieces of siding on outside walls, and assessed two barns, a smokehouse, a chicken coop, a sorghum boiler, a cane mill and a three-hole privy.

Never mind the trash, spiders, dust, cobwebs and rodent droppings.

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BECKY STEIN / AJC Special

Richard Laub, director of Georgia State University’s Heritage Preservation Program, points out features of the old Lyon homestead. Students recommend it become a working farm.

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BECKY STEIN / AJC Special

Professor Richard Laub (back to camera), preservation consultant Laura Drummond (right, with glasses) and students in GSU’s building materials conservation class examine a deteriorating chimney at the old DeKalb farm.

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BECKY STEIN / AJC Special

Students assess the age, significance, and condition of the Lyon House and farm.

“This is like CSI without the dead bodies,” a woman said from the darkness in the boarded-up DeKalb County farmhouse.

This was no crime scene investigation. It was Georgia State University’s building materials conservation class, a graduate-level course in the school’s Heritage Preservation Program. The 15 students and their two professors were spending a fall Saturday rambling through the old Lyon homestead near Arabia Mountain, south of I-20 and Lithonia. There were measurements to take, photos to snap, evidence to gather and mysteries to solve.

The sunny morning marked the students’ first visit to the property that would be the subject of a semesterlong project. Their charge was to figure out which structures should be saved and how the property should be used.

For Professor Richard Laub, Heritage Preservation Program director, this was the latest in a long line of evaluations of metro Atlanta sites.

Laub has supervised the nomination of 6,000 properties to the National Register of Historic Places, including three whole districts — Kirkwood, Pittsburgh and Collier Heights.

A former baker and construction worker with a biology degree, Laub became interested in preservation while working as an apprentice craftsman for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 1985, he studied in Rome at the International Center for Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, then earned a master’s degree in planning and a certificate in historic preservation at the University of Virginia.

Laub came to Atlanta in 1987 to work for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and soon began teaching courses at Georgia State. About 10 years ago, he became head of the Heritage Preservation Program.

“I’m always looking for projects,” he said. “I try to get something all the students can work on as a group that will be of benefit to the community.”

This class was assessing the Lyon property for DeKalb County, which bought 48 acres of the family’s land for green space and got the buildings in the deal.

To make recommendations, the class had to determine when buildings were constructed, what they were used for and how they had been altered.

That meant examining everything from nails to linoleum.

Preservation consultant Laura Drummond, 54, advised them. She’s a former DeKalb County police officer who left the force about 15 years ago to be a stay-at-home mom. Eventually she volunteered with the Atlanta History Center, then enrolled in Laub’s class. For four years, she’s helped him teach it.

She understands the CSI analogy. Both her former career and her current one involve collecting information to piece together the correct conclusion.

“I love the way Georgia State does this program,” she said. “It’s not just an academic exercise. We’re doing a real live project that hopefully will make a difference.”

Like Laub and Drummond, many students come to preservation after other jobs or careers.

Some have no particular employment plans but are just acting on a longtime passion for history.

Maysyly Naolu, 41, of Duluth is a pastry chef and entrepreneur. Nancy Gadberry, 49, of Rome is a retired accountant. Thomas Lee, 58, is an Army contractor who lives in a 160-year-old house in Newnan and enjoys Civil War re-enacting in his spare time. And Lillie Ward, 25, of Midtown, who compared the class to CSI, works for a nonprofit, family-support agency.

“I have an affinity for things that have lasted longer and seen more than I have,” she said.

On Wednesday, after weeks of researching and analyzing since their first visit, members of Laub’s fall class presented their findings.

The students learned that Joseph Emmanuel Lyon (1754-1820) was granted 100 acres in return for his military service during the American Revolution.

His descendant George Lyon, who farmed the land into the 1970s, sold some acreage to the county in 2003. He continued to live in the old house until he moved to Tennessee in 2006.

Descendants of slaves of the family, who added an “s” to make the name Lyons, remain in the area.

The Lyon family raised cotton, peanuts, corn, vegetables, muscadines and sugar cane. They kept chickens, cows, pigs and bees.

The class estimated that the main two-story part of the farmhouse was built between 1830 and 1850, and a one-story ell was added later.

They found termite, water and mildew damage, and signs of occupancy by insects and other creatures.

They recommended rehabilitating the house for use as a conference and meeting facility. The land and outbuildings, they said, should be restored as a working farm to educate city folks.

Dave Butler, DeKalb County’s green space environment manager, was impressed with their inch-thick document.

“I like the idea of the working farm,” he said. “We’ve gotten so far away from farming communities that we don’t know where our food comes from.”

Valerie DeWeerth, 48, a former high school teacher, said she learned a lot from Laub’s class — including that she’s not cut out for hands-on historic assessment.

“Assign me anything,” she had told her classmates on that first visit to the Lyon house, “as long as it has no bugs, no rats, no poop and doesn’t smell funny.”

“I’m kind of leaning toward museum work,” DeWeerth said on the night of the final class. “I like the end product of preservation.”