Earlier this year, it looked like Atlanta’s Buckhead Library soon would be relegated to books about 20th-century architecture. The building, designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam (MSME) Architects and completed in 1989, sits on two acres in the midst of a $1.5 billion, mixed-use redevelopment project. The developer, Ben Carter, offered to buy the county-owned library property for $25 million, with an eye toward razing the building.

Atlanta’s Buckhead Library, designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam

Photo © Timothy Hursley

A developer wants to demolish Atlanta’s Buckhead Library, designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam (MSME) Architects and completed in 1989.

Carter’s proposal was embraced by some, and loathed by others. The deconstructivist-style building, while not universally admired, has its fans. In 1993, it won a design excellence award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and today, it's the first stop on an architecture tour led by the local AIA chapter. In an effort to save the building, opponents to demolition circulated an online petition, and more than a hundred people turned out for a library board meeting. In March, the county board of commissioners voted to decline the developer's bid.

Still, the library's fate is not entirely secure. The land was donated in the 1940s for use as a library, but the deed does not explicitly restrict its use in perpetuity, according to Jessica Corbitt, a spokeswoman for the county commission. The library also is in need of upgrades. “The building is a little tired," says Bruce McEvoy, president of AIA Atlanta. “It's a bit of an energy hog, although it's a building of its time.”

The episode illustrates the threats facing modern architecture, much of which is too new to qualify for protections granted to historic structures. Many preservationists are reevaluating their traditional approach. Now, rather than looking at a building's age, McEvoy says, they are taking the view that “as long as you could prove a building was significant to a particular area and time, you could argue to save it.”

The issue is particularly relevant to newer cities like Atlanta, according to MSME principal Merrill Elam, AIA. “In a city as young and growing as this,” she says, “you’re apt to have buildings that are not actually very old being taken down for other development.” She knows firsthand: another building designed by her firm and completed in 1989, Turner Village at Emory University, recently was demolished to make way for a new, mixed-use complex.