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Mayor Dodd Ferrelle of Winterville performs outside Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz’s home during the first ever Historic Athens Porchfest on Oct. 6, 2019 in the Boulevard neighborhood in Athens, Georgia. Porchfest was organized by Tommy Valentine, executive director of Historic Athens. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

With an afternoon of free music by local bands, Historic Athens combined two iconic aspects of Athens culture — history and music — to showcase the beauty and importance of the city’s oldest homes. 

The first Historic Athens Porchfest was held Oct. 6 from 1-7 p.m. The festival hosted by Historic Athens, Porchfest featured 69 bands which performed on the front porches of 67 homes and businesses in Athens’ Boulevard, Newtown, Buena Vista and Pulaski Heights historic districts. 

“I think that for you to want to save something or preserve something, you need to love it first,” Tommy Valentine, executive director of Historic Athens, said. “We really think this will be a great reminder to people about what incredible value exists in these historic neighborhoods.”

‘A growing movement’

As a nonprofit education and advocacy group, Historic Athens employs a variety of programming, including Porchfest, to draw attention to “some of the most unique and incredible places in Athens” and preserve their stories, Valentine said. 

Valentine said porchfests are a growing movement across the country, and the first one was held in upstate New York nearly a decade ago. 

“It’s a chance to plug into the bands and the culture and the architecture that make Athens so exciting,” Valentine said. 

Valentine said he was stunned and grateful to find out how many bands were willing to contribute an afternoon’s worth of music for the festival. Nearly 70 bands signed up to play, which was more than he originally anticipated. 

While most of the bands performed on residential porches, a few businesses in the historic districts have offered performance space, including Buvez Coffee Shop and Heirloom Cafe & Fresh Market.

Valentine hopes Porchfest inspired members of the Athens community to explore and appreciate the historic districts, and residents of undesignated historic areas to preserve their neighborhoods as well. 

“We think that residents of those other neighborhoods might visit here and decide that they want to preserve their neighborhood the way these neighborhoods have been preserved,” Valentine said.

A grassroots effort

Kristen Morales, a former board member of Historic Athens, volunteered her front porch in Buena Vista for the festival. She said she chose to participate because she wants people to experience her neighborhood whenever possible, and she is always happy to talk about its history and show off the houses.

Morales moved to Buena Vista 13 years ago when she fell in love with her house, which she described as being 100 years old and full of character. At the time, her neighborhood wasn’t designated as a historic district despite the many other older, restored houses. She soon joined the effort to change that, which she said took nearly four years.   

“It gets very political,” Morales said. “It gets into property rights, and it can be a bit contentious, but it’s also very much a grassroots effort.”

Travis Burch, a current board member of Historic Athens and the owner of Heirloom Cafe, said the effort to designate a neighborhood as a historic district can be divisive because the historic designation limits the freedom of residents to make certain aesthetic changes to their homes. 

Part of what Historic Athens does involves educational outreach to help homeowners and other members of the community learn about the value or preserving “beautiful older homes,” Burch said. 

“Often the process of becoming a historic district has folks in the neighborhood that want it and folks in the neighborhood that don’t,” Burch said. 

Preservation through limitations

A point of contention can also come from those who buy homes in historic neighborhoods without realizing they’re in such districts, Burch said. 

For example, if the homeowners want to replace the windows and they are visible from the street, the new windows must be of a design which fits with the aesthetic of how the house was originally built, Burch said. 

When Burch began plans to renovate Heirloom Cafe in 2011, he needed to get approval from the Historic Preservation Commission for the changes he wanted to make. The restaurant resides in the historic neighborhood of Boulevard, and it previously served as an old gas station.

“Among the things we were not allowed to do was change the facade in a way that wouldn’t allow people to recognize, if they looked at the building, that this was a gas station at some point in its past,” Burch said. 

The fabric of the neighborhood

Burch chose to host a band because he believes music to be a defining characteristic of Athens. 

Porchfest allowed for a fun and educational combination of the community’s cultural and musical heritage, and is a way to attract people to the neighborhoods who might not normally visit, Burch said. 

Morales said Athens’ historic districts in particular boast a rich musical history. When she first moved to Buena Vista, she would go running at night and hear different bands practicing in houses all down the street.

“It’s always been part of the fabric of the neighborhood,” Morales said. “I think [Porchfest] is a really great mix of the two things I love about Athens, really — the music and the history.”

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