SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) – Lee Adler II was never content with saving Savannah’s historic homes and buildings one at a time. In 1959, he found a way to spare entire city blocks and neighborhoods from the wrecking ball that changed the way preservation groups did business _ not just in Georgia, but across the nation.
Adler died Sunday at age 88, said Matt Weeks of Fox & Weeks Funeral Directors. A cause of death was not immediately available.
As the president of the Historic Savannah Foundation, which Adler led until the mid-1960s, he took an entrepreneurial approach to saving Savannah’s architectural treasures by essentially persuading local preservationists to get into the real estate business. The group would buy sagging old properties facing demolition and sell them to buyers who promised to restore them. The tactic worked so well in Savannah that groups across the U.S. began following Adler’s lead.
“There’s not a preservation group in this country that doesn’t owe some debt of gratitude to the work of Lee Adler,” said David J. Brown, chief preservation officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington.
Adler, usually working in tandem with his wife, Emma, became an evangelist for the methods he’d used in Savannah. He would tout his hometown’s success at preservation conferences and conventions and even to individual groups across the nation. He also co-wrote a handbook on the subject in 1974.
“Lee’s the kind of person who was a lot more respected outside of Savannah than he was in Savannah, because inside the city a lot of people took preservation for granted,” said Mark McDonald, a longtime friend of Adler and the president of the Atlanta-based Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. “He gave people the idea they could do this in their hometown just like they’d done it in Savannah.”
The influence was noted in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” John Berendt’s best-selling book about a murder in Savannah. Berendt wrote that because of Adler’s work in historic preservation, “Lee Adler was probably the best-known Savannahian outside Savannah” by the 1980s.
Born into a wealthy Savannah family that owned a local department store, Adler’s passion for protecting the 18th and 19th century homes of Georgia’s oldest city was passed on by his mother.
Elinor Grunsfeld Adler was among the seven women who launched the foundation that her son would later lead. The women started the group in 1954 to show their outrage after the downtown City Market, where farmers sold their crops, was razed to make way for a parking garage.
The preservation group saved other homes and buildings, typically turning them into museums, during a time when the suburban flight that followed World War II left Savannah’s oldest neighborhoods decaying and abandoned. The fledgling foundation’s methods would change dramatically under Lee Adler’s leadership years later.
In 1959, he learned a wrecking company had a permit to demolish four century-old townhouses in downtown Savannah with the intention of selling the bricks for a profit. Adler quickly struck a deal to buy the entire row for $54,000 and got the Historic Savannah Foundation’s members to agree to share the cost _ $180 for each of its 300 members. The homes were later sold to new owners.
Daniel Carey, the foundation’s current president and a longtime friend of Adler, said the revolving-fund technique Adler popularized is credited with saving more than 350 homes and buildings in Savannah, where the 2.2-square-mile downtown area forms America’s largest National Historic Landmark District.
“Historically there were efforts to save one building at a time, call it a success and kind of take a victory lap and be finished,” Carey said. “Lee and others said this is really just the beginning, not the end. So they said we can save a block at a time and neighborhood at a time _ and eventually a city at a time.”
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