By Tenae Taylor
It all began with a request from former Florida A&M University (FAMU) president Frederick S. Humphries, Ph.D.
A native of Apalachicola, Fla., Humphries was worried his hometown was not being properly preserved as the area continues to face threats to its architecture, places and cultural history. He asked the FAMU School of Architecture and Engineering Technology (SAET) to conduct research on the region to help protect its historic value.
For the past year, SAET professors Arleen Pabón-Charneco, Ph.D., and Sang Park, Ph.D., Assistant Dean Andrew Chin and a team of assistant graduate architecture students have been collecting data in the North district of the city under a grant-based plan called the “Apalachicola ‘Hill’ Neighborhood Survey Project.”
“The situation you see in Apalachicola is something that we see all across Florida,” said Andrew Chin, assistant dean of SAET who worked closely with Pabón-Charneco to help bring this project to life. “There are many examples of African- American communities that as a result of segregation, had to be self-sustainable.
“Many of the qualities and characteristics we hope that our communities and children have today, existed in these places. Things that don’t leave tangible marks on the landscape are things that impact people,” Chin added.
The Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources funded the Apalachicola ‘Hill’ Neighborhood Survey Project. With a budget of $58,000, the research team set out to focus on the area’s buildings, historic sites and community engagement.
The grant proposal for the project promised to identify 60 structures in the Hill neighborhood that contribute to the character of the area. For each of those structures there is a photo, a map and description that are now a part of the Florida Master Site File, which is the state’s official archive of historical and cultural resources.
“As an architecture student, it is amazing to see the impact of architecture in the history of a place,” said Luczeida Matos Rosa, a graduate student assistant who helped professor Pabón-Charneco and her research team fill the Florida Master Site Files.
“It is incredible how the history can speak for itself, and how we can read each architectural detail of these houses and prescribe its heritage,” she added.
“We had the opportunity to share what we were doing with the community and they absolutely loved our interest in the history of Apalachicola and their architecture.”
The research crew was able to formerly log and document what the Hill is like today and discuss what it was like in the past by hosting community meetings.
High-resolution digital photographs, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) topographic maps, street level maps and Master Site File submissions for buildings were developed and carried out by the researchers during their time in region.
In addition to meeting the traditional Master Site File requirements, the team built a digital 3D model of the Hill’s existing condition.
Ruffin Rhodes, owner of Florida’s largest African-American owned architectural firm and FAMU alumnus, views Apalachicola as a symbol of heritage.
“As a child growing up, the Hill was a great place to visit and live,” Rhodes said whose firm, Rhodes+Brito Architects, designed the FAMU College of Law and the FAMU K-12 Development Research School. “My paternal grandparents lived on Seventh Street —now Fred Humphries Street— and my maternal grandparents lived on 12th Street.”
Both of Rhodes’ parents are from Apalachicola. He said uncles, aunts and cousins lived within walking distance from each other in the Hill neighborhood where businesses once thrived.
Gone today are many family members, their homes, and those businesses, he said.
Together the team, the current residents, the past residents and the entire City of Apalachicola, gathered to understand what has changed and make the case for actions to preserve and rebuild the neighborhood.
The area is constantly evolving as people are very interested in purchasing the affordable property and retiring in these places because of its charming character.
Chin said the survey project has been very instructive. It shows the benefits of bringing together staff from different schools and colleges, such as the College of Agriculture and Food Sciences (CAFS) Extension Program and the History Department, which is part of the College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities.
“By linking FAMU architecture with CAFS Extension and the FAMU History Department, it shows the value of working outside of our traditional silos,” Chin said. “By focusing FAMU’s academic resources on a rural community, it shows the respect, value and appreciation we have for the historic places like the Hill. We, as a University, are indebted to communities like the Hill.”