Building Columbus’ “Taj Mahal”

“TO AN EXTENT, ARCHITECTURE DEFINES YOUR CITY.” 

– Sudhir Patel,  Hecht Burdeshaw Architects, Inc.  

Sudhir Patel, in front of the main entrance to the MCSD Public Education Center building, for which he was the principal architect

 “They just don’t build them like they use to” is not an empty cliché.  They don’t, according to the principal architect in designing the new Muscogee County School District administration building. Sudhir V. Patel of Hecht Burdeshaw Architects, Inc. says the Muscogee County Public Education Center building should last many decades with proper care and maintenance. His architecturally favorite Columbus building, the downtown United States Post Office and Federal Court building, has already lasted 75 years.   

Downtown Columbus U.S. Post Office and Court House

But, they don’t build them that way any more.  The main reason given is cost. He says, “You cannot duplicate the details and workmanship back then with what you have today.  It’s certainly not getting better, although we have advanced from a technological standpoint, but, you know, we have lost the skills we used to have.”   

Downtown Post Office detail showing a train and airplane, one of the panels depicting the six modes of transportation delivering the mail. The other four are by foot, horseback, stagecoach, and boat.

While the post office’s architecture inspired Patel when he was designing the new building, he says he wouldn’t have just copied it, even if he had the budget. He would have given it a modern interpretation, just as he did with the Neo-classical design of the new administration building.  In order to give the rich appearance of the building, he used  materials that mimic the costlier ones. For instance, Cast stone, a concrete product, that is similar in appearance or character of the natural stone which was used for the façade of the post office. Both school board Chair Philip Schley and Superintendent Susan Andrews are pleased with the results, saying the building looks like one of the Washington D.C. buildings.   

MCSD Public Education Center panorama as seen from Macon Road, Columbus, GA

Patel is proud of the new administration building and says he has received nothing but compliments about it. He said, “You will always have a few out of the bunch saying it’s not worth it.” But, he said, the building “not only reflects the school district, but the people at large, what we are about.”  He said that architecture, to an extent, “defines your city. It defines your people. It gives a totally different perspective from a business standpoint, from the newcomer’s standpoint.”   

Patel has answers for critics who complained that the building would be too opulent, unnecessarily expensive, and that we don’t need a Taj Mahal.  We certainly didn’t get one. That 17th century Indian mausoleum is made entirely of marble.  The only marble in the administration building are some flecks in the terrazzo flooring of the lobby.  Asked if it’s a bargain, he said, “Absolutely,” He went on to say, “Discounting the site, the building came in less than $150 a square foot.  Rich does not necessarily mean expensive”  

 He laughed about the Taj Mahal comparison, saying, “I am probably the only architect in Columbus who has ever been to the Taj Mahal.”  Patel grew up in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and was educated both in India and the US and has a Masters Degree in Architecture. When he came to Columbus for his job interview, he said he fell in love with the city after seeing the Riverwalk area. He pointed out that he is more fortunate than the architects that built the Taj Mahal. The legend says that the king, Shah Jehan, deemed that no one else should ever copy the masterpiece, so he had the master craftsman’s and Architect’s hands cut off..”  

11th Street Y.M.C.A., the only all-marble Y.M.C.A. facade in the United States

He says the closest thing to the Taj Mahal in Columbus is the old 11th Street YMCA.  Its façade is the only all-marble one in Columbus. The First Presbyterian Church owns it now. The church leases it, and the 1953 building attached to it, to the YMCA until it moves into its new building. Pastor Dr. Charles Hasty says, “Tests show the 1903 building is still structurally sound. The church plans to renovate it on the inside and use it again, perhaps, for one thing, as a center for Columbus State University Presbyterian students.” However, he believes, it would be cheaper to build a new building than renovate the 1953 building attached to it.  Asked if he had considered replacing the 1903 building, he said, with a smile in his voice, “No! Both Janice Biggers and Virginia Peebles are members of my congregation. They would raise a big fuss.”  Both of them are retired presidents of the Historic Columbus Foundation.   

St. Luke Church Elementary School, formerly 11th Street Elementary School, formerly Columbus High School, built in 1898, 11th Street, Columbus, GA

In downtown Columbus, the only one of those late 19th and early 20th century schools still used as a school is the first Columbus High School that became 11th Street Elementary, which is now a St. Luke United Methodist Church elementary school.. School Board member John Wells admits “they were built like forts, but they don’t meet today’s needs.”  He adds, when defending the rebuilding of Rigdon elementary and Carver High, that the new versions will meet the needs of today.  “I know that some say we should preserve buildings for history’s sake, but that isn’t our business. Others can buy those buildings and preserve them.”  As we have seen, some have.     

  

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2 Responses to “Building Columbus’ “Taj Mahal””

  1. John Cornett Says:

    Very nice article Richard.

    I’m glad the historical preservation folks got to work early in Columbus.
    I still remember all those homes on lower Broad that were falling into
    disrepair and some ready to be torn down when the Historical Society
    got involved…

  2. Nancy Miller Says:

    It is wonderful that some have the finances to save these historical treasures of the past. I am so happy every time I see work being done on one of these old buildings. These older architectural wonders have stood through many storms and will easily outlast the modern buildings of today.

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