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Lee Adler, saved Savannah's historic homes

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- 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 United States 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. He touted his hometown's success at preservation conferences and conventions across the nation. He also co-wrote a handbook on the subject in 1974.

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 "Lee Adler was probably the best-known Savannahian outside Savannah" by the 1980s.

Born into a wealthy Savannah family, 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 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 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 town houses downtown 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, said the technique Adler popularized is credited with saving more than 350 homes and buildings in Savannah.

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