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At long last, there’s hope for historic preservation on the Westside

The homes of Grace Towns Hamilton next to the home of George Alexander Towns with the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the background. A modern home is in the center of the image. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

By Maria Saporta

A $1 million grant from the National Park Service to renovate two historic homes in Vine City is a sign that Atlanta is finally grasping the value of preserving our unique Black history on the Westside.

It’s not just the news that the side-by-side homes of George Alexander Towns and his daughter, Grace Towns Hamilton — across the street from the historic Herndon Manson — will be restored. It’s a combination of several developments that point to it being a new day for historic preservation on the Westside.

The Herndon Mansion, across the street from the homes of George Alexander Towns and Grace Towns Hamilton, represents a preservation success. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Of note, Invest Atlanta and the Westside Future Fund are moving forward with the preservation of 220 Sunset Ave., the apartment building developed by the father of Maynard Jackson — Atlanta’s first Black mayor — into affordable housing for the Atlanta University Center family.

It is next door to the last home of Martin Luther King Jr., which is now owned by the National Park Service.

There’s the ongoing restoration of historic West Hunter Street Baptist Church, which is owned by the Ralph David Abernathy III Foundation, founded by the late Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy III, son of the church’s longtime pastor and Civil Rights Leader. The foundation is led by Ralph III’s widow, Annette.

A $1.5 million grant is going towards the restoration of Morris Brown’s historic Fountain Hall.

Clark Atlanta University recently posted a sign on the property that includes the dilapidated and burned-out Gaines Hall with the following message: Master Plan Development Underway: Details Coming Soon with key projects listed as the Main Campus, Historic Gaines Hall, Historic Paschal’s Hotel, Herndon Stadium, Faculty Row, Bumstead and Ware and Raymond Street Houses.

When I’m able to sit down with CAU President George French, I will share with you the latest plans to save these historic sites.

Clark Atlanta University’s sign sits on the same property as the burned out Gaines Hall. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

No matter what, it feels as if something has changed — that Atlanta will truly value our unique past.

“I’m so hopeful,” said Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, CEO of Preserve Black Atlanta, who with Invest Atlanta received the $1 million NPS grant for the two homes.

Sims-Alvarado credits new programs dedicated to preserving our nation’s Black history.

 “There’s a concerted effort from federal organizations to put money behind the preservation of the sites that tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement,” she said referring to both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service. “There’s more awareness of the value of preservation and how it can serve the community and create tourism.”

Eloisa Klementich, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta, gave credit to the Westside Future Fund for a renewed focus on preservation and affordable housing.

“It was so important for us to preserve 229 Sunset because of the historical significance of that building,” Klementich said. “Invest Atlanta has been focused on how we can preserve our history. Clark Atlanta and Morris Brown are critical to the revitalization of this area. It’s part of the economic growth of the city.”

For years, several properties were tied up in litigation between the City of Atlanta and Clark Atlanta over land that had once been part of the Morris Brown campus. The Supreme Court ruled the land ultimately belonged to Clark Atlanta, which had a reversionary clause that said CAU would regain rights to the land if Morris Brown quit using it for educational purposes.

The historic Gaines Hall on July 25 can be seen through the trees with virtually no roof left. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

While the litigation was underway, several historic buildings along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard continued to deteriorate, including Gaines Hall.

David Y. Mitchell, president and CEO of the Atlanta Preservation Center, said he and his organization are looking forward to the historic preservation and sustainability of the Westside.

“We have an opportunity that has not occurred in quite some time to preserve and protect these historic structures and spaces,” Mitchell said. “We should do everything we can to have them come to fruition so this can become a triumph for our city.”

Both Sims-Alvarado and Mitchell said there’s a growing understanding and appreciation for the historic significance of the role Atlanta played in the Civil Rights Movement — and the places where that history was made.

“We have celebrated the history of individuals, but we have not preserved the physical structures that served as tangible reminders of their legacies,” Sims-Alvarado said. “Atlanta is known for its history and culture. People want to come to Atlanta and see the tangible evidence of where these historic moments occurred. I hope this puts a fire under people.”

Mitchell echoed her sentiments by saying: “There’s a complete reckoning and understanding of what we have and our duty to save it.”

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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