By Maria Saporta
It’s been more than two years since historic Gaines Hall caught on fire – and little has been done to save one of the oldest and most significant buildings in Atlanta.
Gaines Hall continues to deteriorate in front of our eyes – a victim of the natural elements as well as inadequate fire insurance coverage. The building also has been in the middle of a hotly contested legal battle between the City of Atlanta’s Invest Atlanta and Clark Atlanta University over who owns land that used to belong to Morris Brown College.
“It’s just unfathomable that we haven’t yet found a way to save Gaines Hall,” said Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. “I think it’s one of the oldest, most significant structures related to African-American education in the country.”
As dire as the Gaines Hall situation appears to be, there may be a sliver of hope.
Eloisa Klementich, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta, is determined to stabilize the building and is committed to seeing it preserved.
“Since we assumed ownership of the property, our goal and focus has been to preserve the historic building of Gaines Hall.” she said.
But it has not been an easy journey.
Klementich shared a chronological timeline of events:
- On Aug. 29, 2014, the city purchased the Morris Brown parcels in “as is” condition out of bankruptcy (despite knowing Clark Atlanta claimed to have reversionary rights to about half of the land, including Gaines Hall).
- When it acquired the property, the city bought an umbrella insurance policy for all its Morris Brown holdings
- On Aug. 20, 2015, Gaines Hall caught on fire.
- With help from the Georgia Trust, Invest Atlanta awarded a contract to Carter Watkins to assess the damage and outline what it would take to stabilize Gaines Hall. The estimate for stabilization at the time was $2.58 million.
- On Oct. 29, Invest Atlanta received a notification from Scottsdale Insurance Co. that it would only receive $600,000 for the damages incurred in the fire. Invest Atlanta appealed, and finally received $1.433 million from the insurance company. The City also is trying to secure another $1 million in “law and ordinance” coverage from Scottsdale Insurance.
- On Jan. 12, 2016, Invest Atlanta awarded Carter Watkins a contract to provide contract management services to oversee the stabilization of Gaines Hall. Meanwhile, Gaines Hall continued to deteriorate. And in February, 2017, Invest Atlanta met with Carter Watkins to revise the contract, but they were unable to reach an agreement.
- So in June, 2017, Invest Atlanta began sending out requests for proposals for a new project manager.
- On Aug. 18 of this year, Invest Atlanta contracted with JWE to oversee the stabilization work of Gaines Hall.
“There have complications, and we have had some challenges,” Klementich said. “But we continue to make progress.”
One of the challenges is the ongoing legal dispute between Invest Atlanta and Clark Atlanta. Every court ruling thus far has sided with Clark Atlanta – that it is the legal owner to 13 of the 30 acres the city bought from Morris Brown.
Invest Atlanta has since filed a “petition for Writ of Certiorari” appeal with the Georgia Supreme Court.
“Since those petitions are rarely granted, we sent a letter to Invest Atlanta addressing, among other things, the Gaines Hall issue,” said Donna Brock, a spokeswoman for Clark Atlanta. “We’re hopeful for a response.”
So one of the complications is who actually owns Gaines Hall and who is responsible for stabilizing and preserving it.
“Regardless of where the lawsuit stands, our goal is to continue to preserve Gaines Hall and doing what we can to preserve the building,” Klementich said. “Now we are working on the masonry stabilization design. JWE is on the site, and we should have workers there at the latest in January.
But Klementich readily admits that Invest Atlanta is having to scrape up enough money just to stabilize the historic building – much less rehabilitate it. It is estimated that would cost at least $10 million.
Sheffield Hale, who also serves on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, offered one other possibility.
Just this past week, the National Trust and its partners introduced the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to help “protect significant historic places.” (The National Trust also is opening an office in Atlanta on Auburn Avenue, which could be helpful to the cause).
In Hale’s mind, few buildings are as historic as Gaines Hall and the adjacent Fountain Hall
“It was built right after the Civil War by African-Americans,” Hale said. “It was a very significant brick structure built to education African Americans. It’s one of the oldest buildings in Atlanta, and next to it is Fountain Hall, built a little later. It really is ground zero for African-American education in Atlanta. It’s one of the oldest buildings in the midst of one of the largest centers of African-American colleges in the world.”
What makes Gaines Hall even more significant is that W.E.B. DuBois was living on the campus in 1903 when he wrote “The Souls of Black Folk” – which Wikipedia described as “a seminal work in the history of sociology, and a cornerstone of African-American literary history.”
Clearly Gaines Hall is a treasure that Atlanta must save. We need to figure out a way to change the paradigm of litigation and deterioration and get all the parties working together to come up with a solution.
If Sparta can do it, so can Atlanta.