Historic preservation on Auburn Avenue
Ed Driver, George Dusenbury, Judy Forte and Ed Bowen with the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in the background. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

History is being saved on Auburn Avenue thanks to a $2 million grant from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, part of the Woodruff-Whitehead family.

The Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, one of the most significant buildings of Atlanta’s civil rights movement, is finally garnering community-wide support for its restoration.

Historic Prince Hall neon sign adorns the Masonic Lodge. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) is working with leaders of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge to finish out a $13.5 million campaign to preserve the building, purchase it and donate it to the National Park Service (NPS) King Historic District. Another $2.5 million needs to be raised by August so the project can take advantage of Georgia’s Historic Preservation tax credits.

“You can simply feel the history inside the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge,” said Russ Hardin, president of the Woodruff-Whitehead foundations. “Lettie Pate Evans appreciated history and gave generously herself for historic preservation. She would be pleased that her foundation is supporting the preservation of an Atlanta treasure. Hats off to the Masons, TPL, NPS and the many others in our community who have come together to save the Lodge.”

The Prince Hall Masonic Lodge was built between 1937 and 1941, and it was developed by John Wesley Dobbs, a mason who was considered the unofficial mayor of Auburn Avenue. Decades later, his grandson — Maynard Jackson Jr. — became Atlanta’s first African American mayor. He served three terms from 1974 to 1982 and from 1990 to 1994.

The Masonic Lodge, at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Hilliard Street, has been the historic epicenter of the Sweet Auburn corridor, serving as home to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the whole time Martin Luther King Jr. was its president.

Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Shoppe still operates in the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge building at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Hilliard Street. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

It also was home to the nation’s first Black-owned radio station, WERD, and it housed the Atlanta branch of Madam C.J. Walker’s Beauty Shoppe. Walker was the first self-made Black female millionaire in the country.

George Dusenbury, TPL’s vice president of the Southern Region, said there’s an urgency to raise the $2.5 million needed for the restoration. 

“The roof is leaking, and the building envelope is compromised. Every time it rains, there’s more damage,” Dusenbury said. “We need to have the money committed by the end of August so we can start construction by the end of the year, or we will lose the state historic preservation tax credits. It is a ridiculously short deadline.”

TPL has applied for a $750,000 grant from the National Park Service, and he is hopeful it will be approved in the next few weeks. If that comes through, TPL would still need commitments of $1.75 million to proceed with the project.

Ed Bowen, a Freemason and an attorney, has been the developer leading the effort to restore the building along with his colleague Ed Driver, facilities manager for the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge. They were able to raise about $9 million through public grants, historic tax credits and some philanthropy. Central Atlanta Progress has been serving as the fiscal agent for the renovation.

Auburn Avenue historic building
Ed Bowen, Ed Driver, George Dusenbury and Judy Forte in front of Prince Hall Masonic Lodge with downtown Atlanta in the background. (Photo by Maria Saporta).

“We had gotten to a point where we had really exhausted all of our public appeals,” Bowen said in an exclusive interview. 

That’s when Ann Curry of the Coxe Curry & Associates fundraising consulting firm and Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, approached Dusenbury to get TPL involved in the cause.

“We have been blessed to have great support,” Bowen said. “We couldn’t have gotten it done without Ann and Sheffield.”

Hale described the Masonic Lodge as one of the two most important threatened buildings in Atlanta; the other one being Fountain Hall on the Morris Brown College campus.

“This is the building where it all happened,” Hale said. “It had all the different layers — commerce, politics, fraternal organizations and media — all under one roof. It is a building that can tell the story of African American success and resistance in the Jim Crow era.”

Prince Hall Masonic Lodge to be restored
Masons Ed Bowen and Ed Driver stand outside the former entrance to SCLC’s offices in the Masonic Lodge. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Hale also complimented the Masons for doing a “fabulous job” in making sure the building didn’t fall down.

“They did the best they could with the resources they had,” Hale said. “I’m just thrilled TPL had the courage to take it on.”

The restoration is expected to take up to two years to complete. The Lord Aeck Sargent architectural firm did the historic structural analysis of the building and would serve as the project architect. Dave Moody of Moody Construction would do the historic restoration.

If the remaining funds are raised, the Masons would own the building for the next seven years. At that point, TPL would buy the building and immediately donate it to the National Park Service as part of the King Historic District. Before he died, Congressman John Lewis, a Freemason, sponsored legislation to expand the NPS district boundaries to include Masonic Lodge. The district was expanded in 2018.

Historic marker along Auburn Avenue
The plaque on the front of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

There is a nice symmetry to having TPL involved. Going back 40 years, TPL has been acquiring land along Auburn Avenue, buying 13 buildings or lots — roughly one-third of the King National Historic Park — and donating that to NPS. Also, Dusenbury served in Rep. Lewis’ office in the mid-1990s, and he helped the Congressman and TPL to build the King Visitors Center in time for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Judy Forte, who has been superintendent of the King National Historic Park since 2006, said that once the Masonic Lodge restoration is completed, NPS is interested in leasing the basement and the first floor as an “interpretive center to inform, educate and inspire visitors about the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role as SCLC’s first president.”

SCLC's offices in the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge
The space that served as Martin Luther King Jr.’s SCLC offices had an exit door so he could slip out when needed. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

NPS also would share the stories of the “other foot soldiers” in the movement as well as Madame C.J. Walker and the WERD radio station. The King historic district is unique in allowing people to lease space, buildings or homes making it a park with a living history.

“This will be a jewel on Auburn Avenue,” Forte said. “It will serve as a gateway to learn more about the Civil Rights movement.”

Curley Dossman Jr., a Freemason who is Georgia-Pacific’s president of community programs, said it was “extremely significant” for the project to have the support of the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation.

“It certainly is a good message,” Dossman said. “There’s just so much history there. It is important not to lose this building. I’m optimistic that there’s finally some real movement on Auburn Avenue.”

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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...

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