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Deal will save historic Westside Atlanta building linked to Kings, Jackson

Maria Saporta

By Maria Saporta

A historic building on Atlanta’s Westside will be preserved thanks to a deal between the King Center and Westside Future Fund.

The King Center has sold the building at 220 Sunset Ave. to the Westside Future Fund, which will restore it into affordable housing units for the Atlanta University Center.

The red-brick building at 221 Sunset was once the home of Atlanta’s first African-American mayor – Maynard Jackson Jr. The four-unit apartment building was developed by his father in 1949, and the Jackson family lived there in the 1950s before moving out of the neighborhood.

The following decade, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. moved his family next door to 234 Sunset Ave., where they were living when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The King Center acquired the 221 Sunset building in the 1970s.

Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, with John Ahmann, CEO of the Westside Future Fund, at the Jan. 7 closing of 220 Sunset (Photo by Lee Harrop of the Westside Future Fund)

The building has been vacant for more than a decade and is in poor condition. Last May, it seemed as though the building’s days were numbered. The King Center had applied for and received a demolition permit to raze the building before selling the King home and the property to the National Park Service.

But the Vine City Civic Association and preservationists protested the demolition plans, and the King Center decided to delay the demolition

“We halted the demolition this past May because some of the neighbors raised concerns about the history of the Jackson family living there,” Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, said in an exclusive interview. “There was a cry-out from the community. That’s when we regrouped.”

King said that when she learned of the building’s history, she looked for ways that it could be preserved – holding discussions with several different groups.

“I do think it’s worth preserving,” King said. “One of my goals was that there be a commitment for it to be used for affordable housing. I felt comfortable going in this direction with the Westside Future Fund.”

The Westside Future Fund, a nonprofit formed by Atlanta’s public, private and philanthropic partners to revitalize Atlanta’s Westside, began having negotiations with the King Center last fall.

John Ahmann, president and CEO of the Westside Future Fund, said the nonprofit purchased the building for $275,000 at a closing on Jan. 7 as part of the organization’s efforts to preserve the community’s history.

“It preserves the area’s cultural history; it’s aligned with our land-use plan; and it will help lift up the legacy and tell the story of the Westside,” Ahmann said in a telephone interview. Atlanta’s Westside has a rich history with many of Atlanta’s top African-American leaders who lived in the area.

220 Sunset

A front view of 220 Sunset Ave. (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

“We’re working hand in hand with Vine City residents to help revitalize historic landmarks in alignment with the objectives voiced by the community,” Ahmann said.

The Westside Future Fund also will reestablish a link between the 220 Sunset building and Atlanta’s historically black colleges and universities.

The elder Maynard Jackson served as a pastor at nearby Friendship Baptist Church between 1945 and 1953.

At the time, Rev. Jackson’s wife, Irene Dobbs Jackson (the eldest daughter of John Wesley Dobbs) was a professor and department head at Spelman College. She was living at 220 Sunset when she became the first African American to receive a library card from the main branch of the Atlanta Public Library system located on Carnegie Way downtown. The apartments were mostly rented out to people who were studying or working at one of the nearby colleges.

In honor of that history, the Westside Future Fund will master lease the property to the Atlanta University Center to house graduate students, researchers and faculty members studying Atlanta’s Civil Rights Movement and leadership. Once the property has been restored, the AUC will identify potential tenants and oversee the selection process.

“Atlanta is widely recognized as ‘the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement’ and the Atlanta University Center played a meaningful role in helping shape leaders during that pivotal era,” said Todd Greene, executive director of the Atlanta University Center Consortium. “We are excited to come alongside residents in our community as they work with both the WFF and King Center to continue an amazing legacy and further support our future leaders.”

Ahmann said it is too early to know how much it will cost to preserve the property, but it is expected to begin the renovation by October.

“Our intent is to renovate it and preserve the historic structure,” Ahmann said. “We are prepared to invest the necessary funding to renovate it.”

King home

A view of the Martin Luther King Jr. home with 220 Sunset Ave. in the background (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Meanwhile, WFF will apply for historic status from the State Historic Preservation Office to help commemorate the legacy of the property, and it intends to have the building designated on the National Register of Historic Places. That will enable WFF to apply for historic tax credits.

Ahmann said 220 Sunset is one of about 70 buildings on the Westside that are considered to be historically significant. One of the main goals of the Westside Land Use Framework Plan, a community plan that has been approved by the city, is historic preservation.

Bernice King remembered growing up next door to the building and playing kickball in the alley between her home and 220 Sunset. But she had not been aware of its history with the Jackson family.

When her mother and the King Center (which she initially operated out of the basement of her home) bought the building, it became a place where staff members and guests would stay. Even Bernice King and her sister, the late Yolanda King, had lived in the apartment building over the years.

After the building became vacant, Bernice King said it was hard for the King Center to maintain it or restore it.

“For us as a nonprofit, I was concerned about the liability for us as an institution and for the neighborhood. It just became unbearable for us financially. We had to figure something out,” Bernice King said. “I’m glad it’s done because I’ve been burdened by the property just sitting there.”

Historic preservation on Sunset Avenue in January 2020: a view of the Maynard Jackson apartment building on the left with the home of Martin Luther King Jr. on the right (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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Maria Saporta
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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1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    PS Wallace January 27, 2020 3:49 pm

    This is delightful news, and i enjoy the timing….I specifically came by the site to see if there had been any update on this matter. I didn’t have to search long, it turns out.

    I think the use as housing for visiting scholars meaningful…not everything has to become a museum. In England, where you can’t help but trip over the past, they keep both modernity *and* history–via use of blue circular plaques. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_plaque Perhaps now that Atlanta has achieved something in the world of cities, it won’t feel a need to constantly tear down. One should strive to launch one’s self into the future, but I think this best done by using one’s cultural past as the launching pad. Everything changes, but not everything needs to be lost, and so I welcome this development. .Though I believe any donation I make may need to be on the installment plan.

    Cheers.

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