Demolition of Jordan Hall another sign of Atlanta’s dereliction of historic buildings

By Guest Columnist JAY SCOTT, a principal at Green Rock Partners, an Atlanta-based firm specializing in urban design, landscape architecture, business consulting, and planning

The Metro Atlanta YMCA is about to destroy a significant part of civil rights history in the African American Community, historic Jordan Hall. They are not doing it alone.

Their primary partners are the Woodruff Foundations and Invest Atlanta, who have given more than half of the $20 million necessary.

The YMCA has taken a series of actions that are part of a conscious decision to avoid saving this building:

  • They did not hire an architect with either a strong record of preservation/adaptive reuse, or a commitment to preserving African American/Civil Rights history;
  • They decided early on that historic Jordan Hall didn’t meet their program.  No plans were presented showing all of historic Jordan Hall remaining;
  • The site is large enough to accommodate their needs and maintain historic Jordan Hall
  • The YMCA has chosen to destroy historic Jordan Hall rather than building on one of the many vacant lots in Vine City;
  • Money is not the issue.  By their estimate, restoration requires $12 million, less than the $17 million for a bridge over Northside Drive that will only be used for major events;
  • Also, the YMCA is so confident of their ability to raise money and meet the current $5 million shortfall that they refused outside assistance to raise the money for historic Jordan Hall;
  • The YMCA is an important partner in the community. This building will continue and expand their important work in the Atlanta. It is unfortunate that they have chosen as their path forward one that destroys important African-American historical evidence.

This is a matter of priorities on the part of the YMCA, the city of Atlanta and many others, and African American landmarks, even those related to civil rights, are simply not a high priority.

jay scott

jay scott

Jordan Hall, formerly the E.A. Ware Elementary School, is in the Atlanta University Center National Historic District, but the city of Atlanta never included Jordan Hall or the Historic District on its list of landmarks worthy of protection! Historic Paschal’s, Gaines Hall, the Butler Street Y and the Historic West Hunter Street Baptist Church (and many others) are not on this list either and can be demolished without comment. The city’s dereliction has been far reaching and the Y uses this argument to claim Jordan Hall is not worth saving.

Recently, the Atlanta Urban Design Commission protected Pullman Yard and Briarcliff Plaza with landmark designations! How can a city so important to civil rights and led by African-American mayors since 1973 think these buildings are more important than Jordan Hall, Gaines Hall or Paschal’s? Action and inaction is the clearest indication of priorities, and African-American/Civil Rights history is obviously a very low priority with the city.

Jordan Hall represents the start of the modern day civil rights movement. It is the first time in the history of America that the black community united in a successful effort to demand the white power structure invest in black schools. It was built in 1922 after the black community, led by A.D. Williams, Martin Luther King, Jr’s grandfather, united African-American voters to defeat a citywide bond issue three times in ten months. It was only after the city allocated $3.5 million for schools in the African American community ($53 million in today’s dollars) that it passed overwhelmingly.

Because of this, E.A. Ware Elementary School was the first “bricks and mortar” elementary school for black children in Atlanta, and most likely in the entire South.  Other schools built included Washington High School, Brown and Howard middle schools. These schools raised the education level of African Americans in Atlanta, and allowed the AU Center colleges to grow into the institutions we know.

jordan hall, mlk door

This doorway of Jordan Hall opens toward Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The YMCA’s redevelopment plan calls for retaining a door facing Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. Credit: David Pendered

The YMCA has been aware of this history for some time, but it did not cause them to consider alternatives and explore a campaign to restore the building.  Some people say this is another indication of a general lack of interest in Civil Rights/African American historic sites in Atlanta.

Slavery, segregation, abuse, inequality and racism are all a part of America. We cannot ignore it or hide from facts, for that guarantees they continue. These buildings are relics of the past, but more importantly they are evidence of the brave and strong people who struggled to overcome the circumstances of their birth. Every day we fail to give their stories, their sacrifices, their achievements the respect or honor they deserve.  Our neglect disrespects their heritage and deprives us of being a better country.

The movement towards civil rights is far greater than Martin Luther King, Jr., and Atlanta has strong evidence of this dating back to before the Civil War. Savannah and Charleston have built their economies on cultural tourism, but their histories are slave based – all their historic buildings were built and/or maintained by enslaved Africans.  Atlanta has the unique opportunity to create an industry based on freedom and civil rights.  Vine City alone can begin with Alonzo Herndon and Atlanta University, and continue to the Voting Rights Act and beyond.  But every building we lose is a lost opportunity – one that can never be replaced.

The YMCA has suggested that “look the other way” to other buildings, but only they are moving towards demolition.  The YMCA aims to build leaders – this is an opportunity for the Y to be leaders. Thus far, they have refused requests, even refusing help raising the needed money.

We the people, the City of Atlanta, and historic preservation organizations in Atlanta, must unite if there is any chance of saving our history.

Civil rights benefits all Americans, regardless of our ethnic background. We all need to know these stories of personal struggle and success.  We must act today to save these buildings for tomorrow.

Note to readers: Jay Scott is a registered landscape architect with more than 39 years of experience in landscape architecture, planning and urban design.

ymca headquarters schematic

Plans call much of Jordan Hall to be demolished to make way for a new headquarters for the Atlanta YMCA. The entry building facing Martin Luther King Drive is to be retained and the design of much of the new facade is to complement Jordan Hall. Credit: insight.investatlanta.com

jordan hall, mercedes benz stadium

The Mercedes Benz Stadium is in walking distance from the site of Jordan Hall and the future home of the headquarters of the Atlanta YMCA. Credit: David Pendered

jordan hall, west side, 1

A small patch of ground on the west side of Jordan Hall is outfitted with an outdoor theater built for a classroom of children, seating and a hop scotch court. Credit: David Pendered

jordan hall, west door

This doorway on the west side of Jordan Hall opens onto the small playground and courtyard. Credit: David Pendered

Benches line a walkway on the west side of Jordan Hall. A hop scotch court is marked on the walkway in front of the benches. Credit: David Pendered

jordan hall, hop scotch

A hop scotch court is ready for children to play beside Jordan Hall. Credit: David Pendered

13 replies
  1. Paula Matabane says:

    Thank you for such a powerful and informative article. What steps do you suggest for us ordinary citizens to take to convey these sentiments to the YMCA? I attended Oglethorpe Elementary right across the street from Ware many decades ago (the building is still standing). Back then Negro public schools were on what they called “the swing system” — euphemism for going to school only half a day to accommodate overcrowding. Hence, my parents struggled to send my 2 brothers and me to private Oglethorpe which belonged to Atlanta University. I didn’t know that Ware was the first black elementary school in Atlanta nor the political struggle that birthed it. I did know that my alma mater, Washington High, was the first black public four-year high school in GA. In my youth, it seems ALL black parents were adamant about education, supported teachers, and re-enforced school disciple. A spanking at school meant a spanking when you got home. The teacher sent a note and you gave it to your mama without fail!! So much history, so much lost memory and knowledge. Truly, the key to quality education is parental involvement and support. A $20m building with latest technology means nothing if the parents are MIA.Report

    Reply
  2. Carrie M Salvary says:

    I feel it appropriate to share that Invest Atlanta granted the YMCA $2,500,000.00 without any condition(s) to preserve the historical asset in the Vine City Community.Report

    Reply
    • Beasley says:

      I am grateful for the leadership of Carrie M. Salivary who has taken the leadership in pulling the Civil Rights Groups together to meet with the leadership of the YMCA to point out the important points discussed in this excellent article.

      The leadership of the YMCA has ignored our demands largely because the Black political leadership are either ignorant, or indifferent of our history. Just today, during the ribbon cutting ceremony of a community center in English Avenue. Council Young spoke of the YMCA building a new building on the site of historic Jordan Hall!!

      I is my hope that this article can reenergize our efforts to save Jordan Hall.Report

      Reply
  3. Stacen says:

    In addition to the leaders of the Y not having any respect for the Civil Rights history of Atlanta. I feel our leaders are not being pressured to honor the community’s request.

    Is it a common practice of a Christian to not be a good neighbor? A Christian is suppose to spread love. This is a act of hate.

    I also question the report of this Engineering firm, being its alleged that Ed Munster’s ( The Y’s CEO ) wife is part or own this firm.Report

    Reply
    • jay scott says:

      in a word, no. there was no competition, and I have never pursued work with the YMCA. If I ever planned to do so, I certainly would not have written this article.Report

      Reply
      • jay scott says:

        I would appreciate your clarification of your comments. I believe the article is mostly comprised of facts, but I did write it. Please give me the examples of bitter opinion that you write about.

        I find ‘Bitter’ to be such an odd, personal word for here. I am not a bitter person, but I do think it is awful that there is so little respect for such important evidence – evidence of struggle and success by people who were denied so much. We Atlantans have and extraordinary resource here in the form of civil rights history. We have a responsibility to preserve, respect and interpret it for those who come after us. It is very disturbing to me when those with power and/or authority choose to destroy this history and what it represents.Report

        Reply
  4. westatl says:

    Agreed. Ivory Young and other Africian-American political leaders have done NOTHING to support keeping this important piece of history. Shameful !!Report

    Reply
  5. Steve says:

    So, where is the African-American community in all this? Paschal’s, West Hunter St church, etc.,etc. Not a peep have I heard. If the sites are important, they need to step up.Report

    Reply

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