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Endangered Auburn Avenue building housed pioneering Black-owned bank, research finds

The 229 Auburn Ave. building as it appears today. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

By John Ruch

An endangered historic building in Sweet Auburn is even more historic than preservationists knew, as new research has discovered it was home to Atlanta’s pioneering Black-owned bank and the first ever chartered in Georgia.

Those and other findings – including a possible construction date over 15 years earlier than believed – don’t just add urgency to the discussion about 229 Auburn Ave., which is facing a City demolition order and a redevelopment plan. They also suggest that other significant historical stories may be going overlooked, even in well-known buildings, even in the famous Black business district of the Jim Crow era where many entrepreneurs and civil rights leaders built legacies. The head of the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC), the nonprofit that did the research, says the effort may be a “springboard” for similar investigations in Sweet Auburn and citywide.

“This showcases the complexity of Atlanta,” said APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell. “There’s so many things that we think we know or assume to know that [now] we realize that we need to know more.”

The long-vacant former office building at 229 Auburn has been on preservationists’ radar for years as endangered. Its owner, the Butler Street Community Development Corporation (CDC), has plans to redevelop most of the block into a mixed-use structure with affordable housing. Last month, the City ordered its demolition for public safety reasons. But that decision needs further review because the building is within City and federal historic landmark districts.

Preservation groups and agencies – including APC –  have called on the building to be saved, while the CDC questions the financial resources to do so, though its own plan remains on the drawing board. Alfonza Marshall, the CDC’s board chair, did not immediately respond to a comment request but has been notified of the bank history, according to APC.

The National Park Service (NPS), which oversees the federally designated landmark district, previously dated the building to around 1908 and noted it is referred to as the Atlanta Life Insurance Branch Office for its longest-running tenant, a famous Black-owned business. In a 2019 report, the NPS noted in passing that the building had many other tenants, including an “Atlanta Savings Bank.”

That was actually the pioneering Atlanta State Savings Bank, according to the new APC research, which also found the building may date to as early as 1892.

The research was conducted by Sarah Borcherding, a grad student in Georgia State University’s Heritage Preservation Program. She interns with APC’s sister nonprofit Easements Atlanta, which oversees preservation restrictions on historic properties in exchange for tax credits and other advantages. The 229 Auburn research doubles as a summer class project.

Borcherding found that the bank occupied 229 Auburn in its crucial growth years of 1910 to 1913 before moving across the street to the Odd Fellows Building, a preservation success story in part thanks to Easement Atlanta’s involvement.

Seminal local historian Franklin Garrett in his book Atlanta and Its Environs said the bank was founded in 1909 by John O. Ross, a local retail grocer. Garrett quoted a 1910 advertisement where the bank offered 4 percent interest on deposits and focused on economic power for Black citizens in that segregated era.

“An independent Negro is one who has money in the bank. Are you one? If not, read on and become one…,” the ad said in part. “It’s what you save — not what you earn — that makes wealth. Start now for INDEPENDENCE.”

Ross was a pioneer in establishing Atlanta’s first Black-owned bank. In 1913, it also became Georgia’s first state-chartered Black bank, according to a 1987 journal article by Clark Atlanta University professor Alexa Benson Henderson.

The bank’s occupation of 229 Auburn, Borcherding wrote in a draft of her research, “greatly increases the significance of the structure.”

The bank failed in 1922, according to Garrett. But he cites it as establishing information and a customer base for the 1921 founding of the Citizens Trust Company, another Black-owned bank from legendary entrepreneur Heman Perry, which was so successful it is still operating more than a century later.

In examining historic maps, Borcherding also found a rectangular structure on the site in the 1890s. That could be the same building that stands today or just a similar one, she says. That’s just one of several topics she is still investigating. Others include the chain of owners over the decades and who authorized another historic, if less appealing, aspect — a rare, racist Gold Dust Twins soap ad painted on an exterior wall.

There were some tricks to figuring out the building’s history, including changes to street names and addresses. There was also the literal and figurative overshadowing of 229 Auburn by its former neighbor, the massive Herndon Building, which rose in 1926 and was attached to it with a small addition. Damaged by a tornado in 2008, the Herndon Building was demolished in another preservation loss, but also one that let 229 Auburn stand out.

“In a certain way, that tragedy of losing one building showcased another building that was arguably more significant but was less known than its stature [deserves],” said Mitchell.

All the same, Borcherding said, it was “quite easy” to discover these additional gems of 229 Auburn history with some basic research in old city directories and maps. In conversations with Mitchell, said, she found herself asking, “Why am I the one connecting these dots? This should be common knowledge.” The answer, she speculates, is that it indeed was common knowledge once upon a time. “I think that the people that it mattered to have passed away,” she says.

That’s one reason why historic designations and protections are really only a starting point. National landmark districts are a relatively new phenomenon and Sweet Auburn was among the first, dating to around 45 years ago when the research standards were less picky and much more of the Jim Crow-era history was within living memory of those establishing it. Even famous sites have legends that can fossilize into stories that skip other aspects of history that might be crucial or take on new meaning in new times.

Mitchell says 229 Auburn is a good example of this kind of situation — and that additional research can be done with such resources as Atlanta’s wealth of university students, not necessarily the expense of hiring consultants and commissioning studies. APC now intends to do more such research on other Sweet Auburn buildings and the district as a whole, he said, in expectation of more pressures against preservation.

“We’ve taken Auburn Avenue for granted, this assumption that it will always be there — that this street, this space, will always exist and will always represent something that we all pull from,” he said. “But at some point, it’s time for us all to give back. It’s helped us. Now it is time for us to help it.”

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