English Avenue church and Black school are up for Atlanta historic landmark status
By John Ruch
A segregation-era Black school in Southwest Atlanta and the site of a prominent English Avenue church will be considered for official City historic landmark status next week.
The Atlanta Urban Design Commission’s (UDC) April 27 agenda includes the landmarking of the former St. Mark AME Church, a roofless semi-ruin being reborn as a public space, and the Philadelphia School, founded in the 1880s by Black families. Landmarking would give the UDC supervision over any attempted demolition or changes, as well as spotlighting preservation efforts.
The church at 491 James P. Brawley Drive was built in 1920 for a white congregation and bought in 1948 by St. Mark. It has been vacant since 1976 and has been the target of restoration efforts since 1995. Today, it essentially consists of the four granite walls still standing, with its interior used as a community space.
Pastor Winston Taylor, who owns the St. Mark property, has teamed with the nonprofit Atlanta Preservation Center (APC) and community groups on preservation and reuse projects that are still seeking funding. Achievements so far include preservation in the Westside Land Use Framework Plan, which calls for area redevelopment without displacing legacy residents. APC has brought in Georgia Tech architecture students to work on a reuse plan dubbed “The Preserve at St. Mark,” which involves building a glass roof over the ruins.
“I’m restoring a public space,” not just a building, said Taylor in a phone interview. He said that merely saving the structure for now is not the goal; rebuilding the spot as a neighborhood center and sparking broader, community-minded redevelopment is. He said he hopes the landmarking will speed funding, especially with various officials gathered for the April 27 meeting.
APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell said he is hopeful the City will move ahead on the landmarking, essentially putting an official stamp of approval on the years of teamwork by the community. He agrees the project could be the spark for community-oriented preservation and redevelopment. “Because if you love preservation, that means you love something more than yourself, and that’s a good start,” he said.
Meanwhile, the City itself is seeking the landmark designation for the school at 1158 Philadelphia St., just off Cascade Road. Dating to the 1930s, the property sits next to the Philadelphia Baptist Church, whose congregants created the school.
A full City report is not yet complete, but the Department of City Planning says the school is significant architecturally and culturally. Founded in 1889 and operating through 1956, it was a legacy of the racial segregation era, when Black parents cooperated to create quality schools for their children. “The Philadelphia School was created to serve the African-American students of Cascade Heights as they were prohibited from attending schools with white children,” according to the City.
Parents of school students included Johnny Fears and Leonard C. Jackson, who were among the plaintiffs in a 1958 lawsuit against Atlanta Public Schools seeking to enforce desegregation. The City says Fears and Jackson have “exceptionally high significance” to Atlanta history.
The existing building remains largely unchanged since its construction as the latest version of the school in the 1930s, the City said.