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Fires at Gaines Hall and Furber Cottage ‘a wake-up call’ for Atlanta

The back of Gaines Hall on Feb. 17, one day after the most recent fire. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

By Maria Saporta

Enough already.

Two of Atlanta’s most historic buildings – Gaines Hall and Furber Cottage – were victims of two separate fires this past week.

Yet again.

Gaines Hall, built in 1869 as part of Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), was the victim of a major fire in 2015. And Furber Cottage, built as a student dorm for Atlanta University in 1899, caught on fire in 2019. Early Thursday morning (Feb. 16), a fire broke out in the back part of Gaines Hall. And three days later, there was a fire at Furber Cottage.

The front of Gaines Hall on Feb. 17 showing that much of the structure is still standing. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

By some miracle, both are still standing – side by side – on Atlanta’s Diamond Hill, the heart of our historically black colleges and universities.

But this neglect has gone on too long. These fires should serve as a call to action for Atlanta. We need to save these buildings once and for all.

“We absolutely love those buildings,” said Dr. George French, president of Clark Atlanta University, which owns Gaines Hall and Furber Cottage. “We are not going to give up.”

In light of the two fires, French said the university has stepped up security around both buildings, which have been closed off with a high chain link fence for years. CAU has not yet received a report from the Atlanta Fire Department on the causes of both fires.

Furber Cottage on Feb. 17 — two days before there was a fire in the historic dorm. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“We are doing our due diligence to continue securing our property – gated and locked,” French said in a phone interview Monday morning. “As intruders have breached our security, we are installing additional video security devices on the property.”

Debra A. Williams, CAU’s chief of police, who was in a meeting with President French on Monday, said they have also increased police presence around those properties.

In truth, the only way to ensure these buildings will survive is preservation with an intent to give them new life, and preservationists are convinced they can be saved.

“The Georgia Trust is troubled by the continued neglect of Gaines Hall, which is one of the most important historic buildings in the state,” wrote Mark McDonald, president of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, in an email. “Its importance to African American history cannot be overstated.”

Furber Cottage on Feb. 19 right after the fire. (Photo by Jay Scott.)

McDonald compared the fire damage to what happened to the Hancock County courthouse in Sparta, which has been fully restored. It’s a testament to what can happen with Gaines Hall.

“I have seen several buildings damaged by fire completely restored,” McDonald continued. “If the will to save this structure is present, it can be restored and become a shining testament to Black achievement in our state and city.”

David Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center, agreed.

The L.P. and Laura Grant home – built in 1856 and considered to be the oldest building in Atlanta, was restored by the Atlanta Preservation Center.

“In the 1970s, the Grant home was in an equal state to Gaines Hall with the same level of fear and same sense of being impossible to restore,” Mitchell said in an email. “That fear was conquered with courage and vision, and now it is the headquarters for Atlanta’s oldest organization dedicated to Historic Preservation.”

Mitchell said a restored Gaines Hall could become part of Atlanta’s identity.

“Gaines Hall has now suffered two fires,” Mitchell continued. “If the symbol of this City is the Phoenix rising from the ashes, maybe we should consider updating it to Gaines Hall and stewarding the ethos of what that significant structure represents – our culture and identity!”

Just last week, another spectacular example of historic preservation on Martin Luther King Dr. was unveiled – the restoration of West Hunter Street Baptist Church – the spiritual home of the late Ralph David Abernathy Sr.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams on Feb. 15 announced a $4 million in federal funding for the continued preservation of the historic West Hunter Street Baptist Church. The new grant will go toward furnishing the sanctuary and its offices as well as turning the site into an active community space.

That is in addition to the $2.5 million in various grants the church had already received to stabilize and restore the structure.

Candy Tate, Skip Mason, Annette Abernathy and Jay Scott at the Transform Westside Summit on Feb. 17 showing restoration of the historic West Hunter Street Baptist Church. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Annette Abernathy, daughter-in-law of Abernathy Sr. and widow of Ralph David Abernathy III has made it her mission to restore the church and realize her late husband’s vision for the property. Check out Kelly Jordan’s photo package on West Hunter Street Baptist Church.

The Westside Future Fund’s Transform Westside Summit at the Gathering Spot on Feb. 17 featured the restoration of the church. But both the panelists and the nearly 100 attendees quickly turned the spotlight onto all the other threatened significant buildings along Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. that were instrumental to Atlanta’s Black history.

Rev. Skip Mason, founder of Vanishing Black Atlanta, showed a series of photos of how the area looked during its heyday. He highlighted the Historic Marker Project which would tell the story of the area.

Candy Tate, a preservationist and cultural leader who has been working to preserve Fountain Hall at Morris Brown College, announced “Days of Remembrance” awareness event from April 4 to April 9 with a 1.5-mile march headed by Grand Marshalls Andrew and Carolyn Young.

Jay Scott (far right) shows a slide of Gaines Hall with the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the background as Candy Tate, Skip Mason and Annette Abernathy listen. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Jay Scott, a landscape architect who has been working with Annette Abernathy, showed a slide of a burned-out Gaines Hall with the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the background. He asked what it says about Atlanta that we can build a $1.5 billion stadium and let our most historic structures deteriorate.

Several audience members chimed in saying the time is now to preserve Atlanta’s special history.

President French said he understands the responsibility Clark Atlanta has to preserve the buildings it owns.

Clark Atlanta has retained a firm – Direct Investment Development – to develop the property with the intent to restore those buildings. Clark Atlanta would continue to own the land and still have a voice in what is developed.

But Dr. French also said he knows it will be expensive to restore those buildings, and he is hopeful Atlanta’s preservation and philanthropic community will help make those dreams a reality.

Clark Atlanta University continues to display a signs for its master development plan — the day after Feb. 16 Gaines Hall fire. (Photo by Maria Saporta).

“I’m a student of history,” he said. “Actually, when the Atlanta University Center was established in 1865, we were the only ones here. Those two buildings are among the two oldest buildings in the city.”

Laura Heery, an Atlanta architectural and urban designer, has been supporting various preservation efforts (including West Hunter) behind the scenes.

“The Gaines Hall fire is a ‘wake-up call’ to protect the buildings,” Heery wrote. “Rev. Skip Mason’s research and photographs show W. Hunter Street, [now MLK Dr.] how it was a nationally prominent Black ‘Main Street’ and college town. It was a vital neighborhood in the daily lives of students and civil rights leaders who helped foster economic mobility and well-being. It could be vibrant again.”

Note to readers: SaportaReport has written numerous stories and columns about Gaines Hall since the fire and all the legal twists and turns over the years. Here are a few. We have been advocating for the preservation of our civil rights history, and we remain committed to the cause.

A year after fire, questions plague future of Gaines Hall Sept. 5, 2016

With lawsuit settled, it’s time to preserve Paschal’s and Gaines Hall April 29, 2019

Invest Atlanta, Clark Atlanta end dispute; $4.14 million for damaged historic building June 18, 2020

Clark Atlanta’s George French seeks to revitalize its historic holdings Sept. 19, 2022


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.



  1. Jean Spencer February 22, 2023 11:50 am

    NPS Preservation Briefs incluse one on mothballing old buildings. If Atlanta followed these basic instructions, so much of this could be avoided.Report


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