Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation leader to retire; praised for decades of saving sites
By John Ruch
The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation is seeking a new leader as president and CEO Mark C. McDonald is retiring after a nearly 40-year career in protecting the state’s historic sites for future generations.
McDonald has led the Atlanta-based statewide nonprofit for nearly 15 years and will continue to do so during a search and transition period expected to extend into the fall. His departure coincides with the Georgia Trust’s 50th anniversary and the release of a book this fall that he intends to promote.
“It’s just been such a privilege to work with such dedicated volunteers, board members and staff,” said McDonald in a phone interview. “I feel like I’m leaving the Georgia Trust in a good position, and it should be an attractive place for somebody to come work.”
“Our Trustees are happy for Mark but will greatly miss his dedication and leadership,” said Georgia Trust Board Chair Norris Broyles in a press release.
The Jan. 2 retirement announcement was followed by words of praise for McDonald from leaders at various historic and preservationist organizations.
“Mark’s been an incredible leader for the Georgia Trust,” said Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, who was on the search committee that hired him in 2008. “He was the right man at the right time and has taken it to new heights in influence and relevance… He’s overperformed in every way.”
Ethiel Garlington, executive director of the Historic Macon Foundation, calls McDonald a “preservation mentor” and praised his career at preservation organizations throughout the South.
“Mark’s tenure at the Georgia Trust is enviable as his exemplary career in preservation,” said Garlington. “His finesse and grace have benefited Historic Salisbury Foundation [in North Carolina], Historic Savannah Foundation, and the Georgia Trust, transforming all of them into leading organizations in the country. Mark is genuine, smart, witty, and brings out the best in those in his orbit. Simply put, Mark is one of the most accomplished preservation professionals in the country and his legacy will endure for decades in our state.”
David Yoakley Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC), praised McDonald’s leadership in the context of statewide preservation challenges.
“Georgia’s significance, culturally and historically, is truly told by our built landscape, and the cycles of construction and destruction of these structures [and] spaces are difficult to govern,” said Mitchell. “Through the craft of historic preservation, we are able to find the counterpoints in ourselves and others. Mr. Mark McDonald has spent almost four decades navigating this perilous discussion of identity by what we preserve.
“His understanding of sustainability in this process has served the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation very well and also for many others,” continued Mitchell. “We wish him only the best in this next step of his work and look forward to working with the new leadership that will be coming, as historic preservation is more important now than ever.”
Charles Lawrence, board chair of the nonprofit Historic Atlanta, joined the praise.
“Mark’s time as president of the Georgia Trust has been highlighted by some of the most innovative and significant accomplishments in preservation this century,” said Lawrence. “Under Mark, [the Georgia Trust’s headquarters] Rhodes Hall became a flagship project demonstrating how historic buildings can be made energy-efficient. His work with the Trust’s preservation-based revolving fund continually sets a high bar of success in saving endangered properties. And most importantly, Mark has been consistently engaged in supporting the preservation of places significant to historically marginalized communities. He deserves a great retirement and the Trust has a big task ahead of them to fill Mark’s shoes.”
The Georgia Trust is a major preservation organization that provides funding and educational support for a wide variety of local projects and programs. The nonprofit directly maintains two historic properties: Rhodes Hall, its headquarters in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood, and the Hay House in Macon. It also supports private purchases of endangered buildings through its Revolving Fund program and offers tours in its “Rambles” events. On the publicity side, the Georgia Trust is well-known for its annual Preservation Awards and the “Places in Peril” list of the state’s most endangered historic sites.
Broyles cited several of McDonald’s accomplishments with such programs: “During Mark’s time at the Trust, he has helped energize our Revolving Fund program, doubling the number of properties we have protected; he has directed two successful capital campaigns for the restoration of Rhodes Hall and its grounds; he has initiated a green building program at the Trust, helped rebuild our professional staff, and strengthened our financial position, among many other achievements.”
The Georgia Trust has enjoyed stable, long-term leadership for decades. The previous leader, Greg Paxton, served 26 years before departing in early 2008. McDonald was hired later that year, exiting his previous job as executive director of the Historic Savannah Foundation.
“I came into a mature organization that had suffered some growing pains but had a committed group of board members that wanted to see some of the programs being expanded, and they backed the staff completely,” said McDonald. “It’s just been a real pleasure to work with the Georgia Trust and to work in Atlanta, where there’s so much support for historic preservation, which is mostly done outside the city of Atlanta, of course.”
McDonald said it’s an exciting time for preservation in Georgia. “We’re one of the leaders in the country,” he said. “We have more organizations with revolving funds for historic preservation than any other state in the country, by far. We have some of the strongest nonprofit organizations doing preservation in the country. It’s just been so gratifying working in that environment and playing a small role in supporting these organizations in places like Columbus and Macon and Savannah to achieve some great results.”
“And of course the Georgia Trust has had its successes,” he added, citing the Revolving Fund expansion and the debut of its GREEN program on energy conservation improvements for historic homes. He also recalled some favorite preservation success stories: the 1840s Zion Episcopal Church in Talbotton and the Dobbins manganese mine in Bartow County, which was threatened by a state highway project.
The Georgia Trust’s hometown has not been as much of a success story in terms of public policy and preservation culture. “Georgia’s a tale of two cultures,” said McDonald. “There is Atlanta and then there’s the rest of the state. We have a very dynamic preservation movement in Georgia, but not so much in Atlanta.”
He said Atlanta’s charitable community is outstanding for funding preservation, and the city has “very strong” neighborhood preservation in such areas as Druid Hills, Virginia-Highland, Cabbagetown and Grant Park. “It’s just on the commercial side [of preservation] that it’s shown a lack of support,” he said. Last year, the Georgia Trust joined the APC in successfully advocating for the preservation of a historic office building in a Sweet Auburn redevelopment.
“So if Atlanta had a real preservation ethic and strong public policy laws, Atlanta would be a great place to do preservation work,” he said.
The loss of a favorite landscape to redevelopment in his hometown of Montgomery, Ala., was a key preservationist influence on McDonald as a boy. He took some preservation courses while a law student at the University of Georgia and began volunteering at organizations. His first leadership position came in 1986 at the Historic Salisbury Foundation in Salisbury, N.C., whose small staff ran a revolving fund, two house museums and a book publishing arm. The foundation, he said, “just took a real gamble on me and basically trained me. It was trial by fire, let me say.”
It also taught him a crucial lesson he later used at the Georgia Trust: “It’s always been a partnership between dedicated volunteers and the staff, which is really the way all good nonprofits function.”
After four years in Salisbury, he spent eight years leading the Mobile Historic Development Commission in Mobile, Ala. And in 1998, he took a leadership role at the Historic Savannah Foundation. He said the work in Savannah, a pioneer in historic preservation, taught him the “delicate balancing act” between “managing growth but not kill it” and maintaining investment opportunities so that historic buildings could be saved.
As his latest educational and fundraising effort at the Georgia Trust, McDonald has been editing and co-writing “Architecture of the Last Colony,” a book on notable Georgia buildings and sites expected to be published by the University of Georgia Press this fall. He said the book is about 200 pages and has about 200 photos, and he hopes it will be a “contribution to the literature on Georgia architecture.”
The pending promotional tour for the book is one factor in McDonald’s decision to retire. Another is his wife Carmie’s pending ordination as an Episcopal priest, a position that could keep them in Atlanta or have them move elsewhere. They currently live in a house dating to 1949 in one of Atlanta’s most endangered historic neighborhoods, Ansley Park, which is in the midst of its own preservation debate. If they do move, he says, he fears for the house’s fate.
“A small house on a big lot in Atlanta – you might as well just go ahead and put a ‘threatened’ sign on it,” he said.
On the other hand, he will also be on the lookout for another historic house to renovate, as he’s already done with about a dozen, “including every residence I’ve lived in.”
“I just love the process and I’m not done with that,” he said. “That may be something I do in retirement, is buy a beleaguered historic building and restore it.”
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