Demolition of three major historic buildings at Milledgeville’s Central State Hospital campus was approved this week by Gov. Brian Kemp, the latest surprise to preservationists concerned about their future.
In two July 25 executive orders, Kemp authorized the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) to demolish three large and significant structures: the Green (1947), Jones (late 1920s) and Walker (1884) buildings. He also authorized the demolition of the Wash House Building, an outbuilding behind the historic Powell Building, a grand structure that officials last year said is not itself at risk for demolition.
The surprise start of asbestos abatement work on those three major buildings in October 2022 triggered preservationists’ concerns about demolition and a pro-preservation petition that drew more than 1,000 signatures. DBHDD claimed at the time that the abatement was an urgent response to trespasser-related safety issues and separate from any potential demolition or other long-term plans. But contractor documents obtained by SaportaReport showed the abatement was an interrelated part of demolition plans that only had yet to be approved and funded.
DBHDD’s governing board sought demolition authority from Kemp in a June 29 resolution, according to the executive orders.
“The goal is to complete demolition this fall,” said DBHDD spokesperson Ryan King, explaining that the “timeline is to be determined.”
King said that demolition was found to be “the only viable option” for the buildings and that a revitalization plan is still on the table that will have the Powell Building as a “centerpiece.”
Demolitions of state-owned buildings require approval through such executive orders. Kemp’s orders say the Central State demolitions must meet applicable laws and policies, specifically including state laws about the preservation of state-owned historic structures. That could mean properly documenting them prior to demolition.
Edwin Atkins, a leader of the popular history group Friends of Central State Hospital, alerted SaportaReport to the demolition orders but did not have immediate comment.
Georgia Trust President and CEO Mark C. McDonald noted that his group put the hospital campus on its “Places in Peril” list of endangered historic sites in 2010. “Since that time, we have been constant advocates for the preservation of these culturally and architecturally significant buildings, even going so far as to make grants to projects on the campus,” he said. “We would like to ask for a reprieve of this order to allow all parties to meet to pursue any avenues to avoid the demolition of these structures.”
APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell, in a July 27 letter to state officials, noted the complex history of the 180-year-old, 1,400-acre hospital campus, which was a pioneer in mental health in its day before becoming notorious for abuses and a focus of reforms.
“The complexity and challenge of this discussion is fraught with emotion,” he said. “Yet the ultimate loss will be the experience of the patients that lived and died there, the families and residents affected by this place, and most of all, what it exposed of who and what we are. The removal of these buildings will be an erasure of all of that and more.”
Added Mitchell: “My hope would be that this could be reconsidered, and they could be used as bridges from then to the now and the future we all want for our citizens and state.”
“First, we understand the connection the community has with Central State Hospital and the concern community members have over the protection of the property,” said King, the DBHDD spokesperson. “DBHDD explored in-depth the alternatives on these properties. Ultimately, it was determined that demolition was the only viable option to mitigate the significant and potentially deadly risk these buildings pose to the public and to create a path for the property to be revitalized.”
King said the demolitions are part of “attempts to breathe life back into the Central State Hospital campus through reinvestment and partnerships. … It’s important to understand the Powell Building will remain intact and serve as a centerpiece in potential reinvestment and redevelopment plans.”
A decade ago, the state established the Central State Hospital Local Redevelopment Authority (CSHLRA) to plan a redevelopment of the campus – a concept now dubbed Renaissance Park. The CSHLRA has brokered several building sales for commercial uses and done such other work as erecting historical markers. But it has not taken control of all of the buildings.
CSHLRA, in 2021, unsuccessfully sought federal funding to acquire and either demolish or preserve several of the same buildings, as reported in the Milledgeville Union-Recorder. That plan would have saved the Powell, saved the facade of the Walker while demolishing the rest and demolished the Green and Jones buildings along with an apartment building and the steam plant.
Following legal battles and federal investigations revolving around patients’ rights, Central State Hospital and the entire Georgia mental health hospital system were downsized in 2011. Once encompassing more than 200 buildings, the actual state hospital part of Central State occupies only a half-dozen buildings on roughly 65 acres and currently serves about 150 criminal justice system defendants deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.
Much of the remainder of the sprawling campus was simply left vacant, including the historic buildings marked for demolition now, and many structures fell into poor condition by state neglect. Only two buildings – the Powell and an 1890 storehouse called the Victorian Building – are on the National Register of Historic Places, and that affords no legal protection against demolition.
In 2021, Baldwin County sued DBHDD in a dispute over a long-term agreement that put the state agency on the hook for paying for firefighting service on the campus.
Update: This story has been updated with comment from DBHDD.