By Maria Saporta
Exactly three years ago, a fire damaged the historic Gaines Hall on the golden hill on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Then Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed pledged to save Gaines Hall.
Now three years later, little has been done to stabilize, much less restore, Gaines Hall, built in 1869.
Sadly, the top level of the front wall collapsed about a month ago – a clear sign that time is taking its toll on the building.
“My heart cried,” said Karcheik Sims Alvarado, CEO of Preserve Black Atlanta, when she saw what had happened. “Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does.”
Mark McDonald, president of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, expressed great disapproval with the lack of progress to save Gaines Hall.
“On behalf of the Georgia Trust, I must say that are very disappointed that Atlanta leadership has shown such little interest in preserving Gaines Hall, which is so significant in our city’s history,” McDonald wrote in an email. “There were several key opportunities to save this building, but they were not undertaken.”
The story of Gaines Hall is a sordid tale.
The building was included in the $14.6 million purchase of 36 acres of Morris Brown land by the City of Atlanta and Friendship Baptist Church on Aug. 29, 2014.
Friendship acquired 6 acres south of MLK Drive for $4 million; and the City of Atlanta bought 30 acres for $10.6 million.
But 17 of the City’s share were subject to a “reversionary clause” owned by Clark Atlanta University. The land had once belonged to Atlanta University (now CAU), and it had let Morris Brown have ownership of the land as long as it was used for educational purposes. If the property no longer had an educational purpose, it would revert back to CAU. Gaines Hall was part of those 17 acres.
When the City of Atlanta bought the land during the Morris Brown bankruptcy proceedings, CAU objected to sale, claiming rights to the property. CAU filed suit against the city, and the property was in litigation until earlier this year. CAU won every court case, but the City kept appealing until it had exhausted all legal avenues.
Clark Atlanta officially regained ownership of those 17 acres on June 28.
Here is where it gets murky.
One year after the City acquired control of the property, Gaines Hall caught fire, and the City pledged to do all it could to save it. The City did have an insurance policy on the building.
“We got the maximum insurance that we could,” said Eloisa Klementich, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta. “We put in our first claim, and we got $600,000. We did not think that was enough so we hired an adjuster. We got an additional $834,000 for a total of $1.4 million.”
Efforts to get more money from insurance failed.
Meanwhile, Klementich said the City has been working with firms to try to stabilize the property, but several City-required analysis and reports needed to be completed before work could begin. Here is Invest Atlanta’s Chronology of Events to Restore Gaines Hall – Aug. 2018 -FINAL
All those were completed when the 17 acres, including Gaines Hall, were transferred to CAU. Invest Atlanta recently wrote a letter to CAU asking if it could continue on a three-staged plan to begin stabilizing the property. But it had not heard back from CAU.
When contacted for this column, Sam D. Burston, CAU’s vice president and chief advancement officer, responded: “Invest Atlanta has notified us that they have a three-stage plan to stabilize Gaines Hall, and we are working with them to achieve this goal.”
Klementich was delighted to hear that CAU would be working with the City to stabilize Gaines Hall.
“We are so close,” Klementich said. “I’m really excited (about working with CAU). It’s so important because of the history Gaines Hall represents.”
When asked about the further deterioration of the building, Klementich said: “I’m even more dedicated that we get to this building as soon as we can. We think we can stabilize the building for $1.4 million.”
But those dollars will only stabilize the building in its current dilapidated state.
But Klementich estimated that it would cost at least $12 million to fully restore Gaines Hall, money which has not been identified.
From CAU’s perspective, the City of Atlanta needs to cover its $2 million legal costs from the lawsuit and appeals. Most importantly, CAU makes the case that the City needs to restore Gaines Hall to the condition is was when it got control of the property (pre-fire).
Officials have compared the case to when someone steals a car and wrecks it, that person is responsible for returning the car in the condition it was before the wreck.
“All those issues are still under discussion,” said Klementich, adding that the City and the community “need to insure the funds are there to restore Gaines Hall.”
Karcheik Sims Alvarado said the legal battle has “caused the building to suffer and made it even more vulnerable.”
The community has watched it steadily decline over the years, but there has not been enough of a rallying cry from the community to save Gaines Hall. A Facebook page – Save Gaines Hall – has been created, but more needs to happen.
“All of Atlanta needs to understand why Gaines Hall needs to be preserved,” Alvarado said, describing its unique spot on top of the “Golden Hills of Atlanta” – a place built by blacks and whites for the purpose of teaching African Americans.
She also mentioned African-American scholar W.E.B. Dubois, who was living in Gaines Hall when he wrote The Soul of Black Folk – a vital book in changing the way the nation viewed race.
“W.E.B. Dubois said it was Atlanta that really shaped his political ideology,” Alvarado said. “He said his best works were created because he was in Atlanta.”
Alvarado said Gaines Hall needs a champion to make sure it is preserved as a way to help Atlanta remember its past.
“We have so few historic buildings,” she said. “This is one of the oldest buildings in the city, and we need to do everything we can to preserve it.”
David Mitchell, who serves on the board of the Atlanta Preservation Center, agreed, saying: “If we lose Gaines Hall, we will lose a part of who we are.”
And the Georgia Trust’s McDonald said Gaines Hall needs to be saved.
“It may not be too late but time is precious now to work together to make sure that future generations know of the great achievements of nineteenth century African Americans following the Civil War.”
On a personal note, I’m getting tired of writing repeatedly on the need to Save Gaines Hall. I’ve written several columns, before and after the fire, about why it needs to be preserved.
But I have not yet seen anyone come forward demanding accountability and raising money to preserve it. Somehow we have come up with $24 million to build an unnecessary pedestrian bridge three blocks east of Gaines Hall, and yet we have been unable to find the resources to stabilize, and more importantly, preserve this precious historic structure.
Atlanta – it’s time for a different story line.
Here is a list of stories and columns, in chronological order, that have run in SaportaReport about Gaines Hall: