The state agency planning to demolish historic buildings at Milledgeville’s Central State Hospital said an “in-depth” exploration of preservation alternatives it claimed to have conducted consisted of a single, undocumented phone call with an unnamed expert.
For weeks, the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) did not respond to SaportaReport questions about the supposed analysis and finally acknowledged the lack of documents after an Open Records request – but still has not named the expert. The supposed phone call is the source of the agency’s claim that a preservation study would cost $300,000 and saving one unnamed building’s facade would cost $10 million, numbers that DBHDD Commissioner Kevin Tanner repeated in letters to preservationists this month.
“Historic preservation is well outside of DBHDD’s core mission,” said DBHDD official Greg Hoyt in a message delivered through the agency’s Open Records officer after SaportaReport pressed for documentation. “We did briefly explore the possibility of salvaging the facades of the building. That consisted of a consultive telephone call with an experienced professional in the field. To my knowledge, there was no documentation of that phone call.
“That brief consultation resulted in an estimation that it would cost around/over $300,000 for a detailed engineering study that would then result in a more detailed estimation that it would cost upwards of $10,000,000 to save the facades of the building,” Hoyt continued. “With no identified interested party or use for building facades, DBHDD did not pursue this aspect of the project any further.”
Hoyt and a DBHDD spokesperson did not respond to questions about the identity of the expert and the date of the call.
The thin, undocumented nature of the claim is drawing criticism from preservationists. It’s also another example of misleading claims that are eroding trust. When DBHDD last year sparked preservationists’ concern by putting up construction fencing around the buildings, it claimed that it was for asbestos abatement work that was separate from any possible demolition. In fact, as SaportaReport later revealed, the work was part of an overall demolition contract that just had not yet been fully funded.
“The APC feels that if the decision to demolish these buildings was based on a single phone call, we should all be seriously concerned,” said David Yoakley Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center, adding he has not seen any alternative analysis. “The exposure of this situation illuminates why we have to be ever vigilant in defense of our history. I would hope that if the situation was reversed and I was seeking help for understanding the best way to remedy a challenge, that I would get more than one phone call.”
The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, which circulated a letter co-signed by a dozen statewide preservation groups calling for a demolition delay, said it is unaware of any study of demolition alternatives for Central State. Told about the phone call, Georgia Trust President and CEO Wright Mitchell repeated the call for a 180-day demolition delay. “This stay will give all the stakeholders the ability to engage in good-faith discussions regarding whether a viable path exists to avoid the permanent loss of these important buildings,” he said.
In his response letters to the Georgia Trust and APC earlier this month, Tanner spoke of DBHDD working with the Georgia Historic Preservation Division (HPD) – a state office – “to honor the significance of this campus to the people of our state. This process will likely take several months and will inform DBHDD’s next steps.”
HPD spokesperson Justin Vining said Tanner is referring to a voluntary review of historic impacts and mitigations. Vining said DBHDD has not officially submitted the project to HPD but did request a “technical assistance meeting,” which was held on July 27. In that meeting, Vining said, “HPD provided information about what would constitute a sufficient/complete submittal and potential mitigation options.”
Mitigations are determined by “mutual agreement,” and nothing specific has yet been proposed for Central State, said Vining. He said that “HPD provided baseline information on mitigation activities that have been used in cases such as this, which in demolition projects is often archival recordation of the building(s) and sometimes might include public interpretation displays, markers, and/or historic resource surveys, etc.”
The 180-year-old, 1,400-acre hospital campus was a pioneer in mental health in its day before becoming notorious for abuses and a focus of reforms. Central State 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, and many structures fell into poor condition by state neglect.
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, including the historic ones now threatened. In 2021, the CSHLRA unsuccessfully sought federal funding to acquire and either demolish or preserve several of the same buildings.
A year ago, DBHDD began asbestos abatement work without notice on several historic buildings. In July, it got approval from Gov. Brian Kemp to demolish three large and significant structures: the Green (1947), Jones (late 1920s) and Walker (1884) buildings. An outbuilding’s demolition was also approved.
DBHDD said it has no demolition timeline beyond wanting it done in the fall and that another historic building, named the Powell, will remain as a “centerpiece” for the Renaissance Park effort.
Mystery phone call
Shortly after Kemp’s demolition approval, SaportaReport asked DBHDD the reason for the demolition decision. “DBHDD explored in-depth the alternatives on these properties,” said agency spokesperson Ryan King in an email. “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.”
SaportaReport then asked King if DBHDD had consulted any historic preservation experts, who they were, and what they said. Apologizing for taking several days to “run down this information,” King said: “We had conversations with an architect who told us a detailed survey would cost $300,000, and preservation of the facade of just one of the buildings would cost upward of $10 million.” Another DBHDD spokesperson made a similar claim during the asbestos controversy last year.
King did not respond to questions about the identity of that architect.
SaportaReport next filed an Open Records request for all documents related to the analysis of historic preservation alternatives to the demolition plan and for the architect’s opinion about a survey and facade preservation. Over the course of a week, DBHDD provided SaportaReport with hundreds of pages of documents about the demolition plans and related asbestos abatement, as well as maintenance contracts through which that work was commissioned. None of the documents contained any historic preservation alternatives analysis or information about an architect’s opinion.
After being pressed on whether such documents existed, DBHDD finally provided Hoyt’s statement, acknowledging the analysis amounted to the undocumented phone call and opinion. Hoyt is listed on the DBHDD website as the agency’s director of the Office of Hospital Operations but was referred to by the Open Records officer as the regional executive director.
The DBHDD is governed by an independent board that on Aug. 31 voted to approve the demolitions. The demolitions also were discussed at an August meeting of the CSHLRA. The Milledgeville Union-Recorder reported that CSHLRA Chair Johnny Grant emphasized demolition was the DBHDD’s sole decision while adding unquantified claims that preserving many of them is not “economically feasible” and that the CSHLRA itself could not take ownership of some due to liability and maintenance cost concerns.
It is unclear if the DBHDD board or the CSHLRA were aware of the phone call source of the agency’s claim about preservation survey and stabilization costs or if they have conducted their own preservation studies. Grant and DBHDD Board Chair David Glass did not respond to comment requests.
Challenges and opportunities
There is no doubt that any Central State redevelopment – with or without historic preservation – would be an expensive and challenging undertaking. Similar projects at former Victorian-era mental health campuses around the country illustrate some of the challenges and opportunities.
One example is the Athens Lunatic Asylum campus in Athens, Ohio. It’s another sprawling campus with huge buildings in a place that, like Milledgeville, is a small city and a college town. Ohio University took over the campus in 1993 and began a similar process of accusations of demolition by neglect and fits and starts of redevelopment. Earlier this year, momentum resumed on a $220 million plan to turn it into a mixed-use site with affordable housing, university space and more. It involves a public-private partnership approach and an intent to spark surrounding development. Local media note that historic preservation planning remains a concern and that the university reportedly has spent $28 million in maintenance just since 2015.
Another giant campus in Massachusetts, the Metropolitan State Hospital, was partly redeveloped into apartments about 15 years ago and otherwise demolished and turned into green space with hiking trails. Now, there are calls in the Massachusetts state legislature for ways to study and honor the often unattractive history of the hospital system, which included such horrors and abuses as eugenics-driven forced sterilization. Central State’s similar history is another challenge.
David Mitchell at the APC said a deeper study of real alternatives could find solutions for Milledgeville. He said Tanner’s response was “very professional and empathetic” but also “reinforced the glaring issue that ‘Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation’ may be the motto of our state, but not always the practice.”
“We have the opportunity to enlist a group of individuals who could offer an alternative to demolition,” he said. “I remain hopeful that this coverage will usher the discussion of historic preservation into this process and make an outcome that demonstrates that we do not have a divisible history, but a united one.”