Since a 2015 fire, Gaines Hall has continued to crumble. Credit: Kelly Jordan
By Maggie Lee and Maria Saporta
Clark Atlanta University and the city of Atlanta’s development agency are settling their differences over one of the oldest buildings in the city — with $4.1 million going to stabilize Gaines Hall.
Invest Atlanta will grant $3 million to Clark Atlanta University for works to stabilize the fire-ravaged 1869 university building. The money will come from the Westside Tax Allocation District, a zone where an increment of property taxes are set aside for jump-starting businesses.
Another $1.14 million for the building will come from insurance proceeds tied to the 2015 fire that occurred after the city had bought property from Morris Brown University’s bankruptcy sale, and while CAU was disputing a part of that purchase in court, including the Gaines Hall parcel.
After years of litigation, the state’s top court ruled in 2018 that indeed the disputed property should revert to CAU, under a decades-old deal between Morris Brown and what was then called Atlanta University.
In exchange for the new TAD grant and insurance payout, CAU agrees to a total, complete and final release of any claims against the city of Atlanta. That’s according to a document approved by the board of Invest Atlanta on Thursday.
When asked about the next steps, CAU spokeswoman Jolene Butts Freeman did not have much to share.
“At this time the next steps are still under discussion,” she wrote in an email. “Once I am provided with the additional details, I surely will let you know.”
The $4.14 million is nowhere near the $8 million to $12 million cost estimate put on the building’s restoration just after the 2015 fire.
Since then, the building has deteriorated more. Little has been done to stabilize it, much less renovate it. Most recently, a big chunk of an upper story of its facade collapsed.
Built just four years after the end of the Civil War, Gaines Hall was the first permanent building at Atlanta University. So it served as one of the first schools in the nation for emancipated African-Americans.
Preservationists went out to the Gaines Hall site right after the fire and haven’t stopped being worried about its preservation since.
Preservationists like Candy Tate, executive director of Cultural Centers International — and a Clark Atlanta history alumna.
“I am overwhelmed that we’re going to be able, as an institution, to step up and treat Gaines with the dignity and respect and grandeur that an 1869 building, four years out of enslavement, should have,” Tate said. The payout from Invest Atlanta and the insurance is almost like reparations, she added.
“It feels like a step in the right direction for all of us,” Tate said. “Black and white, as they say, Jew and Gentile, all colors to come together and rebuild, repair and reset.”
Tate has worked on successful grant applications for renovation of Fountain Hall, an 1882 Atlanta University building across the street from Gaines. Fountain will cost something in the ballpark of $30 million to fully renovate. And Gaines is in worse shape, Tate pointed out. She estimated a full Gaines renovation could easily come to $40 to $50 million. Not cheap, she said. But if the builders had skimped on the Pyramids, nobody could go see them now. And though of a different scale, these education buildings should be treated as monuments too.
Gaines Hall and nearby buildings are officially a “place in peril” according to the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. The trust’s president and CEO, Mark McDonald, said the payment was a step in the right direction for the building.
“This settlement should allow for Clark to stabilize the building. And then to meet with community partners to come up with a reuse. And perhaps an income-producing use might yield a development project that will be self-sustaining,” McDonald suggested.
The building is eligible for historic tax credits, which might help it look more attractive to would-be users.
For $4.1 million, McDonald estimated that CAU could get a roof on the building and stabilize it enough so that it could be evaluated and another use could be identified that would attract capital for a full rehab.
Gaines Hall looks onto the same shady, disused quad as Furber Cottage. Furber Cottage started life in 1899 as a dormitory at Atlanta University. And it’s suffering from damage after a 2019 fire.
Separately last year, Invest Atlanta agreed to pay CAU $750,000 in attorneys fees related to the yearslong litigation over the disputed former Morris Brown property.
The Thursday agreement doesn’t affect the Westside TAD’s working capital of about $11 million. Some $4 million had already been set aside in Gaines Hall-related contingency funds.
Todd Greene, executive director of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, is a member of the Invest Atlanta board. He recused himself from all IA discussions on the CAU item as well as the Thursday vote.
Gaines Hall deterioration over the years: