By Maria Saporta
Gaines Hall – one of the most significant historic buildings in Atlanta – must be saved.
That is the “rallying cry” from two leading preservationists about the 1869 vacant dormitory on the Morris Brown campus that went up in flames Thursday night.
Mark McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation; and Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center; went together to see Gaines Hall on Friday to see for themselves the extent of the damage.
They just so happened to show up right after WSB-TV had interviewed representatives of the Atlanta Fire Department. They heard that the fire investigators had determined that the building should be torn down because it poses a safety hazard.
Both McDonald and Hale were aghast that the city officials would even whisper about tearing down Gaines Hall, one of the oldest and historically important buildings in Atlanta.
And what a sad tragedy it would be if the City of Atlanta actually demolished a building that it just acquired earlier this year. Obviously the fire occurred on the city’s watch – evidence that the city did not properly protect the building from a fire.
Asked if Gaines Hall could be saved, McDonald did not hesitate.
“Absolutely! No question,” McDonald said.
As evidence, McDonald pointed to the historically significant Hancock County Courthouse in Sparta – a building that was gutted by fire two years ago. Today, the Courthouse has been “completely rehabilitated” by that county.
“If they can do it in Hancock County, I’m sure they can do it Atlanta,” McDonald said, adding that the city would have a “blank slate” to redo the interior of the building with modern amenities.
But demolishing Gaines Hall should not even be an option.
Tim Keane, Atlanta’s new commissioner of Planning and Community Development (which oversees the Atlanta Urban Design Commission), had not responded to an email about the status of Gaines Hall as of late Friday. If and when he responds, I will update this post.
McDonald hopes people will recognize what an “incredibly important historic building” that went up in flames Aug. 20. McDonald said the building was built just four years after the end of the Civil War by the Freedman’s Bureau, and it served as one of the first schools in the nation for emancipated African-Americans.
“The building truly has national significance as a symbol of triumph over the subjugation of African Americans by institution of slavery,” the Georgia Trust said in a statement. “We believe all efforts should be made by its owners to rehabilitate this historic structure.”
When he heard about the fire, Hale said he was “heartbroken,” but not surprised. Whenever a historic building is vacant and left to deteriorate, it becomes vulnerable to fire, vandalism and destruction.
Hale said that Gaines Hall, combined with the Fountain Hall (formerly Stone Hall) across the street, are among the most important African-American buildings in Atlanta, if not the nation.
W.E.B. DuBois, an influential Harvard-educated historian and scholar, became a professor at Atlanta University in July 1897. While he was there, DuBois wrote books that helped change society – including “The Philadelphia Negro” and “The Souls of Black Folks.”
DuBois was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. As a leader of the Niagara Movement, DuBois gained national prominence advocating for equal rights for blacks.
“This is a rallying cry for both of those buildings,” Hale said. “It’s extremely important for Atlanta to realize that the genesis of Atlanta University is right there. This is not a marginal building.”
By the way, Gaines Hall and Fountain Hall have been identified as historically significant buildings for decades. And they both have been designated as “places in peril” by national and local historic preservation groups.
Both Fountain Hall and Gaines Hall are designated as a National Historic Landmark as as an Atlanta landmark. They are both contributing structures in the Atlanta University Center District and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1991, the U.S. Department of Interior launched a multimillion-dollar to rescue the oldest buildings at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. Three buildings on the Atlanta University complex were identified as high priorities – Gaines Hall at Morris Brown College, Graves Hall at Morehouse College and Packard Hall at Spelman College.
Both Gaines Hall and Fountain Hall have been placed on lists of various preservation groups multiple times over the years. But Hale and McDonald said the buildings need to be brought back to life.
Hale added that the buildings are only a few blocks away from the new Atlanta Falcons stadium. Restoring the two historic treasures could become a centerpiece for the revitalization of the entire Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard corridor – giving an even greater impetus to restore Gaines Hall.
“It certainly looks salvageable,” Hale said. “I’ve seen much worse, but you need to get a roof on it.”
Hale and McDonald are most concerned that Gaines Hall could be quickly demolished without the city leaders exploring the various options to preserve it.
“Surely an adaptive use can be found in this area, which is in the midst of economic expansion,” McDonald wrote in Georgia Trust’s statement. “The Georgia Trust pledges its support and assistance to the City in finding a solution to the plight of this extremely valuable historic building.”
Gaines Hall was designed by architect William Parkins; and Fountain Hall (Stone Hall) was built in 1882 and designed by a well-recognized architect – Gottfried Norman.
“It is a big deal,” McDonald said, adding that Gaines Hall and Atlanta University predate the historically significant Tuskegee University, which was founded in 1881.
When McDonald heard that the fire department had said the building should be torn down, he and Hale knew they couldn’t be silent.
“We hope that cooler heads will prevail,” McDonald said. “We felt like this was an emergency, and that we needed to speak out.”