Preservationists plan to press officials at an Aug. 31 meeting to back off a demolition plan for historic buildings at Milledgeville’s Central State Hospital.
Friends of Central State Hospital (FCSH) and the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC) are among those who plan to attend the meeting of the Board of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), which last month got the demolition authorization from Gov. Brian Kemp. Intended to be done by fall, the demolition targets three large and significant structures on the hospital campus – the Green (1947), Jones (late 1920s) and Walker (1884) buildings – as well as an outbuilding.
A dozen statewide preservation organizations and firms earlier this month called for delaying the demolitions in a letter coordinated by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. In comment letters to DBHDD shared in advance with SaportaReport, FCSH and APC echoed those thoughts and complained of a lack of transparency and input.
Edwin C. Atkins of FCSH, a Facebook group with about 11,500 members, referred in his letter to redevelopment plans for the larger hospital campus under the name Renaissance Park. “The beauty of Renaissance Park and the potential for future planned events will be diminished or lost without the supporting historical indicators of the story and of the evolution of the asylum,” he wrote.
He also complained about “obfuscation and little transparency” from state and local agencies, including initial demolition bids that were first revealed by SaportaReport at a time DBHDD claimed there were not yet such plans.
Among FCSH’s requests are inventorying and salvaging of materials, checking the area for unmarked graves, and DBHDD attending next month’s Statewide Historic Preservation Conference, which is co-sponsored by the Georgia Trust and the Georgia Historic Preservation Division.
The FCSH letter also raises various issues and concerns, including that a demolition contract’s language differs from the governor’s authorization and whether a state-created authority for the Renaissance Park plan was ever offered the buildings and related financial incentives.
APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell’s letter says he believes further discussions could lead to better results for the buildings, the state and Baldwin County.
“We have an opportunity to exhibit the best in the human condition by use of historic preservation – as opposed to demolition from a lack of wanting to do something hard because it will mean learning from the past,” he wrote.
The Georgia Trust says it does not plan to have a representative at the meeting due to a scheduling conflict.
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, including the historic buildings marked for demolition now, and many structures fell into poor condition by state neglect.
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. However, 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 said last month 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 another historic structure, the Powell Building, as a “centerpiece.”
DBHDD has said it explored preservation alternatives but that a plan to preserve the facade of just one building would have been a cost-prohibitive $10 million. DBHDD attributed that information to an architect but did not respond to a request for their name.
The DBHDD board meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building at 200 Piedmont Ave. in Downtown, in Board Room 512 on the West Tower’s fifth floor. The published agenda does not include the hospital demolition but does have a public comment period.