Nearly all of the money needed to restore one of the most significant historic buildings in Atlanta — the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge on Auburn Avenue — has been raised.
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has made a $1.5 million grant for the project, which is being coordinated by the building’s owner — the Masons — and the Trust for Public Land, which has been involved on Auburn Avenue for decades. The Prince Hall Masonic Lodge was the home of SCLC and the only office of Martin Luther King Jr. The building also was the home of the nation’s first Black-owned radio station — WERD.
“The Trust for Public Land has been an unwavering champion and steward for this project and others along Auburn Avenue,” said Margaret Connelly, managing director of founder initiatives for Arthur Blank, philanthropist and business leader, in a statement. “With this grant to TPL, we’re not only helping to preserve the physical building of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, but we’re also contributing to the preservation of the history that occurred there and the lessons to be learned by future generations.”
The Blank Foundation gift follows a $2 million grant earlier this year from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, part of the Robert W. Woodruff family of foundations. TPL is having to raise a total of $4.5 million for the project. It also has received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. National Park Service and a grant from the Georgia Pacific Foundation. So far, it has raised $4.25 million, leaving $250,000 to raise in seven years.
At that point, TPL will complete its acquisition of the building and plans to immediately turn over ownership to the National Park Service, according to George Dusenbury, TPL’s vice president of the Southern Region. The lower floors of the Masonic Lodge will be incorporated into the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park and will be open to the public.
“I am feeling ecstatic and a little relieved,” Dusenbury said about the Blank gift. “We’re getting ready to get underway. It’s going to be a great addition for Atlanta.”
Ann Curry of Coxe Curry & Associates has been working behind the scenes to help put the project’s financing together.
“This is a special building because of what happened inside its walls,” Curry said. “It deserves all of our best efforts to protect it. You cannot understand Atlanta without understanding the rich history of Auburn Avenue. I am thrilled with where we are and so grateful to all involved.”
Connelly said the Blank Foundation was honored “to join many other organizations across Atlanta who have already supported TPL in this work to protect the place where Dr. King, John Lewis and so many others worked together and where Black-owned businesses thrived.”
Ed Bowen, a freemason and an attorney who has been the developer leading the effort to restore the building, couldn’t be happier.
“I’m extremely excited,” Bowen said in an interview, adding he was especially pleased to receive support from two of Atlanta’s largest foundations. “It makes us feel good as an organization that we have garnered that kind of support. We are all excited about getting started.”
Bowen is finalizing getting New Market Tax Credits for the project, which he hopes will come through in the next month or two. The last hurdle will be to get building permits from the City of Atlanta so construction can start by the end of the year. Plans call for the restoration to be completed by the end of 2024.
“It will be a significant investment along Auburn Avenue, and we hope it will spark other investments to restore historic buildings on Auburn Avenue,” Bowen said. “A great one to restore would be the building right next door, which housed the headquarters of SCLC Women.”
SCLC Women was based in the Tabor Temple building, which was built in 1927 and is more than a decade older than the Masonic Lodge.
“It is wonderful to see the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge get support,” said David Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center. “I hope the Tabor Building is supported the same way. The roof of the Tabor building is in dire straits — it needs a new roof.”
LeJuano Varnell, executive director of Sweet Auburn Works, said the renovation of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge and the Odd Fellows Tower, the new home of Georgia Works, is a step in the right direction. The challenge will be to make sure the neighborhood’s character doesn’t change with the inevitable economic growth coming to the central city.
“We want to make sure we retain the historic soul of the neighborhood,” Varnell said. “As Sweet Auburn retains its culture and its soul, so will Atlanta.”
Varnell, who has been running Sweet Auburn Works since 2016, is keenly aware the corridor’s National Historic Landmark District is in a precarious place.
“We can’t lose another building,” Varnell said. “We need help on everything.”
Varnell, who oversees the only Main Street program in Atlanta, mentioned multiple properties along the corridor that need to be preserved to stitch Sweet Auburn back together.
“The unfortunate part about this job is that we’re always fixating on what hasn’t been done,” Varnell said. “It’s exhilarating when we have these victories. Each individual victory keeps us motivated to keep going.”
In the best of all worlds, Sweet Auburn would become a thriving pedestrian corridor filled with retail shops, entertainment venues, residences and offices — all breathing new life into the avenue that was described by Fortune Magazine in 1956 as “the richest Negro street in the world.”
Mitchell of APC said the grants for Prince Hall Masonic Lodge should be viewed more as investments in the culture and identity of our city rather than as donations.
“This project can serve as a gateway to more of this work being done. These Atlanta structures define a big part of the 20th Century of Atlanta, the state and the region,” Mitchell said. “If this is the catalyst that’s going to ignite a renaissance of the Sweet Auburn corridor, then that is even more wonderful.”