Saving a historic Sweet Auburn sidewalk sign
By John Ruch
When preservationists talk about saving Auburn Avenue, we know they really mean the surviving buildings that tell the neighborhood’s history as an epicenter for African American business and cultural life under segregation.
But the latest effort is a call to preserve an actual part of the pavement: a tile sign for the long-gone Gate City Drug Store embedded in the sidewalk at Auburn and Jesse Hill Jr. Drive that has somehow survived largely intact after more than a century.
The City’s Historic Preservation Studio is now moving to protect the sign, apparently by inclusion in the Martin Luther King Jr. Landmark District. That would be an expansion of a tactic to preserve similar entryway tilework on Downtown’s Hotel Row.
Reading “Gate City Drugs” in blue-and-black letters on a white background, the sign sits on Jesse Hill Jr. Drive – formerly Butler Street – at Auburn, where the store opened in 1914 in the historic Odd Fellows building’s annex or “atrium.” It’s one of Sweet Auburn’s iconic corners, with Big Bethel AME Church on the other side of Jesse Hill Jr. Drive and the tourist-attracting mural of Civil Rights icon John Lewis diagonally across Auburn. And the store was the work of another great Sweet Auburn entrepreneur, Moses Amos (1866-1928), who the APC says was Georgia’s first African American licensed pharmacist.
A call to landmark the sign arose last month from the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC), which in recent months has been involved in Georgia Works’ effort to buy and rehabilitate the Odd Fellows tower and the 229 Auburn office building across the street.
“The remnant of the tile sidewalk panel from Gate City Drug Store is significant to the story of Auburn Avenue and is an important physical reminder of its history,” said APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell in an email last month asking City officials to formally protect it.
Amos came from small-town Georgia to Atlanta at the age of 10 – alone and in search of work, according to the APC. He apprenticed with a white pharmacist named J.C. Huss, who operated a store somewhere on Peachtree Street and sent Amos to college at Atlanta University. Amos became the store’s manager and moved with the business to Butler Street when it was bought by two doctors, Thomas Slater and Henry Butler. Amos got his pharmacist’s license, bought the business from the doctors, and moved it to the Odd Fellows building.
He held a grand opening for the store in June 1914, touting it in ads researched by the APC as “the largest, best equipped and appointed Negro drug store in the world.” It had 21 employees and sold “every known drug.”
In a May 1914 piece in the Atlanta Constitution, Amos talked about his history in the business and his support for the African American community. He said that nine men who had worked for him as children had gone to college – with his support – and become doctors, dentists or pharmacists. “The Negro race will always have its ‘Doubting Thomases’ who will continue to say ‘we can’t do this or that.’ I belong to the ‘Cans,'” he said.
In 1922, Amos sold the store to another pharmacist duo, Yates and Milton, who operated there for many more years. Both versions of the store are noted in an exhibit at Auburn Avenue’s APEX Museum, which did not respond to a comment request about the tile sign.
Meanwhile, Amos opened another drug store on the West Side, in partnership with his nephew, Miles Amos, who later became an Atlanta City Council member. After Moses’s death and burial in historic South-View Cemetery, Miles continued running the store until 1969.
With all of those transitions and nearly 110 years of construction later, it’s a miracle the tile sidewalk sign has survived at all, though it does have some damage. And it’s unclear why, though maybe it was just construction crews bucking the city’s teardown-happy nature and choosing to be gentle. “I think it is another of those fascinating Atlanta conundrums,” said Mitchell. “Sidewalk workers… all of these people have made the conscious effort for no other reasons than to be kind and thoughtful and not cover those things up.”
Formal protections would help ensure that no one less thoughtful can come along in the future, and also can provide eligibility for restoration funding. “In the world of preservation, fixing tiles like that, or stained glass – that’s easy money to raise,” says Mitchell.
His suggestion was that the City declare the sign a historic landmark, which provides strong protections against demolition or alteration. That would continue the City’s recent, innovative trend of landmarking such nontraditional structures as an Ormewood Avenue railroad bridge.
Emails to the APC from Matt Adams, interim assistant director at the City’s Historic Preservation Studio, indicate interest, but in a less drastic tactic of including the tilework as part of the protected facade or streetscape in the City’s King Landmark District, which runs along Auburn roughly between Courtland and Randolph streets.
Similar provisions exist in the Hotel Row Landmark District on Mitchell Street, dating to the early 1990s. Entryways of several historic hotels and other buildings there have decorative tile in the entryway and along the sidewalk. A locally well-known example is the name of the former Hotel Scoville rendered in Coca Cola-esque script made of tiles.
Hotel Row is now undergoing a massive redevelopment and rehabilitation by the real estate firm Newport. April Stammel, Newport’s senior vice president in the U.S., is an enthusiast of the sidewalk tilework and says the company keeps finding more of it on interior floors as well.
“You just feel the stories coming out of the floors and off the walls and through the ceilings,” she said. “It’s very rare to find that in the city.”
“They were laid by hand,” Stammel added. “You can tell the variation in the lines and patterns… It is imperfect to the most amazing degree.”
While Newport intends to save and restore such tilework, the City’s Atlanta Urban Design Commission also has review powers through the landmark district to ensure that. The district code dictates the use of hexagonal pavers on the sidewalk and also specifically calls for preserving the outdoor tilework or replacing it with something similar.
However, the Hotel Row examples are more like entryway doormats, while the Gate City Drug Store sign is farther out in the sidewalk. But there are plenty of precedents for such preservation.
New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) regulates such sidewalk features as historic “vault lights,” which are glass cones embedded in the sidewalk to let light into basement rooms. It also has specialized protections for the likes of an abstract, decorative sidewalk created on Madison Avenue in 1970 by famed sculptor Alexander Calder, which is protected as part of the Metropolitan Museum Historic District.
“LPC considers historic vault light covers as well as historic stone paving to be significant features of historic districts in New York City and protects them through our regulations,” said a New York City spokesperson.
The Atlanta Department of City Planning could not immediately provide comment on what specific tactic may be proposed for the drug store sign. But in an email to the APC this week, Adams indicated a text amendment to the landmark district is in the works for introduction to neighborhood organizations next month, which would start a process culminating in an Atlanta City Council vote. Adams also voiced an intent to protect the sign in the meantime.
“Until then, my office is prepared to use an interpretation of the existing language that would extend to the decorative tile work should someone wish to alter it,” he wrote.
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