By Maria Saporta
For nearly five years, the city of Atlanta has been in a legal battle with Clark Atlanta University over the ownership rights of nearly 13 acres of land in the heart of Westside community.
On April 18, the two sides lay down their arms and agreed to a settlement where the city agreed to pay $750,000 in legal fees that CAU had incurred due to the litigation (in which CAU won every case).
The end of the litigation provides a clean slate for the city to begin working with CAU and the other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the Atlanta University Center to save the area’s precious history and create a vibrant community.
Two historic structures are particularly significant and in need of urgent attention – the historic Paschal’s Restaurant/Paschal’s Motor Hotel and Gaines Hall, one of the oldest buildings in Atlanta that was significantly damaged in a fire in August 2015, when the city controlled the building.
Clark Atlanta owns the historic Paschal’s, which needs a great deal of tender, love and care. And Gaines Hall was part of the property that was subject to the legal tug-of-war between the city and CAU.
It has been disheartening to see virtually no progress to preserve these two historic gems over the past five plus years.
Paschal’s was a motel that served the black guests at a time when segregation provided limited options for people of color. Over the years, Paschal’s restaurant had become a defacto headquarters for the civil rights movement. It was a favorite gathering spot for civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr.
The history of Gaines Hall dates back to when it was built in 1869 to serve students attending Atlanta University (which later merged with Clark College to become Clark Atlanta University).
Noted African-American scholar and author W.E.B. Dubois was living in Gaines Hall in 1903 when he wrote the book: The Soul of Black Folk, which played a vital role in the way the nation viewed race.
”Historic Gaines Hall and Paschal’s restaurant and hotel – along with other institutional landmarks on Atlanta’s Westside – are revered by people throughout the Atlanta community because these irreplaceable buildings help us to share the unique heritage of our city and, importantly, to tell the full American story, from the heroes of the Civil Rights movement to the triumphs of our historically Black universities and colleges,” said Leslie Canaan, senior officer for National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Atlanta Field Office.
“Today, the priority must be to physically stabilize each building to stop ongoing deterioration,” Canaan continued in an email. “This will open the door for their stewards to explore new ways to put these nationally significant landmarks back into productive use for the Atlanta community.”
Several encouraging signs exist that the city of Atlanta, the Atlanta University Center, the Westside Future Fund and preservationists will be able to begin stabilizing the two fragile historic structures.
Todd Greene, executive director of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, is working with the four HBCUs – Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University – to find ways they can collaborate and improve the surrounding community.
The AUC Consortium is working with the architectural firm – Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) – to develop a master vision for the AUC campus that will provide draft recommendations by the end of May.
One of its main guiding principles is to “preserve our history and celebrate our culture,” Greene said. The goal will be to get the various universities and other stakeholders to work together to “activate the community” and leverage their individual assets for the greater good.
“There are a couple of developers who have ideas on how to preserve Gaines Hall,” Greene said.
It is unclear whether the city of Atlanta’s development arm – Invest Atlanta – has worked out an agreement with Clark Atlanta of how to invest the insurance funds from the Gaines Hall fire to stabilize the building. And it is even less clear whether the city will play a major role in preserving the building to the state it was in before the fire.
But both buildings can and should be centerpieces for the rejuvenation of the Westside community. Numerous corporations, nonprofits and foundations have targeted the Westside as part of a coordinated effort to welcome new economic development without displacing current residents or destroying the area’s history.
“I have to give a lot of kudos to Todd Greene,” said John Ahmann, president of the Westside Future Fund about the AUC Consortium’s master visioning plan. “We are happy to collaborate and support their work.”
As for preserving Paschal’s and Gaines Hall, Ahmann said everybody who knows about Atlanta’s HBCU and civil rights history understands the significance of Paschal’s and Gaines Hall.
A key element of the Westside’s Land Use Framework Plan “is the preservation of the cultural and historic sites. The challenge is to come up with plans for adaptive reuse of those buildings in a way that would lift up the community and their history.
“I have witnessed and experienced a level of intentionality and commitment from the leaders to both integrate and lift up the wonderful assets of the HBCU schools,” Ahmann said.. “To the extent there can be a spirit of cooperation and partnership between Clark Atlanta and the city, that’s a great path forward.”