A year after fire, questions plague future of Gaines Hall

By Maria Saporta

Second column in a two part-series. Last week: Revival of Hancock County’s Courthouse in Sparta, Ga.

The story of two eerily similar buildings reveals a tale of two cities.

The Hancock County Courthouse in Sparta caught fire on Aug. 11, 2014.

Gaines Hall in Atlanta caught fire Aug. 20, 2015.

Both designed by the same architect – William Parkins – before the turn of the 19th Century. Both are historical treasures for their communities. The Courthouse is both the symbolic and physical heart of Sparta. Gaines Hall, built in 1869, is thought to be the second oldest building in Atlanta.

But the similarities end when we look at how both communities have responded since their respective fires.

As last week’s column outlined, the Hancock County Commission dedicated its newly rebuilt Courthouse on Aug. 11, exactly two years to the date of the fire. Despite being one of the poorest counties in Georgia, Hancock was able to rebuild its Courthouse for $7.2 million thanks to the fire insurance it had with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

Gaines Hall

Gaines Hall – as it stands today – a year after it caught fire (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Meanwhile, mainly questions surround Gaines Hall.

Who owns it? Was there fire insurance? What will it cost to have it rebuilt? What is a possible afterlife for Gaines Hall? And who would pay for it?

Shortly after the fire, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed emphatically said: “We are going to find a way to preserve it.”  He said the building’s history was too important lose.

Fortunately, a $5,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation helped pay for a structural engineer to conduct an analysis on what it would take to stabilize Gaines Hall. Invest Atlanta paid the balance of the $23,000 analysis that was done in September, 2015.

The City of Atlanta also put up a fence around Gaines Hall and added scaffolding and brackets to make sure the building’s walls were secure and not present a safety hazard to the public. Invest Atlanta then entered in a second phase of stabilization in January, 2016, but little has happened since.

Gaines Hall

Gaines Hall today – a fence surrounds the property (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Part of the reason could be the questions around who owns Gaines Hall.

Originally, Gaines Hall was part of Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta University). In July, 1897, W.E.B. Dubois, a Harvard-educated historian and scholar, became a professor at Atlanta University in July 1897. While there, he wrote two books that helped change the norms of the day: “The Philadelphia Negro” and “The Souls of Black Folks.” DuBois also was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.

Sheffield Hale, the president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, has said that Gaines Hall and Fountain Hall (formerly Stone Hall) are among the two most important African-American buildings in Atlanta if not the nation.

Atlanta University (now CAU) then transferred the property over to Morris Brown College with a reversionary restriction. If Morris Brown were to ever quit using the property for educational purposes, the property would revert back to CAU.

Gaines Hall

A close up of Gaines Hall today shows a tree growing in one of the windows (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Fast forward to June, 2014, when Morris Brown ­– on the verge of bankruptcy after facing the loss of accreditation. – wanted to sell most of its property.

The U.S. Bankruptcy approved a sale of more than 30 acres to the City of Atlanta and Friendship Baptist Church for $14.6 million – despite legal objections from Clark-Atlanta, claiming ownership rights on about 13 acres of land the city had bought – including Gaines Hall.

Since then, Clark-Atlanta took the case to the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled against the City of Atlanta and in favor of CAU. The case was sent back to the Fulton County Superior Court to give the City of Atlanta an opportunity to work out the legal issues.

As to Gaines Hall, CAU continues its effort to perfect its ownership of certain reversionary properties through the court case which, as you know, is ongoing,” said Donna Brock, a CAU spokeswoman, who also was asked about Fountain Hall. “As for the status of maintenance on the other buildings, you would need to contact Morris Brown.”

Gaines Hall

Gaines Hall today – another photo shows the windows to the sky (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Tim Keane, commissioner of Atlanta’s Department of Planning and Community Development, said he met with the structural engineer at the building several months ago.

“They shored it up so it could be protected,” said Keane, who has helped make historic preservation a priority for the city. “The mayor has been very strong about saving Gaines Hall.”

Gaines Hall also is in the bulls-eye of a major initiative to improve the communities west of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

At the Transform Westside Summit meeting on Friday, Sept. 2, planner Dhiru Thadani ended his presentation of the draft Westside Land-use Plan with a shot of a rebuilt Gaines Hall along a transformed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive overlooking the downtown skyline.

Now we need our community to figure out the multiple legal and financial issues plaguing Gaines Hall and work to make that image our new reality.

If Sparta can do it, so can Atlanta.

Gaines - Westside plan

Draft Westside plan shows a fire-damaged Gaines Hall (Special: Westside Future Fund)

Gaines Hall

Draft Westside Plan shows what can be with a rebuilt Gaines Hall (Special: Westside Future Fund)

First in two-part series: Hancock County Courthouse – ‘Her Majesty’ – reborn

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

19 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    Key differences:
    1. In Hancock County the ownership was clear; the ownership of Gaines Hall is not clear.
    2. In Hancock County the community was aligned with the Board of Commissioners; at Gaines Hall there is no alignment between Atlanta City, Invest Atlanta, and CAU.
    3. Hancock County had wisely insured their courthouse and had funds to rebuild; there seems to be no money for rebuilding Gaines Hall.
    I fear that we will be having the same discussion a year from now about an even more deteriorated Gaines Hall.
    Hats off to Hancock County for showing how government should perform!Report

    Reply
  2. letmesaythis says:

    Is race an issue?
    Meaning, in the context of historic preservation, white communities are more likely to preserve historic buildings and sites than African American communities.Report

    Reply
  3. HoraceHenry says:

    If the people of Sparta and Hancock County can restore their courthouse, surely the people of Atlanta, Fulton County, and the Federal Government can get together and restore Gaines AND Fountain Halls! It can be done!Report

    Reply
  4. Burroughston Broch says:

    letmesaythis  Both Hancock County and Sparta City have a higher percentage black population than Atlanta City. In light of these facts, please explain your question.Report

    Reply
  5. letmesaythis says:

    Burroughston Broch letmesaythis 
    Who spear headed the courthouse project?
    White, black, Hispanic, or Asian?
    My objective is to understand is race is an issue of which properties get restored and which sit idle.Report

    Reply
  6. HoraceHenry says:

    Burroughston Broch letmesaythis Not a problem. In my comment, I did not say anything about black, white, nor any other race. I simply stated that if the people of Sparta, Ga. and Hancock Country can get together and restore their courthouse, then surely the people of Atlanta, Fulton County and the US Government can get together and restore Gaines and Fountain Halls.Nothing about race was inferred, nor intended to be in my comment. This is not a question. It is a comment.Report

    Reply
  7. letmesaythis says:

    Yes, I know you did not mention race.
    I brought the topic of race into the thread.
    Let me attempt to clarify my question:
    Do you think some ethnic groups are more inclined culturally to save/preserve historic buildings than other some other ethnic groups?Report

    Reply
  8. Burroughston Broch says:

    Again, why should Fulton County and the Federal Government be involved? Neither has any financial interest.
    You will note that Hancock County did not involve Sparta City or the Federal Government.Report

    Reply
  9. HoraceHenry says:

    Burroughston Broch !. The college could be a revenue generator for Fulton County. 2. (Fountain Hall) The federal Government is already involved. I became involved when it added  Fountain Hall to the National Registry of Historic Places.Report

    Reply
  10. Burroughston Broch says:

    1. The college is barely keeping its doors open and the future does not appear brighter. It is not a significant revenue stream.
    2. The Hancock County Courthouse is on the National Register but the Hancock County folks wisely did not involve the Federal Government.Report

    Reply
  11. HoraceHenry says:

    Burroughston Broch Ah, but once up and running again, the college will be a revenue generator.You just cannot “see” that. The problem with a lot of naysayers is, they see things as they are right now, and lock in on that. They cannot see things as they can be in the future. Secondly, I see absolutely nothing wrong with involving the Federal Government and seeking any financial assistance obtainable from it for these restorations.Report

    Reply
  12. letmesaythis says:

    HoraceHenry letmesaythis

    I think race, culture and historic preservation is an idea that does not get explored enough. 
    It would be interesting to compare and contrast the ‘number’ of white historic sites to non-white historic sites.Report

    Reply
  13. Burroughston Broch says:

    HoraceHenry Burroughston Broch  The college in all likelihood will not recover – check the latest events. Unless you will be a saint and give them millions. As my grandfather said, “If wishes were horses then beggars might ride.”
    If you involve the Federal Government you will delay the project and increase the cost. Delaying stabilization will result in additional decay and cost.Report

    Reply

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