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