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Atlantans Fight To Restore Gaines Hall After Fire

Morris Brown College students walk past the historic Gaines Hall on the campus in Atlanta Thursday, Sept. 10, 1998. A century after it was built to educate former slaves, Gaines Hall was crumbling. A $4 million facelift saved it from the wrecking ball. (AP Photo/Ric Feld)
Morris Brown College students walk past the historic Gaines Hall on the campus in Atlanta Thursday, Sept. 10, 1998. A century after it was built to educate former slaves, Gaines Hall was crumbling. A $4 million facelift saved it from the wrecking ball. (AP Photo/Ric Feld)
Credit Ric Feld / AP Photo

Gaines Hall, built in 1869 as a dorm for Atlanta University, caught fire on Aug. 20. The next day, the Atlanta Fire Department said the historic building should be torn down for safety reasons. But local preservationists immediately objected, saying Gaines Hall can and should be saved.

Atlanta has a pretty dismal record when it comes to preservation.

All too often, vacant older buildings suffer from a condition known as demolition by neglect ─ they fall victim to the elements or catch on fire ─ giving property owners an excuse to tear them down.

And it’s rare for local governments in metro Atlanta to stand in the way of demolition.  It’s even rarer for them to find a permanent solution to preserve historic buildings.

So it appeared as though Gaines Hall was doomed.

The dorm had been owned by the struggling Morris Brown College, until earlier this year, when it was acquired by the city of Atlanta.

Would the fire seal its fate?

That’s when Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed came to the rescue.

When I asked the mayor about Gaines Hall Monday, he told me emphatically, “We are going to find a way to preserve it.”

Hallelujah!

After all, Gaines Hall had been the stomping ground for leading African-American scholars like W.E.B. DuBois, among others.

The next day, the city sent engineers as well as the head of planning, the head of Invest Atlanta and the head of real estate to examine the building.

The official line is that they’re trying to assess the damage to see if it can be saved.

But Mayor Reed, someone who rules with an iron fist, has let his feelings be known. And city officials will be more motivated to preserve Gaines Hall rather than demolish it.

While I’m not always a fan of the mayor’s heavy-handed style, I have seen it work once before in saving a building.

The city had given Atlanta Housing Authority permission to demolish the Trio building in the King historic district.

Preservationists cried foul.

Mayor Reed agreed. And he controls most of AHA’s board members, so the historic building is being saved.

It’s time to do it again!

Just like the Trio building, preservationists are standing by, ready to help.

Mark McDonald, CEO of the Georgia Trust, said the Hancock County Courthouse in Sparta, designed by the same architect, had even worse fire damage than Gaines Hall. But Hancock County officials are preserving it.

If Sparta can do it, so can Atlanta.

For Gaines Hall to be a real success, we need to not only save the building. We need to give it new life so that it won’t fall victim again.

Mayor Reed, you can be an even greater hero if you come up with a permanent solution for Gaines Hall, one that will keep it standing for generations to come.

Maria Saporta is editor of SaportaReport.