The 102-year-old building at 145 Auburn Ave., home of the country’s first black daily newspaper, has had several incarnations, but its latest rebirth may be the most surprising.
Ripped open by the 2008 tornado that tore through downtown Atlanta, the two-story structure was left exposed to the rain for three months, and abandoned for the next six years.
Developers eyeballed it for destruction. The wrecking ball was near.
Then more than a thousand Atlantans signed a petition seeking a stay of execution. The Atlanta Preservation Center paid for a study to show that saving the building could be economically feasible.
Today intown developer Gene Kansas has stripped out soggy timbers and ancient remnants of plastic tarp, and is retrofitting the building for retail and apartment space, while preserving its centenary bones. He says it will be ready for occupation in January.
Said Mark McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, “It took an outpouring of support by the community to save that building from destruction. I consider that a gigantic victory for preservation.”
On a recent chilly weekday Kansas stood by as workmen installed commercial quality PVC pipe in trenches cut into the building’s substantial first-floor concrete pad. The new plumbing will accommodate an Arden’s Garden juice bar in the eastern storefront, and a Condesa coffee shop on the western side. Kansas is creating two apartment units on the second floor.
He walked between studs and across the room to a corner near the front of the structure, where he dug with his toe to point out a curious archaeological find. Buried in the dirt was a square iron box. It had yielded, said Kansas, a handful of empty liquor bottles.
The cache probably dated from the 1940s, when the building housed the Poinciana Club. Before that it was the home of the Virgil Coffee Co., and the city’s first African-American Girl Scout troop, according to Kansas.
The most notable tenant in the brick storefront arrived sometime in the 1940s when the Atlanta Daily World set up shop there. William Alexander Scott founded the paper in 1928, the first of a chain of black newspapers that would eventually number 50.
His brother Cornelius Adolphus Scott took over the paper in 1934 when William Alexander Scott was shot and killed. In 1997 Cornelius retired and his great-niece Alexis Scott became publisher and CEO.
When she arrived, the staff was writing stories on electric typewriters, using hard-copy paste-up and sitting on wooden chairs at metal desks. “It was like going back into the Daily Planet,” said Scott, referencing that other great 1930s newspaper where Clark Kent used to work.
Scott dragged the paper into the 21st Century, setting up voice mail, computerized copy management and a website.
Some old touches remained, including the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign. A holdover from the Poinciana days, it had been repainted with the Atlanta Daily World logo.
The tornado threw that sign into the street, along with most of the roof. A SWAT team of archivists from Emory University and other organizations arrived the morning after the storm to collect up photographs, accounting books and other treasures and store them out of the rain.
The Pabst sign couldn’t be salvaged but there is a plaque out front telling the history of the address.
The Daily World moved to an office park near the airport, and the building sat empty. Scott is happy about this new edition. “I’m excited for it to happen,” she said. “I didn’t think it was possible ‘cause it was in such bad shape.”
Kansas, who bought the building and property for something less than its $396,000 assessed value, has applied for federal and state tax credits available to historic preservationists.
This sort of adaptive re-use is one of the signs that the long-awaited resurgence of Auburn Avenue is perhaps around the corner, said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress.
Sweet Auburn was once the de facto capitol of African-American Atlanta, and Atlanta’s boosters have rumored its comeback for decades. Three new conditions make that rebirth more likely now, said Robinson: A strong downtown real estate market, the new streetcar (which, when it begins rolling next month, will roll right past 145 Auburn Ave.) and the energetic development of nearby Edgewood Avenue, due mostly to the expansion of Georgia State University.
The story of Auburn Avenue, with its newspaper, nightclubs, retail, hotels, religious and political life, is the story of black Atlanta, and a story more valuable than real estate, said Boyd Coons, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center. “That’s what Atlanta had to offer to the the nation, telling this story.”
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