Probably the oldest man-made object at the United Methodist Children’s Home is a farm bell mounted on small granite tower roughly in the property’s residential center. Its precise age is unknown, though it was purchased shortly after the Civil War by Coca-Cola’s Asa Candler for a Methodist church in his hometown of Villa Rica. When that church was demolished Candler donated the bell to the home, where it tolled through the ages.
It was still ringing into the early 1970s when Debora Burger was a teenage resident.
“It woke us up at 6:30,” she said, “and called us for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t know when they stopped using it, but in my mind I can still hear it.”
The fate of this bell and almost everything else on the home’s 77 acres remains uncertain today, a month after Decatur announced a $40 million contract to buy the property. Officials say they have no preconceptions about the land’s potential uses. The city lacks parkland and recreational amenities, but the prevailing view is that the home is something of a “blank slate” until community-input sessions are completed.
Environmentalists and historic preservationists have some definite ideas and hopes for the site, home of many unique features both man-made and natural.
“This is a little oasis in bustling Decatur,” said Melissa Forgey, the director of the DeKalb History Center.
Twenty-two of the property’s features, including Candler’s bell and 19 buildings, were identified as contributing resources for a potential historic district in 2015 when a group of Kennesaw State University students examined the campus. Seven of those 19 buildings were built between 1903 and 1919, and six of those were made of granite.
There is no promise in the sale deal to preserve the old granite buildings. The contract between Decatur and the UMCH stipulates only that the home retain ownership of one building, the Moore Chapel, through a separate nonprofit corporation. Also, the city will protect the grave of founder Jesse Boring, while keeping the existing administrative building that will be renamed to honor Bev Cochran, who ran the home for 43 years beginning in 1969.
The KSU students’ work was part of the second attempt, after one in the late 1990s, to get the UMCH on the National Register of Historic Places. “We did a lot of work over there,” said Jennifer Dickey, the KSU associate professor who oversaw the students, “and we only had a few more steps to getting it placed on the Register.” The Georgia Department of Natural Resources declared the property eligible to become a historic district. “But then we got word (from UMCH) that they didn’t want to go forward with the nomination. What we heard was that they were thinking about selling.
“There’s long been a misperception,” Dickey said, “that being on the Register restricts what you can do with your property. It really doesn’t, unless you get federal dollars. Bottom line, somebody has to take the initiative to get that property listed.”
It’s not just the old buildings that give the site distinction.
Kathryn Kolb, a master naturalist and director of Atlanta-based EcoAddendum, believes part of the property, particularly the front along South Columbia Drive, includes remnants of old-growth forest. On a recent trip there she identified a series of white oaks at least 150 years old, and maybe over 200 years, including one gashed by lightning generations ago.
As the property slopes south and east behind the residential district, it goes from 1,030 feet to 970 feet. An ancient lake, long managed by beavers with a network of dams, serves as temporary home to migratory birds. There are wetlands, a prairie-like meadow, a native forest in recovery sprinkled with Tarzan-like vines and a thick canopy shielding the dense urban environment just beyond.
“I look around here,” Kolb said, “and this could be the most diverse ecosystem in metro Atlanta.”
On a recent early evening Kolb spent an hour trekking through woods as the sun’s final rays exploded off the lake. She identified by ear a cedar waxwing, a reclusive wood thrush, a gray catbird (with its catty mew), a red-winged blackbird, a tree swallow, several cardinals and a frenetic blue-gray gnatcatcher. This doesn’t even count the ducks, Canada Geese and Wild Turkey also spotted.
“I think it’s pretty simple what you do here,” Kolb said. “Part of this area back here you can restore to all native plants and part can be restored to a high-value forest. This can continue as a wildlife habitat and passive recreation. You can have some trails, not many, but some.”
She paused to pluck some wild lettuce from the ground, then studied it briefly before putting it in her mouth and chewing.
“This area,” she said, “is hard to describe in scientific terms. It has that character. You can feel it. You know what I mean? You can relax, you don’t hear or see the city out there, and the stress begins melting away.”