Atlanta project to start in spring

The original home of the civil-rights group led by Martin Luther King Jr. is getting a $10.2 million facelift.

The Prince Hall Masonic Lodge on Auburn Avenue — known for its old-school white and green neon sign hanging off a corner — housed the first office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It will get a new roof, windows, air conditioning, electrical works, elevator and a recreation of King’s office.

Numerous documents and memorabilia related to King and the civil rights movement stored inside the building will be preserved, according to a report prepared by architectural firm Lord Aeck Sargent.

The National Park Service Service will open a visitors center on the ground floor to provide public access. It manages the building, though the Masons still own and use it for meetings.

The Prince Hall Masons, who meet in the main hall shown here, own three-story, yellow brick building. The National Park Service will manage the building and plans to open a visitors center in it. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
The Prince Hall Masons, who meet in the main hall shown here, own three-story, yellow brick building. The National Park Service will manage the building and plans to open a visitors center in it. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

They have wanted to rehab the property for years, said lodge member Ed Bowen, a real estate developer leading the project.

“The building has been maintained over the years, but it hasn’t had any significant structural improvements,” he said.

Black civic leader John Wesley Dobbs developed the three-story, yellow brick building in 1937 as a meeting place for Prince Hall Freemasons.

The lodge also housed the nation’s first Black-owned radio station, WERD-AM. Jesse Blayton, an Atlanta University professor, purchased the station in 1949 and changed its format to appeal to the Black community, according to Lord Aeck Sargent.

The Prince Hall Masonic Lodge housed the first office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Here, Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr. appear at a press conference at the lodge on Nov. 2, 1964. (Handout)
The Prince Hall Masonic Lodge housed the first office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Here, Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr. appear at a press conference at the lodge on Nov. 2, 1964. (Handout)

Credit: Bettmann Archive Getty Images

Credit: Bettmann Archive Getty Images

The SCLC was organized in Atlanta in 1957 by King, Ralph David Abernathy and others to fight racism, but has its roots in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, where the two men were pastors.

Like many sites around Atlanta that commemorate African-American history, the Prince Hall lodge restoration was shepherded by civil rights icon John Lewis, who died in 2020. The former congressman for years pushed for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site to be upgraded to National Historic Park status, making it eligible for more park rangers and other resources. When it was in 2018, the lodge was added.

The two upper floors will be renovated as office space for small businesses and as meeting space for the nine Masonic groups that use the building, including the Eastern Star of Georgia.

The Prince Hall Masonic Lodge on Auburn Avenue, built in 1940 and the first home to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the first Black-owned radio station, is set to be renovated with parts of it being used for the National Park Service King Memorial Site. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Prince Hall Masonic Lodge on Auburn Avenue, built in 1940 and the first home to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the first Black-owned radio station, is set to be renovated with parts of it being used for the National Park Service King Memorial Site. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

LeJuano Varnell, executive director of preservation group Sweet Auburn Works, said assigning multiple uses to the building is the best way to serve the neighborhood and the national interest.

“Every existing historic building in our [district] serves a dual role,” he said. “It will serve commercial tenants and tourists alike.”

Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency, in February approved a final piece of the renovation financing, a $1.5 million Eastside Tax Allocation District grant. Federal tax credits for historic preservation and private donations are also funding the project.

The building’s original design will remain wholly intact, including all decorative brick, stone and clay tile features, Bowen said.

“It will look exactly as it did during the time of its heyday,” he said.

And, they’re keeping and restoring the neon sign.

“The National Park Service loves that sign, and so do the Masons,” Bowen said. “We’re going to make it look like it once did.”

The project is scheduled to start in April and be completed by August.

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