Historic Auburn Avenue building’s fate uncertain

City and local interest groups are trying to decide whether a 91-year-old building on Auburn Avenue, built by Atlanta’s first black millionaire, should stay or go.

The former home of Atlanta Life Insurance Co. was heavily damaged by a 2008 storm that ripped through downtown, and city officials are leaning on the owners, the Butler Street YMCA, to renovate it or tear it down. As the area prepares for the arrival of Atlanta streetcars, the YMCA is inclined to demolish the landmark. But even that costs more than the organization can afford.

“That building is one of our primary concerns,” said Aislee Smith, chairman of the YMCA’s board. “The biggest challenge has always been money. We have gotten several quotes to tear it down and the lowest has been for $30,000.”

In 2010, the YMCA got $150,000 from the United Way. This year it dropped to $60,000. To offset that, Smith said the YMCA is embarking on several ideas to raise some of the money to raze the building. Ideas include its Learn to Learn mentoring and tutoring program, under which the state pays the organization for every child it helps.

“It is tough raising money for something like this, because donors want to see their money going to programs,” Smith said.

James Shelby, commissioner of the Atlanta Department of Planning and Community Development, said the city has growing concerns about the condition of the building, which is near Auburn Avenue’s intersection with Jesse Hill Jr. Drive.

“It is a historical building, so I would like to save it if that is possible, but if it is a hazard to the community it might have to come down,” Shelby said.

Increasing the urgency is the pending construction of the Atlanta streetcar route, which will run along Auburn Avenue and, it is hoped, bring an economic boost to the corridor. A decaying building would not look good for tourism.

“The way it looks now, it doesn’t help the block at all,” said Sonya Jones, who has owned a bakery, Sweet Auburn Bread Co., across the street for six years. “I would rather see it saved and rehabbed, but this is all about economics. Unfortunately, I have no say so in the matter.”

The 2008 storm cut a swath through downtown, damaging major buildings such as the Georgia Dome and Westin Peachtree Plaza but also hitting low-rise areas such as Auburn Avenue and Cabbagetown.

After the storm, the city ordered the YMCA to demolish the Herndon Building next door to the Atlanta Life building. It also was built by insurance company founder Alonzo Herndon, one of the city’s first black business leaders.

The Herndon Building was one of the city’s earliest office complexes for black professionals and once housed a B.B. Beamon’s, a white-tablecloth restaurant frequented by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Also long vacant, it partially collapsed in the storm.

But the Atlanta Life building survived, although the three-story brick building, built in 1920, looks like it could topple at any minute.

Doors and windows are bricked or boarded up, painted with window shades and the names of the companies that used to be there. On one side, a huge brick staircase is exposed and crumbling, which is dangerous and beautiful at the same time, as photographers and graffiti artists have used it as a backdrop.

At the top of the staircase is a white door leading to the former “Atlanta Dance Theater Studio,” written in green paint.

“The unfortunate part of all of this is that these folks in the early 1900s built institutions that we have been unable to maintain,” said Dan Moore, founder and director of the APEX Museum. “That is the tragedy. We have to learn as a people to value our history to the extent that we do all we can to preserve it. Because once it is gone, it is gone.”

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