Neglect, destruction threaten Georgia Trust’s Top 10 places

They are old, moldering — eyesores, some of them, maybe dangerous. They have broken ceilings and dark corners, windows open to winter’s wind. In some of these places, people died; perhaps their souls flit in cold rooms where the living no longer go.

All the more reason to save them? The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation thinks so.

The organization recently released its “2010 Places In Peril,” a compendium of 10 historically significant spots in danger of wrecking balls, deterioration, progress, or a combination of the three. The sites range from folk artist Howard Finster’s fantastical Paradise Gardens in Summerville to Central State Hospital in Milledgeville. They vary from a humble building where kids watched Saturday matinees to a tract where Native Americans built a culture.

Morris Brown College and Herndon Plaza, both in Atlanta; Canton Grammar School, Canton; Leake Archaeological Site, Cartersville; Dorchester Academy, Midway; Old Dodge County Jail, Eastman; Ritz Theatre, Thomaston; and Capricorn Recording Studio, Macon, fill out the list.

Inclusion on the list is no guarantee that a site will get restored, said Mark McDonald, the organization’s president and CEO. Getting on the annual inventory — this is the fifth — doesn’t come with an automatic pot of cash.

The trust can connect potential buyers with historic property owners, and provides grant information. For example, its Web site directs visitors to the state Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division, which this year oversees state and federal preservation funds that total more than $306,000.

But the primary purpose of the trust’s list is to heighten public awareness of history in our midst. That old school, the crumbling office building: They’re sites people pass daily, often not realizing they are historically significant, McDonald said.

Twenty-seven sites were nominated for the 2010 list — proof, McDonald said, that Georgians are growing more aware of the historic and endangered sites in the state. The trust narrowed the list to 10.

“People in the South are very proud of their history,” he said.

List’s wins and losses

But the lists don’t always guarantee a building’s future, despite the interest they generate.

In Atlanta, “The Castle” is a crumbling reminder of Victorian architecture from the turn of the 20th century. Despite its regal name, the building has been in peril for years. In the mid-1980s, former Mayor Andrew Young called the 15th Street structure “a hunk of junk.” It has lasted long enough to be listed as a “Place in Peril” in 2008, but remains unrestored.

The 2007 most-endangered list included the Gilmer County Courthouse in Ellijay, erected in 1898 as the Hyatt Hotel. Residents there voted to abolish the aged structure, despite the organization’s recommendations that it be saved. It’s gone.

Sites are vulnerable to happenstance as well as apathy or outright antipathy. The 2008 list included Bibb Mill, for 100 years a center of commerce where the Chattahoochee River curls through Columbus. “The Bibb,” as locals called the textile mill, burned two weeks after the list came out.

Trust officials, though, like to point to the successes that have stemmed from the list. For example, Atlanta’s Crum & Forster Building in Midtown was in the 2009 report, the same year it was saved. Its owner, the Georgia Tech Foundation, wanted to demolish the three-story structure as part of its expansion plans. But the city gave it landmark status and blocked efforts to raze the building, erected in 1928. Since then, it has received $190,000 in grants for restoration.

Also in Atlanta, the Wren’s Nest, the 19th century home of “Uncle Remus” author Joel Chandler Harris, has undergone nearly $200,000 in restoration work since its inclusion in the 2007 list.

The home of another author, Flannery O’Connor, also benefited after appearing on the 2006 list. While still far from fully restored, Andalusia, the name of the Baldwin County farmhouse where the Georgia native wrote for a dozen years until her death in 1964, has received several grants from state and private sources, as well as donations, to make improvements.

Those sites, said McDonald, benefited from the publicity provided by the “peril” designations. The lists “have had a remarkable amount of success,” he said.

National Trust’s impact

Thirty-two state preservation organizations across the United States make lists showcasing imperiled historic sites. They’re based on the most successful model of all, “America’s 11 Most Endangered Places,” an annual report produced by The National Trust for Historic Preservation since 1989.

Over the past 20 years, the report has highlighted sites that include mountain ranges as well as buildings. The latest list showcases the Utah hangar that housed the B-29 Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. A 1991 report highlighted Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell. The interest generated for a site in downtown Natchez, Miss., in a 1994 list prompted a developer to scrap his plans for putting a parking garage on the tract.

The latest edition of the national list also includes a Georgia entry — the Dorchester Academy in Midway. Located in southeast Georgia, it was founded in 1871 as a school for freed slaves. It is in danger of deterioration.

Placing the building on the national list enhances the odds that it can be saved, said Peter Brink, the National Trust’s senior vice president of programs.

More than 260 sites have been featured over the past two decades, he said.

How many have been saved because they were listed? “That’s kind of tricky to answer,” he said. The organization cannot know if inclusion on a list is the sole reason a site is saved or restored, he said.

Hope at hospital

Kari Brown is reminded of the past every day she comes to work. Communications director at Central State Hospital, Brown is surrounded by history — brick buildings, some dating to the 1880s, are proof that the Milledgeville hospital and its outlying buildings are historic.

Some buildings — there are more than 20 on the tract — are vacant. Others are still operating. The hospital serves about 600 people.

When they learned about its inclusion on the 2010 “peril” list, hospital officials were pleased, Brown said.

“We’re very excited about it,” she said. “We’re hoping increased interest in the hospital will help us raise funds for renovations.”

How much does the hospital need? Brown paused.

“A lot,” she said. “Millions.”