Virginia-Highland residents Jim and Ellen England take the seats left out for them in the City Hall East building on Ponce. The chairs, a small camera and a diffuser panel – the only inanimate objects in sight – look absurdly meek and small compared to the cavernous expanse of the deserted ninth floor.
The Englands are here to be filmed discussing their memories of the mammoth Jazz Age building that’s an icon in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. They start talking easily and candidly despite the oppressive heat, which the building’s current owners, the City of Atlanta until the end of the month, have left blasting for reasons no one can discern.
“What I remember the most was the candy counter,” Ellen England said. “My mom would bring me shopping, and that was my favorite part. Isn’t that funny? Mama brought me here to shop and what I remember is the candy. It was my favorite. Dark chocolate with little white specks in it.”
This would have been the late 1950s, when Sears’ department store, warehouse and distribution operations filled the building.
“I rode my bike here when I was 12,” Jim England said. He’s lived around the corner from the old Sears building since the 1950s. “I’d just leave it outside, no bike lock, and come in here and drool all over the tools and fishing gear.”
Real estate investment and development firm Jamestown is expected to close on the sale of City Hall East by the end of the month, and in about two and half years, rework it into a mixed-use repository of shopping, dining and living spaces. One of the first things the new owners are doing, before getting rid of the parking decks many residents say are eyesores, is a documentary project that will preserve memories of the building, the Cracker ballpark that used to be across the street, and the Old Fourth Ward area from current and former neighborhood residents.
“From the ’20s to the ’80s, it was the Sears building and was uniquely one identity for so long,” said Jamestown Managing Director Michael Phillips.
“This building has been in Atlanta’s consciousness for that length of time. When you say to people City Hall East or Sears Building, they’ll tell you a story of how their grandfather met their grandmother there when she was a clerk in the store and he was packing dolls on the conveyor belt.
"Many people have these stories, and some of them are at the end of their lives. This project is a way to capture some of that living history. It’s part of our stewardship of the building as it goes through its metamorphosis to its next life.”
Phillips said 5 to 15 interviews will be filmed each week for a year and a half. At the end of this month, the company will establish a Web site that will allow anyone to submit home videos, letters or photos.
Kit Sutherland, president of Fourth Ward Alliance Neighborhood Association, is working with Jamestown on securing interviewees. She sees good things coming down the pike for the historic and gentrified area.
“This is the most important building in Old Fourth Ward," she said. "In the middle of a horrible economy, it’s one of three things helping us come back: City Hall East, Historic Fourth Ward Park and Beltline East Side Trail."
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