Saving Jordan Hall

Activists battle to preserve history in Vine City

Look about half-mile west of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and you may be reminded of a time when educational institutions in Atlanta were racially segregated at every level — from elementary school to undergrad and beyond. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the city even had public schools that black students could attend. E.A. Ware Elementary was among the first. The building that once housed that school, now called Jordan Hall, was recently bought by the YMCA and sits on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Vine City.

Jordan Hall was part of Morris Brown College until its recent purchase and is one of a slew of historically significant buildings in and around Vine City that are at risk with the development surrounding the new stadium. As in other cases of historic buildings coming under fire, some residents have taken it upon themselves to advocate for preservation of the structure. In this case the target is the YMCA, which is planning a $20 million headquarters and Leadership and Learning Center. So far, according to YMCA Communications Director Angie Clawson, the nonprofit is working with architects to see how it can preserve and incorporate parts of the façade.

But in a city that isn’t exactly known for putting much effort into upholding its history, the neighborhood — rich in civil rights legacy but tossing-distance from the new stadium — may be facing tough odds.The school whose campus on which Jordan Hall sits is historic itself: Morris Brown was established in 1881 by former slaves and was the first black-owned and operated educational institution in Georgia. A couple blocks away are the homes of international civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.; Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson; and Julian Bond, who chaired the NAACP and left his Vine City home each day for the Gold Dome, where he tackled race relations as one of the first black legislators. A two-minute walk away is Herndon Home, where Alonzo Herndon and his wife, Adrienne, who designed the home, lived in the early 1900s. Herndon was born a slave but died a self-made business owner, Atlanta’s first black millionaire.

“It’s hard not to wonder: Had we not had … Morehouse College, Friendship Baptist Church, would we have had MLK?” asks Bishop John Lewis III, a Vine City resident and leading activist advocating for Jordan Hall’s preservation. Friendship Baptist Church, which previously sat where the Mercedes-Benz stadium is now before it was bought by the city for $19.5 million in 2013, held Morehouse and Spelman classes in its basement in the late 1800s according to the church’s website. (Coming full circle, the church now holds its services in a building on the Morehouse campus.)

Lewis says it’s not that he simply doesn’t want the YMCA in the community. But “it would have been nice if perhaps before they made all the plans they made, if they were in contact with more of the community.” He laments the loss of the black-owned businesses along what’s now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (once Hunter Street), like Sellers Brothers Funeral Home and Tibb’s Pharmacy, and Peachtree Arcade, a three-level building with a marble and brass interior and glass ceiling demolished only for a bank to take its place in the 1960s.“This community has so many historical assets that do not need to be plowed over in the name of gentrification,” says Carrie Salvary, a Vine City resident of 24 years. “We are not going to acquiesce silently and quietly while they … destroy them.”Both residents point to Ponce City Market as an example of how the city invests in preservation when there is the will to do so. “If the money could be found to restore the Ponce City Market, why couldn’t you find the money to retrofit Jordan Hall?” Lewis asks. There are at least eight former schools that have been repurposed, all in predominately white neighborhoods.

“We would have liked to have seen a very comprehensive preservation plan done for that area prior to having the kind of development that they’re having adjacent to it,” says Atlanta Preservation Center’s Boyd Coons, who helped preserve Paschal’s Restaurant, the famous activist hangout from the Civil Rights Era just south of the stadium. Coons says Vine City has some of the city’s oldest buildings. He argues that a survey of that area surrounding the stadium would have enabled a “higher degree” of development — one that takes into account the long-term value that history adds to a building, he says.

While there are a lot of supporters of preserving Jordan Hall, even Atlanta Business Chronicle columnist Maria Saporta went on WABE to express her support, not everyone is speaking out against the change. Vine City Civic Association’s vice president, Linda Adam, declined to comment.Jenna Garland with the mayor’s office says Kasim Reed will “withhold his judgment until he sees the plans for the new building,” but that “we cannot overemphasize the importance of having healthy, successful organizations with a robust workforce located there.”When asked what he’d say to someone who would prefer what might be the cheaper route and razing the building to start from scratch — as the YMCA once planned to do to Jordan Hall — Coons answers: “That’s why Atlanta looks the way it does. Because we don’t encourage … a long-range kind of investment.”

“If you allow a low degree of development without consideration for site or context, then that’s what you get,” Coons adds. In Vine City, it’s hard to say whether future Atlantans will see what’s left today of the neighborhood’s historically rich site and context.