By John Ruch
A vanishing historic building in Sweet Auburn is even more historic than conservatives knew, as new research finds it was home to Atlanta’s pioneering black-owned bank and the first to be licensed in Georgia .
These and other findings — including a possible construction date more than 15 years earlier than originally thought — not only add urgency to the discussion about 229 Auburn Ave., which is facing a restraining order. demolition of the city and a redevelopment plan. They also suggest that other important historical stories may be overlooked even in well-known buildings, even in the famed Jim Crow-era black business district where many entrepreneurs and civil rights leaders built legacies. The official of the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC), the nonprofit that conducted the research, said the effort could be a “springboard” for similar investigations in Sweet Auburn and across the city.
“It showcases the complexity of Atlanta,” said APC executive director David Yoakley Mitchell. “There are so many things we think we know or assume we know that [now] we realize we need to know more.
The long-vacant former office building at 229 Auburn has been on conservatives’ radar for years as endangered. Its owner, the Butler Street Community Development Corporation (CDC), intends to redevelop most of the block into a mixed-use structure with affordable housing. Last month, the City ordered its demolition for public safety reasons. But that decision needs to be reconsidered because the building is in the historic city and federal government districts.
Preservation groups and agencies — including APC — have called for the building to be saved, while the CDC is questioning the financial resources to do so, though its own plan remains on the drawing board. Alfonza Marshall, chair of the CDC board, did not immediately respond to a request for comment but was briefed on the bank’s history, according to APC.
The National Park Service (NPS), which oversees the federally designated iconic district, previously dated the building to around 1908 and noted that it is called the Atlanta Life Insurance branch for its oldest tenant, a famous black-owned business. In a 2019 report, the NPS noted in passing that the building had many other tenants, including an “Atlanta Savings Bank”.
It was actually the pioneering Atlanta State Savings Bank, according to new APC research, which also founded the building may date as early as 1892.
The research was conducted by Sarah Borcherding, a graduate student in Georgia State University’s Heritage Preservation Program. She is interning with APC’s nonprofit sister Easements Atlanta, which oversees preservation restrictions on historic properties in exchange for tax credits and other benefits. Research 229 Auburn doubles as a summer school project.
Borcherding discovered that the bank occupied 229 Auburn during its crucial growth years from 1910 to 1913 before moving across the street to the Odd Fellows Building, a preservation success story thanks in part to Easement Atlanta’s involvement.
Founding local historian Franklin Garrett in his book Atlanta and surrounding areas said the bank was founded in 1909 by John O. Ross, a local grocer. Garrett cited a 1910 advertisement where the bank offered 4% interest on deposits and focused on the economic power of black citizens in this age of segregation.
“An independent nigger is one who has money in the bank. Are you one? If not, keep reading and become one…” the ad read in part. “It’s what you save — not what you earn — that makes you rich. Start now for INDEPENDENCE. »
Ross was a pioneer in establishing the first black-owned bank in Atlanta. In 1913, it also became Georgia’s first state-chartered black bank, according to a 1987 newspaper article by Alexa Benson Henderson, a professor at Clark University in Atlanta.
The bank’s occupation of 229 Auburn, wrote Borcherding in a draft of his research, “greatly increases the importance of the structure”.
The bank went bankrupt in 1922, according to Garrett. But he cites her as establishing information and a clientele for the 1921 founding of the Citizens Trust Company, another black-owned bank by legendary entrepreneur Heman Perry, which was so successful it is still in business for more than 10 years. a century later.
Examining historical maps, Borcherding also found a rectangular structure at the site from the 1890s. It could be the same building that exists today or just a similar building, she said. This is just one of the many topics she is still investigating. Others include the chain of owners over the decades who have licensed another historic, if less appealing aspect – a rare and racist advert for Gold Dust Twins soap painted on an outside wall.
There were a few hints to understand the history of the building, including changes in street names and addresses. There was also the literal and figurative eclipse of 229 Auburn by its former neighbor, the massive Herndon Building, which rose in 1926 and was attached to it with a small addition. Damaged by a tornado in 2008, the Herndon building was demolished in yet another preservation loss, but also the one that made 229 Auburn stand out.
“In a way, this tragedy of losing a building presented another building that was arguably more important but less well known than its stature. [deserves]”Mitchell said.
Still, Borcherding said, it was “pretty easy” to discover these additional gems of 229 Auburn’s history with some basic research in old town directories and maps. In conversations with Mitchell, said she found herself asking, “Why am I the one connecting these dots? This should be common knowledge. The answer, she speculates, is that he was indeed common knowledge once. “I think the people who were important to us died,” she says.
This is one of the reasons why historic designations and protections are really only a starting point. National Iconic Districts are a relatively new phenomenon and Sweet Auburn was among the first, dating to around 45 years ago when search standards were less finicky and much more of Jim Crow-era history was in the living memory of those who established it. Even famous sites have legends that can become fossilized in stories that ignore other aspects of history that might be crucial or take on new meaning in new times.
Mitchell says 229 Auburn is a good example of this kind of situation — and further research can be done with resources such as the wealth of Atlanta college students, not necessarily the expense of hiring consultants and study order. APC now intends to do more such research on other buildings in Sweet Auburn and the neighborhood as a whole, he said, pending more pressure against preservation.
“We took Auburn Avenue for granted, this assumption that it will always be there — that this street, this space, will always exist and will always represent something that we all draw from,” he said. “But at some point, it’s time for all of us to give back. It helped us. Now is the time for us to help him.