Originally set to go on the block this spring, the state has postponed selling Kirkwood's historic and beautifully dilapidated relic from Atlanta's railroad past until at least next year. The hodgepodge of turn-of-the-century buildings has sat mostly empty since the 1990s. If scooped up by a developer with vision, the 26-acre parcel has the potential to create another destination on Atlanta's eastside.
In the early 1970s, 14-year-old railroad buff Doug Alexander was given the opportunity to tour Kirkwood's Pullman Yard to see how the massive machines he found so fascinating got made.
Inside the sprawling complex's more than 18,000-square-foot barn-shaped main building, he marveled at cranes, stamping machines that could bend metal, and massive platforms where railroad cars moved from the tracks to maintenance bays. Outside sat the historic Savannah and Atlanta No. 750, a black beast of a steam engine that once served the Southeast.
"Going in there, all these cool trains, all these cool parts ... Boy, I wanted to take home a set of wheels and a truck — the frame and the wheels," says Alexander, who would later become an Atlanta City Councilman in the 1990s. "I wanted one of those in my backyard."
For more than 100 years, the compound of brick railroad warehouses that make up Pullman Yard has sat on Kirkwood's northern edge, sometimes a bustling industrial hub, and sometimes in limbo. Commuters likely know the compound best as the hodgepodge of rusted, graffiti-covered buildings along DeKalb Avenue. The state purchased the property in the early '90s and made it the home of the now-defunct New Georgia Railroad train. But for the last six years, the imposing main building and surrounding saw-toothed structures have sat relatively unused. Aside from a few Hollywood film productions, urban explorers drawn to modern ruins, graffiti artists, and the occasional clean-up crew, the property has seen little action.
"It was there, never particularly achieving its potential," says Earl Williamson, a Kirkwood resident since 2001 and the chairman of the Neighborhood Planning Unit O, which encompasses the community.
For years, the Georgia Building Authority, the agency that oversees the state's real estate portfolio, has sat on the land. As recently as this month, it was planning to start accepting bids from developers with plans for the 26-acre site, considered one of the last large untapped pieces of property inside the city limits. That plan has been pushed back until next year at the earliest.When the time comes, if you've got at least $4 million to spend, you just might be able to walk away with a piece of Atlanta history.
Kirkwood residents have different opinions on what they think should happen to Pullman Yard. But above all, they want to see the complex's 20th-century buildings preserved and the rest of the property developed in a way that boosts their working-class community. The question is whether the state will accept a developer's highest bid or consider what will most benefit the surrounding community — one of intown Atlanta's most diverse.
"How do you use that?" asks Wayne Carey, a Kirkwood resident since 1986. "We already have the Edgewood Retail District. We have property that can be redeveloped. How do you develop that resource? Do you take the one iconic piece of architecture or place and do you use it for whatever happens to be the going trend of the moment?"
Since Brendan Butler moved to Kirkwood from Old Fourth Ward 14 years ago, he has watched Pullman Yard sit idle across the street from his Rogers Street home. The area surrounding his eclectic 1903 bungalow has improved — abandoned loading docks on Arizona Avenue are now soccer fields for the Atlanta Youth Soccer Association and it seems like a house is getting rehabbed every week, he says — but the property has remained in limbo.
The 41-year-old "garden architect" operates Kirkwood re-Cycle, a community organization based in a garage on his property that restores and donates bicycles to needy children. He and neighbors have enjoyed the quiet, he says, and the state's been a good neighbor. But aside from the movie shoots, regular visits by groundskeeping crews, and a long-gone pack of feral dogs that once roamed the many acres, it's been still.
The industrial complex's first buildings date back to 1904, when Pratt Engineering opened the Kirkwood manufacturing plant. During World War I, workers produced munitions for soldiers in Europe here.
In 1922, the Chicago-based Pullman Company purchased the plant to serve as one of its six hubs across the country to maintain and restore its storied passenger rail coaches. The train cars were staffed by Pullman porters, an all-black workforce whose members were considered paragons of customer service in train travel. At the time, Pullman was the largest employer of black workers in America. Plant foremen lived in small bungalows across the street from the plant.
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