Monday, January 16, 2012

Historic building filled with a century's worth of files, furniture

Posted By on Mon, Jan 16, 2012 at 6:26 PM

There are plenty of historic African American homes in Atlanta, some well-preserved, some not so well. But even less attention has been paid to historic black businesses, perhaps the most famous of which is the Atlanta Life Insurance Co.

I showed up this morning at the old Atlanta Life building at the corner of Auburn and Piedmont, expecting to help out with a scheduled clean-up sponsored by the Historic District Development Corporation, the nonprofit development corporation that's owned the property for the past decade. A group of about 25 fresh-faced Americorps volunteers up from Americus, where they work for Habitat for Humanity International, had already cleared the outside grounds of trash and was working on hauling debris from inside the conjoined buildings. Unfortunately, the borrowed generator stopped working, so the crew's flood lamps couldn't be used inside the darkened rooms. As a result, little serious debris-hauling took place.

But, honestly, we could've hauled crap out of there all day and still not have made visible progress. The structure itself — built between the 1890s and 1936 — is three floors, including a basement, for a total of perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 square feet. While some rooms are completely empty, others are crowded with old desks, storage cabinets and lockers. One basement room is completely filled with furniture, haphazardly stacked at least eight feet high. Dozens of file cabinets are scattered throughout the building, most of them the heavy steel kind dating back to the '50s. In one room is an old Addressograph machine that was once used to emboss small metal plates with customers' addresses for easy printing onto envelopes. (Yeah, of course I had to look it up.) I counted at least five safes, varying from three feet tall to the man-sized version, a la Dick Cheney.

There are floors, ceilings and walls that are collapsing, and heavy wooden doors falling off their hinges. Tin ceiling plates are dark with rust. A few rooms have soiled bedding on the floor, one in particular looks to be someone's personal homestead. Filthy shoes, jeans and other clothing are strewn about in piles. Daylight peeks through windows where the plywood barriers have been pulled away.

Perhaps most disturbing, there are also hundreds of boxes containing files and other documents. Many are torn open or fallen over, spilling their contents across the ancient hardwood floors: insurance policies, canceled checks, ledger books — the personal paperwork of generations of black Americans going back to the '30s. I perused a few scattered pages and noticed a policy written to a housekeeper in Cincinnati who was born in 1936 and another to a Kansas City butcher who was insured for $10,000. One of the young volunteers observed, "If my family had policies here, I don't think I'd like knowing that all these records were just lying around." I'm inclined to agree.

The old Atlanta Life compound was shuttered in 1980 when the firm moved to the western end of the block into the modern, concrete-and-glass Herndon Plaza. Although then-CEO Jesse Hill is often hailed as one Atlanta's top business leaders, I've never understood why he allowed his company's birthplace to fall into such disrepair. Now that I've toured the inside of the building and seen all the documents that were carelessly left behind, I'm actually a little pissed off.

If the name Herndon sounds familiar, it's because Alonzo Herndon, born into slavery in 1858, went on to found Atlanta Life and become Atlanta's first black millionaire. The business thrived by writing policies for domestics, factory workers and other low-income wage-earners who could only afford to pay a few pennies a week in premiums.

The HDDC, which successfully redeveloped many of the houses in the MLK historic district, as well as Studioplex, has been marketing the buildings for redevelopment for several years, but Executive Director Jesse Clark tells me he hasn't gotten any nibbles since the real estate bubble burst. The organization has few options other than waiting for the market to recover, making the property potentially desirable once again so its redevelopment plan can be realized.

In the meantime, this gorgeous building molders and decays. Vagrants come and go freely, dumping out boxes in search of valuables. Scrap-metal thieves walk away with file drawers and fixtures.

Benign neglect continues to chip away at Atlanta's history. Please help the HDDC in its effort to save this endangered landmark.

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