Some of Atlanta’s historic HBCU buildings are still in peril

Gaines Hall, Paschal’s Hotel, and Herndon Stadium are still awaiting renovation

Fountain Hall at Morris Brown College
Fountain Hall at Morris Brown College

Photograph by Martha Williams

Just west of the futuristic origami that is Mercedes-Benz Stadium, some of Atlanta’s most richly historic buildings stand abandoned on a hilltop like oversize, graffiti-strewn headstones in a forgotten cemetery. One gate of the tall chain-link fence surrounding some of these Vine City properties is bent dramatically outward, as if a velociraptor escaped. But just beyond that, a deep-red billboard stands like a beacon of hope, reading: “Master Plan Development Underway . . . Details Coming Soon.”

Ailing structures listed on that billboard include fire-ravaged, crumbling Gaines Hall, the vacant Paschal’s Hotel, and abandoned Herndon Stadium, which has devolved from an Olympics venue to a ghostly magnet for thrill-seeking YouTube trespassers.

The sign has stood over Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Diamond Hill, and Morris Brown College’s campus since it was erected by Clark Atlanta University in the summer of 2022. The structures now owned by Clark Atlanta have been boarded up for more than a decade. But Atlanta’s leading historic preservationists are still waiting on those promised details. “We are in crisis management [mode] and not just stabilization,” says David Mitchell, Atlanta Preservation Center executive director, of the HBCU structures.

There is some good news on the preservation front. Kevin James, Morris Brown president, said in July that repairs were expected to begin on Fountain Hall’s centerpiece, the iconic, vandal-damaged Clock Tower, later this year. Built in 1882, the tower holds a bell imprinted with the Atlanta University mission: “Dedicated to the Education of Youth, Without Regard to Sex, Race or Color.” Later, renowned AU scholar W.E.B. Du Bois penned his landmark essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), from his office in the building, overlooking downtown. Morris Brown has owned Fountain Hall since the 1940s, and it’s been on the National Register of Historic Places for nearly 50 years, but the interior is still in shambles. The clock’s fixes will join a replaced roof and other restoration plans drawn up by the architecture firm Moody Nolan. Several National Park Service grants, totaling $2.45 million—secured by Candy Tate, a preservationist and fourth-generation alumna of Atlanta University Center—are helping fund the work.

Across the street, it’s a different story. Gaines Hall is starting to resemble Italianate brick ruins after a fire in February, following an earlier blaze in 2015 that scorched off the roof. It was built just four years after the Civil War as AU’s original structure, making it one of Atlanta’s oldest buildings and what the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation has called one of the most significant historic buildings in the state, with an “importance to African-American history [that] cannot be overstated.”

Near Gaines Hall, Furber Cottage, a former AU dorm from 1899, has also caught fire twice. Just beyond that is overgrown Herndon Stadium, for which a petition rallying for preservation in 2020 gathered just 122 signatures. The Georgia Trust has also included nearby Towns House and Hamilton House on its list of imperiled historic places.

Requests for updates on preservation efforts submitted to Clark Atlanta and partners in the master-planning process were not answered. After the fires in February, college president George French told SaportaReport that college leadership loves the buildings and won’t give up on rescuing them.

“We’re all responsible for these historic buildings,” says APC’s Mitchell. “Now’s the time to act, donate, and execute plans to preserve these historic African American buildings to serve generations to come.”

This article appears in our October 2023 issue.