The original Atlanta Life Insurance Company building at 148 Auburn Avenue has sat empty, its windows boarded up, for nearly 40 years. Now, a new portrait series, “Windows Speak,” aims to honor the individuals who built the company, including its founder Alonzo Herndon, Atlanta’s first black millionaire.
Located in the middle of the Sweet Auburn Historic District, across the street from the Atlanta Daily World building and one block up from the Royal Peacock and Big Bethel AME Church, the building served as the Atlanta Life Insurance Company’s headquarters from 1920 to 1980. (The next-door annex was added in the late 1920s.) Even vacant, the neoclassical facade is eye-catching in a city where unbroken blocks of beige office towers are the norm.
Now passersby will also encounter the faces of those who built Atlanta Life Insurance Company, which has been a leading black financial institution for more than 100 years. There’s Herndon, who was born a slave in Walton County, Georgia, in 1858 and later established a successful barbershop business before founding what would become the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1905. There’s Norris Bumstead Herdon, Alonzo’s son who was the company’s president from 1927 to 1973; Adrienne Herndon, Alonzo’s wife and a professor at Atlanta University (now known as Clark Atlanta University); Edward L. Simon, former chairman of the board; and Henrietta Antoinin, a public relations executive who worked at the company for 46 years. Jesse Hill, Jr., another longtime employee who led the Atlanta Life Insurance Company from 1973 through the mid-1990s and bolstered the organization’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement, is also featured.
The project is the first in a series of arts initiatives planned by Sweet Auburn Works (SAW), a nonprofit working to direct the revitalization of Sweet Auburn, and is designed to promote the legacy of the historic district and the African American cultural heritage in Atlanta. The art pieces, installed in the building’s windows, were created by Amalia Amaki, an Atlanta-born artist who has taught at Spelman and Morehouse Colleges. A temporary legend explains who is depicted in each image; SAW will eventually install a permanent legend at the building’s original entrance.
“Just like busy storefronts, we want our buildings in transition to also have a dialogue with those who walk up and down our streets,” says LeJuano Varnell, executive director of Sweet Auburn Works. “Institutions like Atlanta Life, and the leadership that guided it, are examples for the new entrepreneurial talent coming back to this street.”
According to SAW, the next art installation will be a mural by Charmaine Minniefield, an artist based in Avondale Estates, inside the Historic Water Tower at Sweet Auburn’s Studioplex. As part of Sweet Auburn Walks, a pedestrian-friendly initiative developed by SAW, there are also plans for new public art along the half-mile stretch between King Memorial MARTA Station and the Sweet Auburn Historic District, including an installation by Alabama-based sculptor Deedee Morrison that will be sponsored by MARTA.