An Official History of Athens, Georgia, 1951

Another curious overview of Athens history found in the Heritage Room stacks was published by the city’s own mayor and commission in 1951. Athens, Georgia: Home of the University of Georgia 1801-1951 (not exactly a title suggesting a future Pulitzer) was created “in celebration” of the sesquicentennial of the city’s founding, which of course corresponded to the actual beginning of classes held by the University of Georgia (six years after the University of North Carolina). This short book according to its introduction was “distributed to the taxpayers of the City of Athens.” No author is listed on the cover or front matter. However, the last chapter bears Mayor Jack R. Wells’ name.

While the text itself offers plenty of insight into how certain Athenians conceived of their city at mid-century, we cannot but conclude that most present-day readers will be more enticed by the photographs printed in the book. We offer here scans of some of them, with brief explanations.

The book’s cover offers aerial shots of Sanford Stadium in an earlier stage of its development and of downtown, with much of the present-day skyline already easily identifiable, accompanied nonetheless by some prominent landmarks that have been lost to the past.

In 1951, Athens was home to a smaller Kroger store. These neighborly versions of the prominent grocery chain, once common, have not been seen in this part of Georgia since the Emory Village store in Atlanta closed in 1998. This Athens location of Kroger closed much sooner, replaced by the end of the decade with a location on Prince (later home to Bell’s and, later still, the Potter’s House Thrift Store). Though now a bank, this building for many years was the home of the Phoenix Natural Food Market. Across the street some buildings now owned by the University are visible.

A few blocks southwestward, the Tree That Owns Itself in 1951 was, as inscribed in the caption below, the Tree That Owned Itself. The original was gone, and its descendant was still a baby, hardly visible in this photograph.

Heading back downtown, this scene shows us the old site of the Belk department store, in a building sadly no longer with us, while Belk is still with us, the last of Georgia Square Mall’s anchors open for business today. Also clearly visible is Dick Ferguson’s, which opened in 1934 and moved from this location to the Beechwood shopping center in 1995.

The photo above is one of the several in the book dating from much earlier than 1951. In this case, old enough to show both the church and opera house that once occupied a block of Washington Street and an older location of the Confederate war memorial. This photograph was also used for postcards, as seen in Gary Doster’s A Postcard History of Athens, Georgia. As Doster explains, the residence visible in this shot on the right is known as the Eustace Speer House, named for a University professor who also served as a Methodist minister. The house was demolished in 1920 to make way for the Palace Theatre and other buildings as the downtown commercial district continued to grow.

Back to the 1950s, we see buildings to the north of the Georgia Theatre that are no longer extant, including the then-home of AM radio station WRFC. Along the right border of this shot, we get a glimpse of Horton’s before a façade was added to the building’s upper level.

On the former site of St. Joseph Church, the “Roman Chapel” is even more a relic of the past than the newer church, now that only a portion of the latter building remains. As the book explains, this older structure served many functions and was located behind the church.

This view of the “Roman Chapel” leaves us with unanswered questions. So we turn to a recent book, the multiple-author Tangible Past in Athens, Georgia. The history of St. Joseph in its different manifestations comes up at several points in that massive tome. As explained by (again!) local historian Gary Doster, in his chapter, “An Annotated Compendium of Some Moved Houses, Churches, Monuments, and Other Structures in Athens, Georgia,” the building was originally built around 1850 by Thomas R. R. Cobb to house a women’s elementary school, the Grove Seminary. In the late nineteenth century it indeed became, as the text above claims, the original home of the University law school. The property was sold to the Savannah Diocese in 1881. When construction on the church that still stands today commenced in 1913, the former Grove school was moved back from the street, where it slowly decayed over the next half century, despite numerous plans to make use of it.

The picture below, taken from another section of Tangible Past, shows the old Grove school/ “Roman Chapel” as it stood behind the new church.

For a brief final note, here is a shot of Athens General Hospital in an earlier, simpler form. As with the former St. Joseph property, the past is ever present, even in ghostly form, as the final remnants of this version of the building were demolished in late 2020.

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Histories of Athens

Visitors to the Heritage Room, “regulars” or otherwise, have likely come across several general histories of Athens found in our book stacks, some of them worn by years of persistent use. A few others are newer, waiting shining on the shelf. Most of these general histories are well known to local history buffs and even may be immediately obvious to novices browsing the shelves. They include the following:

Antebellum Athens and Clarke County Georgia, by Ernest Hynds; published in 1974.

Annals of Athens, Georgia 1801-1901, by Augustus Hull; first published in 1906 and consisting mostly of short pieces the author wrote for the Southern Watchman newspaper.

Strolls About Athens During the Early Seventies by Sylvanus Morris; originally published in 1912 but consisting of articles written for the Athens Banner in the 1870s.

Athens: A Pictorial History, by James K. Reap, first published in 1982 with second edition and third editions following in 1985 and 2001, respectively.

Remembering Athens, by Susan Frances Barrow Tate; 1996, consisting of articles published in local publications.

Strolls Around Athens, by William Tate; 1975, originally published as a series in the weekly Athens Observer that same year; its title echoing the book noted above.

A Story Untold: Black Men and Women in Athens History by Michael Thurmond; first published in 1978, with second and third editions following in 2001 and 2019, respectively.

The newer books include:

Across the River: The People, Places, and Culture of East Athens by Maxine Easom and Patsy Arnold; published in 2019.

A Postcard History of Athens, Georgia, by Gary L. Doster; published in 2002.

Transition to an Industrial South: Athens, Georgia, 1830-1870 by Michael J. Gagnon; published in 2012 but originally completed as a dissertation in 1999.

A Portrait of Historic Athens & Clarke County, by Frances Taliaferro Thomas; originally published in 1992, updated in 2009.

The Tangible Past in Athens, Georgia, a multiple-author work published in 2014, with contributions from Charlotte Thomas Marshall, Hubert McAlexander, Milton Leathers, Mary Anne Martin Hodgson, and Patricia Irwin Cooper among others. Not to be missed is a section on “Vanished Prince Avenue” and a history of the Hill, the site of several historic homes, moved there to save them from demolition, off Jefferson Road.

Multi-author works like The Tangible Past prove to be especially important in local and genealogical history. An older book of this ilk of common use in the Heritage Room is the History of Athens and Clarke County published by H. J. Rowe in 1923, featuring contributions from J. W. Barnett, D. C. Barrow, Andrew M. Soule, E. S. Sell (offering a brief summary of the book he wrote about the Normal School—see below), Mildred Rutherford, T. L. Gannt, E. W. Carroll, Frank A. Holden, William A. Carlton, and the aforementioned Sylvanus Morris. In addition, there are short histories of several local churches, notes about the Georgian Hotel and two local banks, and no less than 55 profiles of prominent local residents.

There are many other books, less well known, that on the surface do not announce themselves to be histories of Athens. Some of these books have particular subject matter, but the subjects in question are important enough to the city’s history that the books bring forth information of value to more than those interested in that particular subject. A good example is Sketches of the Beusse and Evans Families by Jesse Beusse; this family history includes a wealth of information about the Beusse family that played several instrumental roles in Athens business and politics, especially the police and fire departments, for a period spanning more than six decades.

Al Hester, the journalism professor who in his later years became a prolific historian of Athens, writing books about the Reconstruction era and helping to document and preserve Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, also edited a volume of interviews done by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. Entitled Athens Memories: The WPA Federal Writers’ Project Interviews, among those whose interviews are included are quilter Harriet Powers, Omie Epps (the widow of Ben Epps), and local man-about-town and college football player George Shaw Crane.

Official histories comprise a similar category of books. Churches often publish histories of themselves, as do schools, large businesses, and philanthropic groups. A good example to be found in the Heritage Room is the History of the State Normal School, Athens, Georgia, as noted above written by E. S. Sell and published by the school in 1923.

Another kind of general history book is produced for promotional purposes; aimed at tourists, or those visiting on business, or perhaps those who have recently moved to the city. These books tend to be published by governmental authorities, or chambers of commerce and similar organizations. We may consider them to be too utilitarian to be of much value to historical research, but any secondary source no longer being used in its original function becomes a primary source, telling us something about the way people in the past thought and acted.

A good example of these obscure books is Athens, Ga. The Classic City — Tradition With Progress, published by the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce in the early 1960s (no exact date is provided). It offers numerous photographs accompanying a text written by none other than local historical and genealogical researcher Mary Bondurant Warren, whose publishing house Heritage Papers has been responsible for the Family Puzzlers newsletter and countless other resources. The text evokes the past but makes clear that a new Athens is emerging, one in accord with the social and economic changes underway in Cold War, consumerist America.

Books, pamphlets, maps, brochures, and other artifacts of local “boosterism” can be especially useful in supplying photographic evidence of the past. Two pages from this book have been scanned and are presented here. Facing northward from the University campus, the photograph on the first page shows the now-Bank of America building when it was C & S Bank, with its sizable signage on the roof. Framing the shot on the right is the true peculiarity of the Athens skyline for many years, the skyscraper-parking deck later transformed into an apartment building that’s still with us today.

The page below offers a bounty of information to a viewer already somewhat familiar with the areas pictured. In the aerial shot of downtown, we can see among other things the soon-to-be-demolished Samaritan building (on the same block as the Morton Theatre), part of the old Y. M. C. A. building (where the Holiday Inn now stands), and portions of the “Hot Corner” district that sadly stood in the way of the First Methodist Church.

In addition to limited shots of the Beechwood shopping center and the now-gone East Plaza Shopping Center, we also get an expansive view of the Alps Shopping Center, looking almost nothing like it does today. Having only recently replaced a drive-in movie theater that occupied the lot until the early 1960s, the shopping center looks brand new, with a bevy of automobiles carrying customers to the Miller’s Department Store. (Right-click on the images to open larger versions for easier viewing.)

A few other similar books will be highlighted in future posts here at Athens: In Time.

Don’t forget that, while Heritage Room copies of books do not circulate, many of these books are available in the library’s regular non-fiction section so that you can check them out to read at your leisure.

The Station Becomes a Community Center

As noted in this article’s companion, “A Station That Left the Tracks,” the former passenger depot of the old Southern Railway station near downtown Athens was renovated in the early 1970s and became a restaurant simply called the Station. It proved to be a popular spot for a few years but had closed by 1977. A similar restaurant, Station Masters, opened at the same spot in 1980 but did not last as long. By the mid-1980s, the building sat dormant. In 1988, it was nearly destroyed by a fire. Behind the scenes, however, a happier fate for the Victorian-era structure was taking shape. Due to prolonged, extensive work on the part of members of the Athens Community Council on Aging, Southern Railway ultimately transferred ownership of the building to the Council. It was then renovated and expanded the building to serve as the Council’s new headquarters.

The Council also hoped to attain the building next door, the former freight terminal. It had been renovated in tandem with the former passenger terminal by W. E. B. Enterprises. They rented the second building to T. K. Harty’s Saloon, the Frankenburg/ Guthrie art gallery, and retail establishments such as Iron Horse, the Crystal Cage, and the Gibson Girl. A full list of the businesses, provided in early promotional material for the Station complex, is shown below.

With the exception of Harty’s, which lasted roughly two decades, none of the businesses were left by the 1980s, though some of the empty spaces had been filled in by new establishments such as the Loblolly Frame Shop and the Paradi Hair Salon and, later in the decade, the Grit and the Flying Buffalo. With negotiations underway to transfer the building, it succumbed to two fires, in 1995 and 1998. This sad twist of fate has only made the Council’s renovation of what remained of the old passenger depot all the more significant.

Recently the Heritage Room received additional materials for one of our archival collections: the Athens Community Council on Aging’s History of the Station collection (MSS 051). The History of the Station is a booklet published by the Council in 1997. It includes interviews with Athens residents, whether they be passengers, employees, or merely locals who enjoyed watching the trains pass through town, describing their memories of the Southern station. The former Executive Director of the A. C. C. A., Kathryn Fowler, has provided the original recordings of the interviews so that they can be preserved. Some interviews did not get transcribed for inclusion in the book, meaning that there are now more materials available to those interested in the history of railroads in Georgia and Athens.

As Fowler has related to me, the process of procuring the former passenger terminal took up the second half of the 1980s. Rebuilding began in earnest in 1990. A planning document, submitted to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, details the renovation of the building and specifically how the renovation was historically appropriate. It confirms that the Council on Aging had begun trying to attain the building in 1985. At that point, Southern was planning on demolishing the building after it had been condemned as a fire hazard. The Council had for several years moved among different locations and had naturally grown eager to find a permanent home. In league with the city government, the group requested that Southern donate both the passenger and freight terminals, but the railroad company was reluctant to enter negotiations regarding the latter as long as there were tenants renting the space. Again, turn to our previous article, “A Station That Left the Tracks,” for brief notes about the businesses still making use of the freight-terminal building in the 1980s, including Harty’s and the nightclubs that briefly replaced it and the original version of the Grit. As a result, in August, 1987, Southern Railway officially transferred ownership of only the former passenger depot.

The following photographs from Fowler’s personal collection show the station as it appeared in the fall of 1987. One can see in some of these pictures a two-story metal structure attached to the passenger depot’s northern end. This structure, built atop a concrete pad, had been added in the 1950s after the train station had closed and the building was rented for use as a warehouse facility. What remained of a kitchen added in 1972 for the Station restaurant is likely to be, at least in part, the structure with a wooden exterior seen in the first image. The former freight terminal is seen in the first and second images, while in the second and third images one gets a glimpse of the College and Hoyt housing project atop a hill. A stairway up this hill allowed travelers to traverse from the Southern station to the Seaboard Air Line station on College Avenue (this building is still a depot for the freight lines that run through Athens). The stairway would have been in little use after 1951, however, when passenger service on the Southern ceased.

An article in the Athens Daily News/ Athens Banner-Herald written by local reporter Conoly Hester announced the changes taking place.

As noted in our first article on “the Station,” a fire broke out in the passenger-terminal building in 1988, nearly up-ending the Council’s plans. The metal structure noted above, where the fire started, was lost, as was a portion of the building at its northern end; however, that portion was, like the metal warehouse, an addition. The original structure, dating from the first decade of the twentieth century, was saved from destruction even as it did suffer significant damage.

The 1988 fire received front-page coverage from the local newspapers, as seen below. Both of these clippings are available to us here in full color (instead of microfilm black-and-white) because they were kept by Fowler in a scrapbook documenting the renovation process.

Despite this calamity, the Council quickly cleaned up the mess, removing the damaged additions to the building. The following article from the September-October 1988 issue of Accent, the Council’s newsletter, provides details. Notice that it was at this point that the old stairs were discovered.

As one can see in the following photograph, when construction work commenced in June, 1990, the building was in rough shape, the effects of the fire still readily apparent.

This next photograph documents the June, 1990, groundbreaking ceremony. The former freight-terminal building provides the backdrop, with a portion of the T. K. Harty’s sign visible.

The Accent article shown below goes into detail about the ceremony. William “Billy” Hudson, noted in the article, was the President of the Council and, as Fowler has explained to me, the first person to direct her attention the old railroad station as a possible new headquarters. A veteran of the Second World War, he worked for many years as the head of Campus Planning and Development at the University of Georgia. He would continue to play a vital role in the expansion and renovations of the building in the early 1990s.

As for the former freight terminal… by the time of the 1995 fire, it was no longer in use. The nightclubs that had replaced T. K. Harty’s had closed, and the Grit had moved to its current Prince Avenue home. Outside the limelight, when the 1998 fire struck in early May, the building received little attention. These two brief notes appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald, published May 4 and May 6, respectively.

For the Athens Community Council on Aging, the 1998 fire was devastating. The former passenger depot was at this point up and running as the Council’s new headquarters, but the Council still hoped to buy the former freight terminal. With the building’s former tenants all gone, negotiations were finally underway for the Council to purchase the building from Southern Railway. The 1995 fire had not damaged the building to such an extent that it could not be saved. The 1998 fire, however, did. The fire was such an intense blaze that the firefighters had to focus on stopping it from spreading. As Fowler explains, “This second fire decimated the building, destroying all wood materials throughout, melting the metal freight doors, and scorching the mortar so that the brick walls had no significant support.” Though the property was ultimately transferred to the Council, the railway had to tear down the building, allowing the Council to use whatever bricks and other materials were salvageable.

In recent years, the Council’s involvement in the Athens area has only grown stronger, and the organization’s commitment to the local community has been shown in its continued work at the site of the former station. More recently, a new building, housing the Bentley Adult Day Health Center, has been added. The Council on Aging has also partnered with the Athens-Clarke County government in developing the Pulaski Heights Trail, a portion of the city-county’s larger Greenway project. Eventually the trail will connect to paths running along the North Oconee River.

—Justin J. Kau, November 2020