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

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