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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