By John Ruch
A black segregation-era school in southwest Atlanta and the site of a major English Avenue church will be considered for official city landmark status next week.
The Atlanta Urban Design Commission’s (UDC) April 27 agenda includes the landmark of the former St. Mark AME Church, a roofless semi-ruin reborn as a public space, and the school of Philadelphia, founded in the 1880s by black families. The landmark would give the UDC oversight of any attempted demolition or alteration, as well as spotlighting preservation efforts.
The church at 491 James P. Brawley Drive was built in 1920 for a white congregation and purchased in 1948 by St. Mark. It has been vacant since 1976 and has been the subject of restoration efforts since 1995. Today it consists essentially of the four granite walls still standing, with its interior used as a community space.
Pastor Winston Taylor, owner of the St. Mark property, has partnered with the nonprofit Atlanta Preservation Center (APC) and community groups on preservation and reuse projects that are always looking for funding. Achievements to date include preservation in the Westside Land Use Master Plan, which calls for redevelopment of the area without displacing legacy residents. APC brought in architecture students from Georgia Tech to work on a reuse plan dubbed “The Preserve at St. Mark,” which involves building a glass roof over the ruins.
“I’m restoring a public space,” not just a building, Taylor said in a phone interview. He said just saving the structure for now is not the goal; rebuild the place as a neighborhood center and spark broader, community-driven redevelopment. He said he hopes staking will speed up funding, especially with various officials gathered for the April 27 meeting.
APC executive director David Yoakley Mitchell said he hopes the city moves forward with staking, essentially putting an official stamp of approval on the community’s years of teamwork. He agrees that the project could be the spark for community-driven preservation and redevelopment. “Because if you love preservation, that means you love something more than yourself, and that’s a good start,” he said.
Meanwhile, the city itself is seeking historic designation for the school located at 1158 Philadelphia Street, just off Cascade Road. Dating back to the 1930s, the property sits next to the Philadelphia Baptist Church, whose congregants established the school.
A full city report is not yet complete, but the Department of Town Planning says the school is architecturally and culturally significant. Founded in 1889 and operating until 1956, it was a legacy of the era of racial segregation, when black parents cooperated to create quality schools for their children. “The Philadelphia school was established to serve African-American students in Cascade Heights because they were prohibited from attending schools with white children,” according to the city.
Parents of students included Johnny Fears and Leonard C. Jackson, who were among plaintiffs in a 1958 lawsuit against Atlanta Public Schools seeking to impose desegregation. The city says Fears and Jackson have “exceptionally high significance” in Atlanta history.
The existing building remains largely unchanged since it was built as the school’s last version in the 1930s, the City said.
The UDC meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. at City Hall and comments can be sent to [email protected] For more details, see the UDC website.