Beyond the Original City: The History of Historic Columbus (1980 - 1993)
In May, we are celebrating Preservation Month and HCF's 55th Anniversary! If you're not a member and you want to be a part of the work we do, please consider joining us! There is a link to join at the bottom of the email. The four Thursday Spotlights this month feature the people and projects that have made Historic Columbus the organization it is today. This spotlight was taken from Historic Columbus Foundation: Champion of Columbus' Historic Resources (1966-2006) by Dr. John S. Lupold and "Green Spots in the Heart of Town: Planning and Contesting the Nation's Widest Streets in Georgia's Fall Line Cities" by J. Mark Souther for the Georgia Historical Quarterly.
Columbus was one of the first cities in Georgia to embrace downtown renewal. On a new commission from the recently formed Downtown Improvement Association, the planner George W. Simons, Jr. prepared a new study in 1958. One of his recommendations was the incremental redevelopment of Broadway between Ninth and Twelfth Streets into a pedestrian mall. The following year, the Metropolitan Planning Commission expressed hope that such a project could produce a “county fair” atmosphere for downtown. With downtown property values declining, in 1961, the city commission lent support to fuller investigation of a mall. In the summer of 1962, Knoxville Downtown Association representatives came to Columbus on invitation to discuss how the eastern Tennessee city had created the Market Square pedestrian mall, one with continuous concrete canopies between stores. Despite the seeming momentum, unexpectedly high costs led the city to shelve plans for sidewalk canopies in 1963. Meanwhile, the Fountain City allowed its Broadway fountains to deteriorate.
One last attempt to fashion a pedestrian mall emerged in 1975 when business leaders tapped the Washington, D.C. architect Arthur Cotton Moore to devise a revitalization plan for downtown Columbus. Moore liked the old Columbus Iron Works and other industrial buildings along the river and envisioned using them in new ways and linking them with the Broadway shopping district. (One of Moore's drawings of a re-imagined Broadway and 10th Street with a canal is to the left and an section of a proposed streetscape is pictured below.)
As part of a $50,000 redevelopment plan, inspired by San Antonio’s Paseo del Rio, he imagined a canal on the western side of Broadway, offices above shops in a new row of buildings in the existing medians, and a pedestrian mall on the eastern side of the street. Monroe intoned that only something dramatic could jar downtown from its lethargy. Although his concept failed as a result of local leaders’ incredulousness at its extravagance, Moore’s work did shape downtown revitalization.
As the focus of preservation expanded beyond the District, HCF leaders, because of their participation in national organizations and their travel, were able to suggest trend-setting renovations for local commercial and industrial buildings. Local businessman Harry Kamensky played an important role. After rehabbing a couple of houses in the District, he became interested in broader issues. He was instrumental in establishing the Columbus Action Committee that looked at downtown issues and acted as a forerunner to Uptown, Inc. He also traveled to look at convention centers in other cities. Several alternatives had been discussed in the mid-1970s – one being in the middle of the newly created Columbus Historic District and would completely level six blocks of houses. HCF advocated the idea of using the vacant Columbus Iron Works complex.
Councilwoman Edna Kendrick, together with Harry Kamensky, headed a convention center planning committee. They also favored using the Iron Works, and at the urging of HCF, took themselves and other political leaders on a trip to view rehabilitations in Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and San Francisco. What they learned through their travels enabled them to convince city officials to go with the preservation option. The result, after intensive lobbying by HCF and a major public investment, was the dramatically re-forged Columbus Iron Works Convention and Trade Center which opened in 1979 and became the winner of one of the National Trust’s most prestigious preservation awards. Across the street, the Empire Mill, formerly a steam-powered gristmill, became part of a hotel built to support the convention center.
Historic Columbus also encouraged the 1983 creation of Uptown Columbus, a non-profit organization that facilitates and coordinates economic revitalization initiatives primarily in the central business district. Its first director, architect Rozier Dedwylder, was a close ally and a long-time HCF board member. Dedwylder and Biggers shared an interest in city planning. In the early 1980s, they convinced Howard Gudell, executive director of Office of Economic Development, to allow them to serve as ex-officio members on his board, where they freely offered their suggestions about most issues.
Their interest and efforts influenced the subsequent appointments of HCF members to assigned permanent seats on such boards. This practice marked the beginning of HCF’s advocacy efforts which have become increasingly vital to the fulfillment of its mission.
HCF attempted to improve and refurbish the commercial area north of the Columbus Historic District, but some of the early efforts there were unsuccessful. Janice was obsessed with reducing the visual impact of gaudy, oversized signs. She thinks this prejudice might have come from her early childhood in New York where the parkways had no commercial advertising. On the HCF trip to New England, the group noted the absence of overhanging signs in downtown Amherst. In Columbus, Biggers, working with Cora W. Riley, tried to create a downtown sign ordinance and was publicly booed by the sign lobby. But she persevered, and City Manager Frank Lambert eventually convinced council to outlaw overhanging signs on Broadway.
Pictured L - R: Weezie Butler, Ed Sprouse, and Mary Bradley
In 1984, Weezie Butler stepped down as Historic Columbus’ Chairman of the Board. Janice and the Board created a new award in Mrs. Butler’s name that would stand as the highest recognition Historic Columbus would bestow at its Annual Meeting, the Sarah Turner Butler Heritage Award. She then served as Chairman Emeritus until her passing. J. Edward Sprouse, a local attorney and long-time Historic Columbus volunteer, Board member, and Past HCF President, was asked to serve as Mrs. Butler’s successor. Ed served in this position for more than 20 years and became an irreplaceable advisor to each of the five Historic Columbus Executive Directors. Historic Columbus is still fortunate to have Ed as a Director Emeritus today.
For 23 years Janice Biggers was the voice and image of Historic Columbus. Her energy, vision, and personality molded HCF into what it is today. As one HCF staff member remembered, “She would fly in, give us our tasks, and fly out again.” She was too busy going to meetings in Columbus, Atlanta, Washington, etc., or raising money, planning new projects, and networking before that term became part of our modern lexicon. She quickly established herself and HCF as a permanent player in issues dealing with the built environment and community beautification. Her leadership style won respect and cooperation from local leaders and businessmen. Her successors have built on that foundation and maintained the influence of HCF as they broadened the scope of its mission.
In 1989, Janice announced her retirement. The HCF Board selected Patricia Jackson Howard (Patti) to succeed her. Howard’s family roots extended back to the first generation of Columbus, and she was keenly aware and proud of her family history and local history in general. She and her husband Stephen preserved a historic house on Steam Mill Road. She had worked as a volunteer for the Junior League and for Historic Columbus while teaching at Reese Road Elementary School for ten years. Over time, her attachment to the Foundation grew, as she served on its executive board and chaired the Salisbury Fair. Stephen also generously contributed his time to any HCF project. Given Patti's background as a teacher, she wanted to increase the educational role of HCF and to promote Heritage Corner as a component in regional heritage tourism. In the l970s, the best way to be introduced to Columbus history was to join an HCF heritage bus tour. On such a tour, one explored the Historic District, wandered into the Springer Opera House, and rode all over the county to see the antebellum mansions. The tours gave visitors a wonderful introduction to the city, but the rising cost of bus rentals doomed these tours.
Patti Howard and Kent Butler
HCF has also partnered to develop other tours aimed at teaching Columbus history. Working with Judith Grant-Shabazz and the Mayor’s Commission on Women and Minorities, HCF helped to create the Black Heritage Trail that identified twenty-six local sites and structures associated with the history of African Americans. In the process, this tour introduced prominent black leaders and cultural figures, such as Ma Rainey and Alma Thomas as well as black religious and civic institutions.
Black America Series: Columbus, Georgia by Judith Grant and
brochures for the Black Heritage Trail
From its earliest days, staff and volunteers guided classes of school children through the growing number of HCF houses at the corner of Broadway and Seventh. In 1988, the naming of Heritage Corner coincided with the beginning of a formal heritage education program for the schools. Guides used the houses for illustrating a range of historical periods. Heritage Corner included the Log Cabin (c.1800), the Walker-Peters-Langdon House (c.1828), the Dr. John S. Pemberton House and Apothecary (c.1840), and 700 Broadway (c.1870). The tour would span seven decades of Columbus history.
HCF Chairman of the Board Ed Sprouse, HCF Treasurer Jimmy Yancey, Mayor Jim Jernigan, and HCF President Mary Bradley
HCF also launched a major initiative to teach local history in elementary and middle school classrooms. In 1988, in cooperation with the Junior League, HCF assembled packets of material focusing on Columbus for teachers. Junior League volunteers went into classes and taught while HCF gave orientation sessions for teachers. Because of her background in the classroom and her desire to help teachers integrate more Columbus history into their lessons, Patti Howard increased the involvement of HCF in heritage education. In 1991, because of Howard’s leadership and HCF’s pioneer efforts in this area, the Georgia Trust selected HCF and the Muscogee County School District to pilot its Marguerite N. Williams Heritage Education Program. It funded the development and implementation of a curriculum and training program that would then be shared with other preservation groups. This program sponsored a series of creative teacher training programs organized by William Gantt in cooperation with the Columbus Museum that combined classroom work with field trips and meals at landmark local restaurants.
Our Town Color Book, Images by Clason Kyle, and
Our Town: An Introduction to the History of Columbus, Georgia by Roger Harris
The central element in HCF’s heritage education program became a series of books that presented local history and architecture for appropriate grade levels. A donation from the family of Mary White Coppage enabled HCF to produce A Historic Tour of Our Town, Columbus, Georgia (1993), a coloring book that presented similar material for third graders. All eighth graders received Roger Harris’s creative and informative Our Town: An Introduction to the History of Columbus, Georgia (1992). In addition, county-wide seminars for teachers introduced them to Our Town materials, and copies of Clason Kyle’s book on Columbus, Images, were provided to each media center.
Patti’s objectives also included National Register recognition for more neighborhoods and expanding HCF’s membership base into more diverse constituencies. Unfortunately, her tragic illness and early death deprived HCF and the community of a significant civic leader. As a memorial to her, HCF began awarding in 1994 the annual Patricia Jackson Howard Scholarship to a high school senior in the Muscogee County schools. This year, the 28th Patricia Jackson Howard scholarship of $4,000 was awarded to a very deserving student (they will be announced Friday!). Over a total of $40,000 has been awarded in Patti's name.
By the early 1990s, HCF was a major player in Columbus and deeply involved in any issue relating to history, architecture, planning, beautification, community development, and zoning especially in the downtown area. In some cases, the Foundation initiated major projects; in other cases, the organizations responded to changes that threatened the historic fabric. Next week, we will highlight Historic Columbus' work from 1993 - 2005 and the leadership of Virginia T. Peebles. Major projects included the 7th Street Redevelopment Project, two house moves, the new TSYS campus, the Columbus Challenge, new historic districts, the restorations of the Ma Rainey House and Alma Thomas House, and Midtown. If you aren't already a member, we hope you will join us! I also want to encourage you to follow Historic Columbus on Facebook and Instagram for more posts on our community's history. Thank you all for your continued support of Historic Columbus! Elizabeth B. Walden Executive Director