Dogged Tenacity and Urban Renewal: The History of Historic Columbus (1960 - 1980)
In May, we are celebrating Preservation Month and HCF's 55th Anniversary! The four Thursday Spotlights will feature the people and projects that have made Historic Columbus the organization that it is today. This spotlight was taken from Historic Columbus Foundation: Champion of Columbus' Historic Resources (1966-2006) by Dr. John S. Lupold.
The founders of the Historic Columbus began saving buildings and promoting local history several years before they created a formal preservation organization. During the early 1960s, volunteers tackled various historical projects.
From 1960 to 1962, volunteers raised the Confederate gunboats (the CSS Jackson and the CSS Chattahoochee) from the Chattahoochee River. Businessman James W. Woodruff, Jr. (Jim) and Joseph B. Mahan, Jr. of The Columbus Museum spearheaded this unprecedented underwater rescue, and they continued to lead local preservation efforts in Columbus. Port Columbus, the Civil War Naval Museum which opened the doors to an expanded facility at a new location on Victory Drive in 2000, stands as a monument to Jim Woodruff’s preservation vision, love of history, and dogged tenacity.
As part of the “Stay and See Georgia” program in 1963, Edward W. Neal, F. Clason Kyle, Mary Margaret Byrne, Janice P. Biggers, and William C. Buck gave a four-and-a half hour, multi-bus tour of the significant sites in the city and county. The next year, Columbus hosted the first statewide preservation conference. Architect Ed Neal chaired the event with support from the West Georgia chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
Also in 1963, Clason gave two hundred speeches to civic groups, churches, garden clubs, or any other place that a group of willing listeners gathered. He used slides to preach the virtues of local architecture and to evangelize about saving the Springer Opera House.
By the 1960s, the Springer faced the wrecking ball. A group of young idealistic theater-buffs, oblivious to the near impossibility of their mission, began raising money and resuscitated the grand old lady. In 1965, they opened a partially restored theater that lacked a proper climate control system.
Most rational, bottom-line business types would have dismissed the idea of restoring the Springer as ridiculous. It was too large and would consume too much money, but the efforts continued over the years and produced a magnificent theater, thanks in large part to Miss Emily Woodruff. The scope of the Springer project set an important precedent for preservation in Columbus: think big, because anything is possible.
In the early 1960s, Janice Persons Biggers (pictured to the right) served as Junior League project finding chairman. Under her chairmanship, League volunteers found projects involving the city’s beautification and preservation. Sarah T. Butler (Weezie) was Janice’s co-instigator in every way in the early days of the preservation movement. In January 1966, the League provided $5,000 for a historic architecture survey. Coordinated by Joan Davidson Mize Holder, volunteers assembled information about houses that the local AIA chapter initially assessed. Then, Carl Feiss, a nationally recognized architectural historian, identified the county’s most historic structures.
Pictured Above: Joan Davidson Mize Holder, Sara B. Bickerstaff, and Mary Boyd Trussell Pictured Below: (slide 1) Betsy B. Ramsay, Eleanor Woolfolk, and Ed Neal; (slide 2) Sarah T. Butler, Jack Bell, and Ethel I. Woodruff
Even before the survey began, the founding coterie of HCF stalwarts were working on its charter and by-laws led by attorney J. Quentin Davidson, as well as C. Dexter Jordan, Sr., who served as the group’s first president and first board chairman. Formally launched in June of 1966, the nascent HCF became a co-sponsor of the architectural survey. The recommendations that emerged from the survey became the organization’s initial agenda. In 1968, Emily Woodruff offered to donate the Rankin House to the Junior League, but its by-laws prevented it from accepting the gift. Instead, HCF received the Rankin House for the League and oversaw its restoration with Sara B. Bickerstaff and the Columbus Town Committee of the National Society of the Colonial Dames in America ensuring that it was properly refurbished. The Dames continue their support and beautification of the house today.
The League also contributed $24,000 to establish HCF’s Revolving-Redevelopment Fund which served to purchase threatened structures until a sympathetic owner could be found. The first Columbus house purchased through the fund was “The Folly,” a rare double octagon structure at 527 First Avenue (slide 1) was sold to Kyle in 1969. In payment, he deeded the Walker-Peters-Langdon House at 716 Broadway (slide 2) to HCF. Considered the oldest house in Columbus, the Walker-Peters-Langdon House became HCF’s headquarters.
From the beginning an expansive agenda and a wide sphere of influence was envisioned for HCF. Janice never saw herself dressed in a hoop skirt and bonnet entertaining visitors in a house museum, even though she has told the Columbus story to thousands. Preservation was to be much broader than house museums. Before becoming HCF’s director, Janice was interested in city planning and had considered pursuing a master’s degree in that field. She consulted with both Weezie Butler and Jim Woodruff on a regular basis. Their constant guidance and support helped to create the broad vision which has always been a hallmark of the Historic Columbus.
Initially, HCF had several objectives: act on Feiss’ recommendations, create a downtown Historic District, and develop HCF’s house museums at the northeast corner of Broadway and Seventh Street. By 1973, twenty-three Columbus properties had been individually listed, in addition to the Columbus Historic District. In 1974, the District’s most unique structure, “The Folly,” received the most prestigious listing—National Historic Landmark status. In 1978, Kyle’s first love, the Springer, and the non-contiguous Industrial Riverfront District were also declared National Historic Landmarks.
HCF leaders immediately began transforming this declining neighborhood into the city’s showplace. The Housing Authority of Columbus also became an important ally in revitalization and spent money to improve the appearance of the District. It landscaped the Broadway median, built nine small pocket parks, and installed signs showing the original street names. From 1971 until 1986, the Housing Authority, under direction of Brown Nicholson, spent over $9 million in federal funds in the Columbus Historic District.
(Note from Elizabeth Walden: Without preservation and the early, strong leadership of Historic Columbus, it became clear in looking through news articles of 1971 – 1975 that the original city’s future would have been one of decimation, not revitalization. During my recent delve into HCF’s early years, I found this map (pictured above) that was published in the Ledger-Enquirer in 1971. In addition to the new Government Center complex, the city was looking into a new civic center downtown. The map shows the preferred site for the new civic center was to cover from 9th Street to 7th Street and from Broadway to Third Avenue. The two other spots of significant note are the proposed site for a new school building that would close Third Avenue and a new high rise on Front Avenue. These discussions, battles, and negotiations went on until 1975 when these proposals were stopped and alternatives were accepted. Thanks to the vision and strength of people like Weezie Butler, Janice Biggers, Clason Kyle, Ed Neal, Brown Nicholson, Harry Kamensky, Rozier Dedwylder, Dexter Jordan, Sr., Joan Mize Holder, Betty Corn, Jim, Emily, and Barnett Woodruff, and many others – this map would have been our present reality.)
Early HDPS Board Members Standing - Sonny Hamlett, Phil Strickland, and Lucius Morton Sitting - Sally Quillian Gates and Joan Swift Redmond
By the mid-1970s, the District had attracted homeowners. In November 1975, thirty District residents met at the Folly to discuss the possibility of a neighborhood society. The Historic District Preservation Society formalized an existing sense of cohesion among homeowners who shared the woes and pleasures of rehabbing old houses. Private individuals and business interests also contributed several house museums on the northeast corner of 7th Street and Broadway in what would become HCF’s Sarah Turner Butler Heritage Corner. In 1966, the Friends of Coca-Cola and the Coca-Cola Company provided the resources to purchase and move the John Pemberton House from 1017 Third Avenue to 11 Seventh Street. In 1977, Pemberton’s country house was moved to 712 Broadway by Wilfred E. Grose, Jr. and is now being adaptively used as a business office. D. Abbott Turner, a member of the Coca-Cola Company Board of Directors, oversaw these projects and insured that HCF acquired these houses. His daughters, Betty Corn and Weezie Butler, were also of vital support to these projects and the organization through the years. Mrs. Butler would also be instrumental in securing the Italianate townhouse at 700 Broadway for Historic Columbus’ new headquarters in 1977.
The Woodruff family also donated several properties in the 1400 block of Second Avenue. In 1975, Ethel Illges (Mrs. James W.) Woodruff, Sr. donated the magnificent Illges House. Other family members then donated two other homes on the block: the Henry L. Woodruff family home at 1420 and the birthplace of the Coca-Cola magnate Robert Winship Woodruff at 1414. Preservation of the massive Victorian Garrett-Bullock house at 1402 provided a splendid anchor at the corner of Second Avenue and Fourteenth Street and enhanced HCF’s efforts to protect the integrity of the High Uptown area.
Historic Columbus also began working with African American leaders in the late 1970s to begin the preservation of and National Register listing for the William H. Spencer House. Mr. Spencer was Columbus’ first Superintendent of Colored Schools and his home was located on Fourth Avenue (now Veterans Parkway) and 8th Street in the Columbus Historic District. Charlotte Frazier and Rep. Calvin Smyre were instrumental in the saving of Mr. Spencer’s home, as well as being leaders in the preservation of African American history. They would also continue to work with Historic Columbus to save other sites through the years - such as the Liberty Theatre, the Ma Rainey House, and the Alma Thomas House (there will be more to come on these structures!).
The first years of the preservation movement and the organization were action packed. I sincerely doubt Janice or the early members of the HCF Board of Directors were ever bored - stressed, yes - bored, never. Janice brought the vision, leadership, and stability to Historic Columbus. She positioned HCF to have a seat at the table when city planning efforts were being considered, and she established this organization as a leader in the preservation movement in Georgia. She and others would also take it all to the next level as they moved Historic Columbus beyond the boundaries of the original city. Next week, we will highlight Historic Columbus' work in the 1980s through the early 1990s - the development of the Trade Center and Uptown Columbus, Heritage Corner and heritage tourism, the Sarah Turner Butler Preservation Award, Janice Biggers' retirement, HCF's Second Executive Director Patricia Jackson Howard, and the Our Town book series. 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