Moving Houses and Revitalizing Neighborhoods: The History of Historic Columbus (1993 - 2005)
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! 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 This Place Matters: Columbus, Georgia by Virginia T. Peebles and Elizabeth B. Walden.
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 or grid.
Virginia Tucker Peebles assumed the role of acting executive director in the fall of 1992, which became permanent in February of 1993. Her initial HCF involvement began, of course, as a volunteer. After working two years for Delta, she began raising her family, but remained an incurable volunteer. Like Janice, she served as the Junior League’s Project Finding Chair and headed the Junior League committee for the Rankin House. When her three-year-old daughter, Renée, told someone that she lived at the Rankin House, Virginia did question her level of civic service. Even so, for HCF she conducted heritage tours and undertook numerous tasks before joining Janice Biggers’ staff for three years in the early 1980s. In 1989, she accepted a full-time staff position again in order to help Patti Howard with membership, and then she moved into the director’s position.
Virginia officially began her role as executive director in 1993, and right off the bat, there were big efforts underway. The Seventh Street Redevelopment Project was a restoration and revitalization project in the heart of the original city Historic District. Properties and vacant lots on Second and Third Avenues adjacent to Seventh Street were also involved. The project had multiple purposes: several historically significant structures from the Uptown area that were under demolition notice were saved and moved onto vacant lots in the project area; other structures in this neglected, problem area were renovated or revitalized. These steps resulted in a neighborhood of owner-occupied housing that became a model preservation effort in the original city that instilled community pride and encouraged tourism. Dr. Garry Pound led this drive to save these endangered properties and revitalize the area. This project was a great public and private partnership with Historic Columbus and the Historic District Preservation Society leading the charge. The cooperation of the following groups made it possible: Housing Authority of Columbus, the Columbus Consolidated Government, the Department of Community and Economic Development, the Department of Engineering, the Columbus Police Department, the Columbus Fire Department, Columbus Water Works, Uptown Columbus, Georgia Power, Southern Bell, TCI Cablevision, First Baptist Church, St. Luke United Methodist Church, and the Bradley-Turner Foundation. The Seventh Street Redevelopment Project documented expenditures were over $850,000 and that does not include numerous private investments in homes in the area.
Over $230,000 was required for the moving of the four houses in the 1993 Parade of Homes. Historic Columbus pledged $100,000 of its General Funds to facilitate the relocation and stabilization of these properties. In addition, proceeds from the successful 1993 Riverfest Weekend and grant funds from The Bradley-Turner Foundation were utilized.
First Baptist Church donated the Rothschild House to Mamie and Garry Pound, who restored the house for their home and later the Rothschild-Pound Bed and Breakfast. St. Luke United Methodist Church donated 307 and 311 11th Street and 1112 Third Avenue to Historic Columbus, as well as funds for the house moves. The Rothschild families were also generous donors. On October 16, 1993, HCF executed the 1993 relocation of four houses into the Seventh Street Redevelopment Area, specifically to 644 & 645 Second Avenue, and 201 & 215 Seventh Street. One day, four houses rolled down Third Avenue in what was dubbed the “Parade of Homes.” That sounds simple, but preparations consumed a year.
Included in the slide show: 215 7th Street, 201 7th street,
645 2nd Avenue, and 644 2nd Avenue
The next major challenge for Historic Columbus came in 1996 when TSYS announced its plan to make 53 acres, including the former Muscogee Mills and City Mills, two components of a National Historic Riverfront Industrial Landmark District, into its new campus. This property would become the site for newly designed and constructed headquarters for the credit card processing corporation. Historic Columbus had two options: join the outcry against the company by national and state preservationists or attempt to mitigate the project’s impact on the Columbus Historic Riverfront Industrial District. Virginia Peebles led HCF through the second option. The compromise would include removing City Mills from the impacted area, saving the Mott House, creating a riverside historic park from the old Carnegie Library’s architectural elements, and building a brick-parking garage that replicated the look of the old mills. It created a visual barrier between the new offices and the Broadway streetscape.
Historic Columbus’ initiative also saved four significant houses. Tom Gates moved the Greek Revival McGehee-Woodall-Nilan House one block south on 2nd Avenue. In addition, three other high style structures, including a brick two-story, were moved in another “Parade of Homes” on March 21, 1998, as they rolled from the TSYS project area to the 600 block of Front Avenue. HCF was able to save some of the historic fabric while an expanded TSYS operation remained in Columbus, a crucial facet of the city’s economy.
During 1997 and 1998, Historic Columbus was also deeply involved in the Columbus Challenge. The Bradley-Turner Foundation donated $25 million with the caveat that Columbusites must match its challenge. It worked. The campaign raised $57 million with the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts being the centerpiece, but it also affected all the arts-related organizations, including those dedicated to history. The campaign created the Community Projects Foundation that determined the level of funding for participating organizations. HCF received $1 million, and its portion went into its endowment and Revolving-Redevelopment Fund to save more houses. During 2000 and 2001, the Foundation’s attention turned to another part of town as Peebles led HCF’s fight to extend the protection of historic designation to Wynnton/Weracoba and other MidTown neighborhoods. Since 1969, the number of historic districts within the city had increased gradually. In 1983, one of the city’s first planned suburbs, Waverly Terrace, gained National Register certification because of the efforts of Presley Tutherow, a neighborhood resident. In 1986, HCF had designated "High Uptown" as a local district and listed it on the National Register in 2004. In 1994, Weracoba-St. Elmo became a National Register Historic District thanks to the work of Richard Coss, Dr. John Luplold, and the Friends of Weracoba.
In the late 1990s, HCF moved to recognize the significance of the other neighborhoods within MidTown. HCF board member John M. Sheftall actively encouraged and guided the process. HCF underwrote the cost of nominating three districts—Wynnton Village, Peacock Woods-Dimon Circle, and Wildwood Circle-Hillcrest—which were coauthored by Elizabeth K. Barker. A native of the Columbus Historic District, Barker grew up next to Heritage Corner, and the HCF staff took a keen interest in her future. Given her surroundings, Barker had little choice except to become a preservation planner. She worked for a year for HCF and then after receiving her master’s degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Georgia, permanently joined the staff in 1999. The residents of the Overlook and Dinglewood neighborhoods organized the Overlook Community Preservation Association, in part because of the threatened widening of Buena Vista Road. They then hired Tracey Dean to prepare National Register nominations for both Overlook and Dinglewood. She also contributed to the Peacock Woods-Dimon Circle nomination.
HCF staff also spent considerable time helping to organize the MidTown Project, an outgrowth of the successful historic districts. Transportation issues impinging on the neighborhoods led to the creation of a Historic Wynnton Council with a representative from each historic district. The council joined with HCF to launch the Wynnton Initiative that evolved into the MidTown Project. The boundaries of what was to be called Midtown run 10th Ave east to I-185 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. north to Talbotton/Warm Springs Rd.
Once again, HCF remained on the cutting edge of the newest trends within the preservation movement. Local residents—Edward C. Burdeshaw, Teresa P. Tomlinson, John M. Sheftall, and Anne R. King—drove the process while Elizabeth Barker added professional expertise and HCF connected the group with the Georgia and National Trusts. HCF provided $10,000 as seed money and hosted the process that hired Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh & Associates to conduct the initial revitalization plan.
As the MidTown districts were receiving national recognition, Historic Columbus with the leadership of Charlotte Frazier, created the locally designed Liberty Heritage District that encompassed the African American historic resources in the southeast quadrant of the original city, east of Veterans Parkway and south of Eleventh Street. In the 1980s, Joe Mahan, as preservation planner for the Lower Chattahoochee Area Planning & Development Commission, tried to create a National Register district in the area known as “Sixth and Eighth,” the local name for the city’s major black commercial area. In 1985, Mahan conducted a survey of properties associated with African Americans in the Sixth and Eighth area and drafted a district nomination, but the state preservation office rejected his proposal, saying the area lacked a sufficient concentration of historic fabric. Unfortunately, even more of the significant fabric in this area disappeared between 1985 and 2001.
The Liberty Heritage District protects the remaining buildings with the Liberty Theater, 813 8th Avenue, and the Ma Rainey House, 805 5th Avenue, being centerpieces along with several historic church buildings located within the district. HCF also played a role with numerous partners in planning and financing the preservation of both the Liberty Theater and the Ma Rainey House.
In 2001, Historic Columbus also participated in the restoration of the Alma Thomas house before and after a fire occurred during the rehabilitation work. HCF’s investment totaled $20,000 in rehabilitation assistance. The Alma Thomas House was listed on the National Register in 2010. The house was built c.1889 by Amelia Cantey and John Harris Thomas. They were a locally prominent, upper-middle class, African American couple. The house was built in an exclusively white neighborhood, Rose Hill. Prominent African American artist Alma Thomas was born in the house in 1891 and lived there until 1907.
While Historic Columbus and its leadership under Virginia broadened its scope to the entire city, they had not forgotten the original "children" — the Columbus Historic District and the upscale houses in the High Uptown District. In 2001, HCF funded a planning charrette for the Columbus Historic District that was conducted by the University of Georgia’s School of Environment Design. HCF would also move its headquarters to the Rankin House in 2003, and the Junior League's offices moved into 700 Broadway.
Historic Columbus’ Façade Loan Program was established in 1997 by the Board of Directors and was championed for many years by Director Emeritus Brown Nicholson. Since 1997, we have loaned in total over $1.5 million dollars to over 240 property owners to make improvements and investments in their historic properties.
These loans can help paint a house, install a new roof, repair windows, stabilize a foundation, or provide a complete restoration and give new life back to a property in danger of demolition. This is one of HCF's main tools making a difference for families in older homes.
A few of the very familiar faces at Historic Columbus during the 1990s - Lois Miller, Bettye Spence, and Barbara Blizzard
While the HCF staff and volunteers devoted considerable time to preservation issues, they regularly addressed a range of other activities. Viewing these endeavors in a topical fashion illustrates the wide scope of HCF’s mission and its impact within Columbus. Major efforts include fundraising events, heritage education, and tourism, as well as community planning and development. Virginia and Clason Kyle would also spend many hours creating four Staffordshire plates to highlight many of the historic homes significant to our community. Most of these initiatives include collaboration with other organizations, a consistent hallmark of HCF actions. Virginia was also fortunate to have working with her during her tenure seven incredible HCF presidents (Jimmy Yancey, Dexter Jordan, Frank Etheridge, Elizabeth Ogie, Steve Gunby, George Flowers, and John Sheftall) and J. Edward Sprouse, as HCF Chairman of the Board. These community leaders and friends were vital to the success of everything Historic Columbus was able to accomplish - as always, the Historic Columbus Boards of Directors and Trustees are the backbone of the organization.
Virginia would also get family (her son, John, made the two Parade of Homes videos) and close friends involved in the events and projects of Historic Columbus. Below is a photo of just a few of those friends who became staff and volunteers for the organization (not pictured are Julie Littlejohn, Ann Reid, Nell Hudson, and Bobsie Swift).
Jane Etheridge, Julie Alexander, Sue Howard, and Weesie Laney
In 2003, Historic Columbus would move its headquarters to the Rankin House and the Junior League headquarters settled into 700 Broadway. In May, 2005 and after twelve years as executive director, Virginia Peebles decided to retire. During her dozen years, HCF expanded its geographical scope as well as the breadth of its mission and its membership. HCF became a major player in saving the Liberty Theater and Ma Rainey’s house while creating the Liberty District. Peebles fended off threats to existing historic properties and led the efforts to create both the Midtown districts and the ensuing MidTown, Inc. organization. She fostered an expansion of HCF’s influence into a city-wide organization with a real presence on community and civic boards, representing HCF on the committee that selected the present city manager, illustrating the acceptance of HCF as an entity with city-wide impact. Upon her retirement, the board established an annual Virginia T. Peebles Grant that provides funding for local non-residential preservation projects. Since 2005, the grant has served as the spark for 14 projects with over $40,000 in funding.
It is amazing how much was accomplished for preservation and for our community in the 39 years of the organization at Virginia's retirement. What was I going to do without her?! Fortunately, she didn't go too far. She has served as my mentor and second mother, along with Janice, for the twenty two years I have been lucky enough to work for Historic Columbus. Columbus is a much better place because of her vision and hard work to get things done. I, for one, am grateful. Next week, we will highlight Historic Columbus' work from 2005 through today! 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