Saving a National Historic Landmark: City Mills
Updated: May 9, 2022
Hello everyone! To celebrate Preservation Month, we are showcasing the impact you have made in our community, and we know you’ll be pleased with your return on investment. This week, we are highlighting the history of a National Historic Landmark, the path taken to save it from collapsing in on itself, and the many partners it has taken to do it. In 2016, Historic Columbus celebrated its 50th Anniversary and embarked on its first ever capital campaign called the Save Me A Place Capital Campaign. The campaign included a signature project, the stabilization of City Mills, as well as expanding current programs and introducing new revitalization tools to ensure transformation and improved quality of life within our struggling historic neighborhoods. Thanks to the Save Me A Place Campaign Donors, six million dollars was raised, and every goal of the campaign was accomplished. These incredible campaign donors and the continued support of Historic Columbus’ membership make it possible for Columbus to be the place where you want to live and to which your children and grandchildren want to return. Simply put, that is what the Save Me A Place Campaign was all about. Historic preservation only flourishes because of your passion for the history of this town, its stories, and its people. As a staff, we also need you to know HCF remains on sound financial footing to brace for the challenges 2022 and 2023 may bring. If you have any questions or concerns, never hesitate to contact the HCF Office – 706-322-0756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for all you do for preservation in Columbus!
HCF Staff (L - R): Justin Krieg, Debbie Lipscomb, Palmer Colson, and Elizabeth Walden
Columbus is fortunate to have three National Historic Landmarks. This designation means that those properties have national significance – there are only 1,600 in the United States. Our three are the Springer Opera House, the Folly, and our industrial riverfront. The Industrial Riverfront National Historic Landmark District consists of five non-contiguous mill sites – the Columbus Iron Works, the Eagle & Phenix, the Muscogee Mills site, City Mills, and the Bibb Mill.
Georgians began to invest in building textile mills in the 1810s. These were small, water powered cotton factories established along the fall line, a strip of land across the piedmont from Columbus to Augusta where rapids provided sufficient waterpower to operate the mills. The Georgia legislature established Columbus in 1828 specifically as a "trading town" at the head of navigation of the Chattahoochee River. Crossing the fall line at Columbus, the river drops 125 feet within 2½ miles and produces a potential energy of at least 66,000 horsepower. This hydropower attracted entrepreneurs, investment capital, and laborers to Columbus. Seaborn Jones, a wealthy planter from central Georgia, established a small water-powered gristmill on the Chattahoochee River in 1828. Jones built the gristmill to grind corn and wheat. He also constructed a wooden dam across the rapids to provide power. The original dam continued to be used until 1908 when a stone dam was constructed by Benjamin H. Hardaway.
Colonel Seaborn Jones - also built the house, St. Elmo (originally called Eldorado)
The increased demand during the Civil War greatly expanded the production and the facilities of all the Columbus gristmills (Clapp’s Factory, Empire Mills, and Palace Mills). City Mills was burned by Wilson’s Raiders during the Battle of Columbus in April 1865. Following the Civil War in 1869, a group of businessmen built a new mill on the site. The new building was a three-story wooden structure known as the “corn mill” built by Horace King. This structure (pictured below on the right-hand side) represented one of the few known surviving buildings built by him until its demolition in 2005.
Horace King was born into slavery in South Carolina in 1807. His master, John Godwin, won the contract to build the first public bridge over the Chattahoochee connecting Georgia and Alabama at Columbus. Godwin, his brother Wells, and Horace arrived in Columbus in 1832 and set about building. Though technically Godwin’s “property,” Godwin quickly recognized King’s intuitive genius as a builder and nurtured those skills, treating him more as a junior partner. Both held one another with mutual respect and genuine regard. Godwin took steps by 1846 to give Horace his legal freedom. Horace moved about the south building not only bridges, but homes, commercial buildings, a state hospital in Alabama, and mill buildings in Columbus. Horace also served in the post-civil war Alabama Legislature as a representative from Russell County. By 1872 he moved his family to LaGrange and left the bridge business to his sons. He died in 1888 a noted and respected man and entrepreneur.
The Corn Mill was really the only building on site until 1890 when George A. Pearce, organized and received charter for a new City Mills Company. The most important period of construction for City Mills was between 1890 and 1908.
The construction included a brick warehouse, a wooden grain elevator, and an additional grinding facility, known as the “flour mill.” The Richmond City Mill Works of Richmond, Indiana, erected the six-story brick structure, known as the Flour Mill (c. 1890 – 1891). It was the largest, most modern grist mill in Columbus at the time. After building a concrete dam in 1908, the company revamped the power system in this mill. The firm never realized its anticipated market and never modernized this facility.
In addition to grinding meal, the mill also generated power. City Mills was the first of many hydropower users at the Falls of the Chattahoochee and in the 1890s it became involved in hydroelectric development at the site. From the late 1890s, the Brush Electric Light Co. generated electricity on top of the mill to light homes and power the city’s street cars.
Following Mr. Pearce’s death in 1931, John P. Illges was elected President. Twenty years later, the mill was purchased by Eelbeck Co. It was then sold to Lloyd G. Bowers in 1966. Corn meal and flour were produced from City Mills until the 1960s. Animal feed became the main product for the mill until the early 1980s. Then operations ceased.
In 2015, Historic Columbus was excited to be given the opportunity to save and stabilize the two remaining buildings at City Mills through a partnership with Ken Henson. City Mills was the last endangered mill within the National Historic Landmark District. The project was also the perfect centerpiece to celebrate 50 years of saving important places in our community. It is the single, largest investment Historic Columbus has made to a project to date. Thanks to the donors of the capital campaign, Historic Columbus was able to invest $1.2 Million in the stabilization. When HCF partnered with Ken, the goal/purpose was not only to put our money where our mouth is, but also to stand in the gap between imminent demolition and making stabilization and a future possible for City Mills. Mr. Henson then found a long-term partner in Pezold Management. Jack Pezold and Tracy Sayers were able to see the adaptive re-use possibilities in the buildings for a new boutique hotel. Our investment was then returned once our membership in City Mills, LLC was purchased.
Much of the machinery remained where it was in the Flour Mill when phased out of production starting in the 1940s: three 62 inch Leffel Samson turbines (replaced in 1929); the massive hurst frame (1908) which isolated the vibrations of the drive shaft from the rest of the structure; seven 48 inch grinding stones; an inoperable 175 kilowatt General Electric generator (1919); small flour roller mills (perhaps as early as 1891); Gruendler pulverizers (1929 and later); and, on the other floors, a system of dravers, batch mixers, sifters, and bagging equipment (some 1890). Today, some of the original machinery remains in the basement floor while the upper floors and the warehouse building have been adaptively re-used as the City Mills Hotel.
City Mills has also become perhaps the largest catalyst for redevelopment that we’ve seen in a while. Its stabilization was the first investment, the pioneering step. And now, six years and a global pandemic later, Pezold Management and Ken Henson have recently opened one of the two City Mills buildings with hotel rooms and a yoga studio, the $34 million Mercer University School of Medicine is under construction, Chase Homes is being completely redeveloped, 70 new apartments in High Uptown are under construction and almost complete right across from the TSYS campus, and the High Side Market and Mid City Yards among other projects are underway. In total, nearly $100 million in new investment is coming out of the ground along 2nd Avenue between 13th Street and 29th Street. Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe not, but what all that new investment does tell, is a compelling story in how it’s possible for a run-down vacant and abandoned mill building to give developers, investors, community advocates, and residents a reason to think about an area differently.
In recognition of those investments, Historic Columbus acknowledged the need to stay ahead of the construction and develop a plan for High Uptown. High Uptown is a 20-acre locally designated and National Register Historic District comprised of 39 contributing historic structures and 18 non-contributing buildings – ranging from construction dates of 1860 to 1954. It is located south of City Mills on 18th Street and north of the new High Side Market on 13th Street. The plan has identified and highlighted the historic properties that may be in the wake of all this new work, as well as noting areas ripe for additional infill development or renovation. Four houses have since been purchased and sold through Historic Columbus’ Janice P. Biggers Revolving – Redevelopment Fund. Those include 1415 3rd Avenue, 1523, 1531, and 1535 3rd Avenue.
Ultimately, it’s the mix of old and new buildings, working together to fashion walkable, and thriving streets – that helps us achieve a more prosperous, sustainable, and healthier future. By transforming the places we live to the places we love, older buildings are a key and irreplaceable component of this future, and we are richer and stronger when they remain. We all have places that matter to us—places that define us, places that challenge us, places that bring us together and tell our story. These places help form our identity and our communities. They create opportunities for growth and help us feel at home. They explain our past and serve as the foundation of our future. Thank you for helping Historic Columbus celebrate historic preservation and to share the stories of our community!
Next Week: In May, we continue to celebrate Preservation Month! I hope you will stay with us for a month of Preservation Spotlights focusing on the current education efforts and preservation projects your love of history is supporting. Please join us!