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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Women in Preservation: HCF's First Executive Director - Janice Persons Biggers

SOURCE: 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. 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. Also, during the early 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. It would be this same group that would begin Historic Columbus in 1966.



Janice Persons Biggers was born in Troy, Alabama. The daughter of the late Elizabeth Henderson Persons and the late William Samford Persons, both natives of Alabama. After living the first ten years of her life with her family in New York City, the family moved to Columbus in 1939. Janice married James Joseph Walton Biggers, Jr. in 1951 and the couple was blessed with two daughters - Elizabeth Allison Biggers Gardner and Catherine Persons Biggers Trotter. In the early 1960s, Janice served as Junior League project-finding chairman. Under her chairmanship, League volunteers found projects involving the city’s beautification and preservation. In January 1966, the League laid the foundation by providing $5,000 for an historic architectural survey. Coordinated by Joan Davidson Mize Holder, volunteers assembled information about houses that the local AIA chapter initially assessed. Historic Columbus Foundation was formally launched in June of 1966 and became a co-sponsor of the architectural survey. The recommendations that emerged from the survey became the organization’s initial agenda. Sarah Turner Butler (Weezie) was Janice’s co-instigator in every way in the early days of the preservation movement.



In 1968, Emily Woodruff offered to donate the Rankin House to the Junior League, but its by-laws prevented it from accepting the gift. So instead, HCF received the Rankin House 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 in 1968. This "vanguard of the preservation movement" has given Historic Columbus the financial power to save endangered properties through purchase and subsequent resale with protective covenants. HCF's Revolving-Redevelopment Fund was one of the first created in the state of Georgia. The first house purchased through the Fund was “The Folly,” a rare double octagon structure at 527 First Avenue. It was then sold to Clason Kyle in 1969. In payment, he deeded the Walker-Peters-Langdon House at 716 Broadway to HCF. Considered the oldest house in Columbus, the Walker-Peters-Langdon House became HCF’s first headquarters.



With its first house museum came the need for an executive director. Janice doubts they would have tapped her for the position, but she immediately volunteered for the $75 a week job with the understanding, according to Clason Kyle, that she would have Thursday afternoons off for her bridge game. The only job description was to keep the Walker-Peters-Langdon House open from 10:00 until 4:00, not an easy task for one person since it initially lacked a bathroom. From the beginning, an expansive agenda and a wide sphere of influence was envisioned for HCF. Before becoming HCF’s first executive director, Janice was interested in city planning and had considered pursuing a master’s degree in that field. 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. 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.


Frank Schnell and Janice Biggers


Initially, HCF had several objectives: act on the survey’s 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 on the National Register of Historic Places, in addition to the Columbus Historic District. In 1974, the district’s most unique structure, “The Folly,” received the country's most prestigious listing — National Historic Landmark status. In 1978, 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. The Housing Authority 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.



The Woodruff family also donated several properties in the 1400 block of Second Avenue. These also became early properties of HCF’s Revolving – Redevelopment Fund. 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 Second Avenue and the birthplace of the Coca-Cola magnate Robert Winship Woodruff at 1414 Second Avenue. Preservation of the massive Victorian Garrett-Bullock house at 1402 Second Avenue 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. As the focus of preservation expanded beyond the District, Janice and 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. Edna Kendrick, a councilwoman, 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.


Janice Biggers and Clason Kyle


Janice’s leadership and the HCF Board also encouraged the 1983 creation of UpTown Columbus Inc., a nonprofit 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 City 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, Janice, 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.



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. Weezie then served as Chairman Emeritus until her passing. J. Edward Sprouse, a local attorney and long-time Historic Columbus volunteer and Board member, 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.


Rozier Dedwylder and Janice Biggers


For twenty-three 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, Janice was often out of the office. “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. Janice 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.


Jimmy and Janice Biggers

 

Janice P. Biggers Revolving – Redevelopment Fund Under Janice’s leadership, Historic Columbus was one of the earliest preservation non-profits to establish a revolving fund. The purpose of the fund is to save endangered historic properties, stabilize and restore to a certain level, sell them to a new sympathetic owner to complete the work, and return the proceeds to the fund to utilize for the next project. From the initial investment of $24,000 from the Junior League of Columbus in 1968, HCF has saved over 90 historic properties and returned over $14 million to the Muscogee County tax roles through this program. The Biggers Revolving - Redevelopment Fund was named in honor of Janice for her numerous and important contributions during her twenty-three years as Executive Director and her 30+ years as a Director Emeritus.



Current Revolving - Redevelopment Fund Properties 2807 Bradley Circle, also known as “The Shotgun Shuffle,” went under contract in less than one week on the market. The one bedroom/one bathroom house was the result of moving a threatened shotgun on 35th Street, activating a vacant lot, and helping show how saving a house can be a catalyst for economic development. Proceeds from the sale of the house will go back into the Biggers Revolving – Redevelopment Fund to be used on future preservation projects. Historic Columbus recently sold the house (as of last week!) to two individuals who will be completing the interior renovation work. Historic Columbus' other property in the circle, 2937 Bradley Circle, is receiving a needed bathroom repair and update and will soon hit the market for sale as well in the next couple of weeks. This home, unlike the shuffle house, is move-in ready. The property is a great primary residence or investment property as a two bedroom, two bath house that overlooks the river. Like the shuffle, the proceeds from the home will be used for future preservation projects.



For twenty-three years (1966 - 1989) 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, Janice was often out of the office. “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. dern lexicon. ern lexicon. rn lexicon. n lexicon. lexicon. lexicon. exicon. xicon. icon. con. on. n. .

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