Housing or history? Crumbling building on MLK’s boyhood street pits future needs against saving the past

The block on which the building is located was once known as  “the richest Negro street in the world.”

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A fight is brewing over Atlanta’s historic Auburn Avenue as local conservationists seek to protect a long-forgotten piece of history. 

As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Butler Street Community Development Corporation wants to tear down an abandoned three-story brick building that was built in 1908, located at 229 Auburn Ave. The block, where Martin Luther King’s childhood home is located, was once known as  “the richest Negro street in the world.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building. On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)

The 229 Auburn Ave. building reportedly served as a branch office for Atlanta Life Insurance which was founded by Alonzo Franklin Herndon, a former slave, according to the company website. When a tornado ripped through the area in 2008, it destroyed the then-83-year-old Herndon Building next door to the Auburn Ave. building. Ther Herndon building was believed to have also housed Georgia’s first Black-owned bank. The impact of the hurricane also exposed a racist Gold Dust Twins Soap mural which had been hidden since 1925. 

Many of the buildings in the Old Fourth Ward were constructed “between the end of the Civil War through the mid-1930s,” per AJC. Located in the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical District, these structures have reportedly been neglected and destroyed by tornados and new construction projects. 

The 229 Auburn Ave. building is the only structure that remains from the historic Herndon Building block, according to report. A parking lot occupies the rest of the land. Developers see little value in the dilapidated area and want to demolish it to make way for a multimillion-dollar affordable housing complex. 

“This space has been in this community for more than 100 years. I don’t see any reason why it can’t do another 150,”  said David Yoakley Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center which is fighting the planned demolition, per the AJC report. “Auburn Avenue has been a space that we have pulled from since Martin Luther King’s passing. I think it is fair to put something back in it.”

Jerome Edmondson, a member of the Butler Street CDC’s board, has made it clear that the group intends to move forward with plans to tear the building down.

The owners of 229 Auburn Ave. have reportedly received approval to acquire demolition permits but Matt Adams, interim assistant director of the city’s Office of Design and Historic Preservation, noted that the building “has protection against unnecessary demolition” because it is located in the King District.

According to Adams, demolition occurs when a property poses a threat to public health and safety or has no economic value. The building’s owners must prove such is true before the demolition effort can move forward.

“The Atlanta Life Insurance building at 229 Auburn Avenue represents African American achievement and enterprise in the Jim Crow era,” said Mark McDonald, chief executive of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. “Every effort should be made to preserve this important 1908 structure so that it can be an inspiration to current and future generations.”

Alfonza Marshall, chairman of the Butler Street CDC, said it could take up to a year for plans to be finalized before construction begins on the new apartment complex.

“A project of this undertaking, in one of the most sacred historical districts in America, takes some time to put together,” said Marshall.

Marshall said the project could be “a catalyst for revitalization and growth.”

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