Through the graffiti and cracked glass, it’s hard to read the signage above the door to 229 Auburn Avenue. Gray clouds and rain on a Friday afternoon in mid-August don’t help either. The original location of the Atlanta State Savings Bank, the first black-owned chartered bank in the state of Georgia, is now a shell unto itself. Literally, the building is a shell; tough on the outside with a hidden interior that will only be revealed when opened. Unlike breaking an egg, any restoration and renovation effort will not be straightforward and will cost significantly more.
Located at the corner of Jesse Hill Jr. Drive and Auburn Avenue in the heart of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, once known as the wealthiest stretch of black real estate in America, the three-story building is boarded up and has been so for decades. Concert posters and advertisements for upcoming rap albums litter the exterior walls.
Additionally, the home of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, once a beacon of self-respect and security at a time when neither was a sure thing for black Southerners, is now a neglected property that could really use some loving care, according to Atlanta Preservation Center executive director David Yoakley Mitchell. “Here is a cornerstone of Atlanta history,” Mitchell said. “The bank was a catalyst for people to have some semblance of economic freedom.”
Built in the early 1900s, The Atlanta Life Insurance Co.’s Atlanta brand occupied a corner lot in what was the business center of Black Atlanta. There’s very little business on that side of the street these days as a new apartment project, vegan breakfast bar and bakery exist in the shadow of 229 Auburn.
There is development going on on Auburn Avenue, but not at 229 Auburn, at least for now. Development pressure can lead to property, specifically the land it occupies, being sold to the highest bidder, as can lots in the Reynoldstown, Summerhill and Grove Park neighborhoods, for example.
There won’t be a Microsoft or Google on Auburn Avenue soon, so the development of Atlanta’s most famous black businesses will have to be improved bit by bit. But there is not much time. Nearly 50% of the Sweet Auburn District has lost its historic buildings, according to data provided by the National Parks Service.
The tornado that tore through downtown Atlanta 14 years ago put 229 Auburn at a disadvantage. It looks like a single tooth in a mouth hanging on for dear life. The Herndon Building was adjacent to 243 Auburn Avenue and took up much of that lot. The hurricane helped accelerate the life of what was already a doomed and decaying property. 229 Auburn is all that remains of this lot.
A car park now occupies the majority of this space. An advertisement for Gold Dust the washing powder on the side of the building is still visible between the bricks. The gold paint has faded but has not been totally washed away by time and neglect. In the ad, a black baby is depicted holding a bottle while a woman’s arm reaches out with a cloth. The product was first introduced to the public in 1889. The fact that the ad was prominently displayed on the wall of 229 Auburn is a sign of the commerce the bank and insurance company generated with the community. black she served, Mitchell said.
Black history is Atlanta history
Unmoved by the light rain, Mitchell leaned against a lamp post on the corner as he spoke passionately about what the building at 229 Auburn means to the city’s history. “It’s not just a piece of black history, it’s a piece of Atlanta history,” he said. “As residents of Atlanta, we need to protect our history.”
Mitchell reflected on the fact that he and a black journalist from The Voice of Atlanta couldn’t have had a conversation on the corner of Jesse Hill Jr. Drive and Auburn Avenue when the bank first opened. In the shadow of Congressman John Lewis’s now famous “Hero” mural, 229 Auburn, lies a piece of history. Mitchell calls the building “a kind of time capsule.”
Asked what he thinks the public can do to help preservation efforts at properties like 229 Auburn and others, Mitchell said they can come to Sweet Auburn and see it for themselves. “One, they can come here and see the property, touch the property, and feel the history,” he said. “Just because he’s not breathing doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to live.”
Mitchell also suggests that those interested in learning more can advocate for the preservation and protection of historic properties by reaching out to the Atlanta Preservation Center and organizations such as the Butler Street Community Development Corporation, a community organization based in Atlanta which provides services to the underserved. young people and their families in the area and owns the property at 229 Auburn Avenue. The original structure that housed the Butler Street YMCA, once known as “Black City Hall” because of its significance to the neighborhood, is just steps away from 229 Auburn.
Currently valued at $606,700, according to Fulton County real estate records, 229 Auburn is one of the lowest-priced properties in the immediate area. By comparison, the property at 210 Auburn Avenue, Bethel Towers, is valued at $6.7 million, according to Fulton County property records. The land alone is valued at nearly $1.4 million, according to county records. 210 Auburn Avenue is across the street from 229, but a world away from value and status.
An architect’s perspective is less about dollar signs and appreciated value. Dr. Danielle Willkens cares more about how the building was constructed and what it means for the Sweet Auburn District. During an interview with The Voice of Atlanta, Willkens, assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture, spoke about the origin of the building’s bricks. “As an architect, we often talk about embodied energy,” Willkens said.
She also believes there is an economic benefit to saving buildings. The fewer buildings we construct, the fewer materials we use, the better. “If we can save these structures, that’s the best job we can do as designers.”
Regarding the land occupied by the building, Willkens calls the location “a critical corner” and “if this building were not there, its absence would be noted. It’s part of the rhythm of the street.
Barbara McCaskill, professor of English at the University of Georgia and director of the Wilson Center for Humanities & Arts, said 229 Auburn is significant to Atlanta history in several ways. As a site of Atlanta State Savings Bank, it signals the importance and prosperity of hardworking African American communities despite the violence and inequalities of segregation,” she said.
The bank’s motto was once “security and strength,” according to McCaskill. She found this motto very poignant considering what Lewis meant to millions of Americans. His mural is next. “Together, the two structures tell the story of how Atlanta’s black community has played a pivotal role in the city and the nation as a model for shaping spaces, initiatives, and neighborhoods where all can thrive. “
Mitchell doesn’t want Atlanta residents to forget where the first black bank once stood and what it stood for. “While he is here we are compelled to remember him and that memory over time becomes a source of pride,” he said.
The Book of Proverbs 16:18 reads: “Pride goes before destruction, and pride goes before a fall”. This oft-referenced Bible verse means overconfident people are more likely to fail. There’s nothing too confident about the building at 229 Auburn. Its customers have long turned to other banks, its doors have long since closed. 229 Auburn is defiant, strong, and still standing a corner in Atlanta Black history. For the moment.
“Preserving the historic space at 229 Auburn Avenue is more important than ever,” said Sarah Borcherding, graduate student in Georgia State University’s Masters in Heritage Preservation program. Borcherding knows the property well, she did an ArcGIS Storymaps project called “Saving 229 Auburn Avenue”. She talks about past, present and future buildings. “Once the tangible building is gone, it can be difficult to pass on the story to our current and future generations.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Voice of Atlanta.