Ballard: Loss of one of our historic buildings hurts all of us

January 25, 2014 

This charcoal drawing is of the Old Wesleyan Conservatory.

SPECIAL TO THE TELEGRAPH

Through the eyes of a teenaged art student, it was just a post card of an old building in Macon. The edges were tattered and torn and the paper yellowed with age. I picked it up while diligently searching from something to draw one afternoon at Houser Smith’s studio.

I had taken art lessons from Houser since I was 8 years old. This particular assignment was to be something I rendered in charcoal on paper. “This will be perfect,” I said to myself as I found the post card.

“I want to draw this,” I said to Houser, walking up to him while waving the postcard back and forth. Houser’s eyes lit up and a big smile covered his face.

“That’s Old Wesleyan Conservatory,” he said with adoration in his voice. “A place that was near and dear to me.” Before he would allow me to begin executing my drawing, he wanted to tell me more about this interesting building.

We walked over to the door of his studio and he pointed to it. “This is one of the doors from Comer Hall at the conservatory,” he said with great pride. “How did you get a door?” I asked Houser. Slowly, he recounted the whole story of this beautiful building to me. As visual aids, he pointed out several other things that once belonged to the building including some of the bricks used to build it. It was a very interesting story.

“It was the first women’s college in the world,” Houser said with an almost gleeful voice. “I taught there.” His memories of the conservatory started flooding from his mind like a geyser. I had never even heard of the building but I could tell by his memories that it was a unique place.

I learned that it sat where the main Post Office in Macon sits now on College Street. I learned that it suspiciously burned in February 1963. “I was only 2 years old when it burned! No wonder I didn’t know anything about it,” I remarked.

In the course of the next half hour, I found out that Wesleyan College, as it is known now, had built a new campus on Forsyth Road and everything was moved there. Even though the conservatory was empty, there were still some antiques and other things that remained in the building. Groups were set up to rally around saving this stately building but before the funds were raised to save it, it burned. I remember Houser tearing up a little as he recalled the horrible night of the fire. “It was a tragedy,” he said.

I remember thinking about all of Houser’s stories as I drew the details of Old Wesleyan. With every window or baluster I rendered, I thought how beautiful the building really was and what a shame it was gone. I felt in many ways I got to know all about it after hearing Houser’s stories and studying every detail. Even though I never saw it in person, in a strange way, I felt as though I had.

When I completed the drawing I was very pleased. Because of all the details, it had taken me several weeks to complete. My mother loved it and had it framed to hang in our living room. I thought that was the end of Old Wesleyan for me as I soon went away to art school in Atlanta. Years passed, and I got married and started my own family. In the mid-1980s we moved back to Macon. Little did I know Old Wesleyan Conservatory would once again come to my attention.

While becoming involved in the Cherry Blossom Festival, I had the pleasure to meet Neva Fickling at one of the events. She was Miss America in 1953 and was very involved in the arts in Georgia. I thought it would be a good idea for me to meet with her to talk about my work and show her my portfolio.

Before our scheduled meeting at Neva’s house, I had dropped by Mother’s for encouragement. Something just told me to bring along the charcoal of Old Wesleyan I had drawn so many years earlier.

Neva critiqued each of my art pieces and was very kind. At the very end of the stack of things I’d brought was Old Wesleyan. I held it in front of her and she gasped. “What’s wrong?” I asked, thinking she didn’t like it. Once again I saw tears about Old Wesleyan well up in Neva’s eyes. “That’s where I studied and practiced piano when I became Miss America,” she told me.

She pointed out certain places in my drawing where her classes were and even where she sunbathed on the roof before the pageant. “I’ve got to have it!” she exclaimed. “Would you sell it to me? When I look at your rendering, it is exactly as I remember the conservatory.”

My drawing never left her home. (In fact, it still hangs there today and I visit it when there. As a side note, Neva’s 81st birthday would have been yesterday, Jan. 25.)

I would paint Old Wesleyan Conservatory two more times. The last time was a few years ago. As you can imagine, I was pretty familiar with the exterior of the building. But something happened the other day that made it all come full circle for me. Someone sent me the link to a video of a news special about Macon in the early 1960s that included footage of the attempt to save Old Wesleyan.

I sat glued in front of my computer as I, for the first time, saw the building in all its glory. There were interior shots that I thought I would never have the opportunity to see. I was thrilled and amazed! Sadly, the footage also included its flaming demise.

When the video ended, I understood why Houser and Neva had been so passionate about the conservatory.

Even though I never saw it in person, I felt as though I had a special bond. Through the eyes of an artist, it was a building I knew very well. Through the personal stories from two people who had walked its halls, I grew to realize that there was something magical about it.

I felt it from the first time I drew it when I was only 17. I believe that this is part of the reason I’m so passionate about conserving other wonderful buildings and places in Macon. When we lose such a historic treasure -- even if we don’t have a personal connection like Houser’s and Neva’s -- it’s as if a part of us as a community is erased.

More with Mark

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Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions or comments to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208; call 478-757-6877; email markballard@cox.net; or become a subscriber to Mark’s Facebook page.

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