Effort to preserve Douglass House now in danger

pramati@macon.comJuly 17, 2014 

Just two months ago, community leaders and residents celebrated a plan that would preserve the historic Charles Douglass House by moving it and then restoring it for community use.

Businessman Lou Patel, who bought the property, would be able to use the land, possibly for parking for the Dunkin’ Donuts franchise planned on an adjacent site. Meanwhile the community would be able to preserve a historic property as well as honor the legacy of Douglass, one of Macon’s first prominent black businessmen who is credited with having the Douglass Theatre built downtown.

But now those plans appear to be in jeopardy.

Real estate broker Jim Rollins said he and Patel on Monday will ask the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission’s Design Review Board for permission to demolish the house if its champions -- including Mercer University, Historic Macon and state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon -- can’t come up with a plan to move it by Aug. 30.

Patel and Rollins previously faced community resistance when they proposed demolishing the old Tremont Temple Baptist Church to make way for the Dunkin’ Donuts. But the planning and zoning commission eventually ruled in their favor, allowing them to demolish the crumbling, historic church.

Rollins said he’s asking the Design Review Board for the demolition permit because Beverly has been unable to come up with a suitable site, a plan for moving the house or the money to pay for the move. Beverly estimates it would take more than $300,000.

Rollins said Patel has done everything he could to work with Beverly, but no action in moving the house is costing him significant money since he is paying the bank note on the house. In addition, the delay has pushed back the opening of the Dunkin’ Donuts from September until 2015. That means Patel has to renegotiate his deal with the Dunkin’ Donuts corporate headquarters, Rollins said.

“We don’t want to tear down the Douglass House,” Rollins said. “We had an agreement with James Beverly. He’s asked for more time, and we’ve given him more time. ... If they’re unable to move it, we’re going to ask for a demolition permit.”

Rollins said Patel bought the house in good faith to give to Beverly’s Community Enhancement Authority, along with $20,000 he was going to use to demolish the house to help move it instead. He said Patel already has pushed back the deadline to make a decision on the house twice, and Beverly now has until Aug. 30 to come up with a plan.

“We’re still willing to give them time,” Rollins said. “But Mr. Patel is looking at having to pay the monthly mortgage. When does the time run out? Mr. Patel has all of his available cash tied up in the deal. He could go out of business. We’re hoping everyone can be reasonable.”

‘Different ballgame’

But Beverly, Mercer President Bill Underwood and Historic Macon Executive Director Ethiel Garlington all said Thursday that Patel knew the risk of buying a property in Macon’s historic district and the necessary time should be taken to preserve a house with so much meaning to the community.

“Everybody is working their butt off,” Beverly said. “I think when you buy a historical structure, there’s a certain level of preservation (that goes with it). (Tremont Temple) was one thing. I think the members had a right to do with it what they wanted. But this is a different ballgame. This is the legacy of Charles Douglass, and it’s important to the community.”

Underwood said if the house is moved close to Mercer’s campus, the university would move its Upward Bound program into the structure.

“It’s a community treasure, and it would be terrible to see it lost,” Underwood said.

But Underwood acknowledged that the cost to move and update the house is considerable. When adding in the renovation costs, Underwood said, the estimate to move and preserve the house would run more than $600,000.

Beverly said much of the moving cost comes from having to move utility lines that AT&T, Georgia Power and Cox Communications have in the area. Beverly said he’s been working with each of the companies to see how the cost might be defrayed. Some of the sites Beverly has looked at as possible relocation areas haven’t worked out, he said.

In addition to Mercer’s use of the house, Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert said in May that the city would use it to house the city’s Small Business Development Office, provided it is suitably updated to honor Douglass’ legacy.

Garlington said it’s not a preservation issue as much as a design issue when talking about possible demolition. Tremont Temple had already been condemned, one of the reasons it was demolished. But the Douglass House is in much better shape, he said. “The scenarios are different,” he said.

Too much passing time?

Rollins noted that the house has been vacant for 42 years and has gone through several ownership changes. No one has sought to do anything to the property before now, he said.

“I’m sympathetic. I’m a history buff,” said Rollins, adding that his wife is a member of Historic Macon. “But my contention is that if the community wants to save stuff, they shouldn’t wait until the last minute to save it. ... We’re fully cognizant of the history of the house, and we’re trying to save it.”

Garlington said Historic Macon is trying to be more proactive in identifying historic structures that are in danger, but that its resources only stretch so far.

“It’s frustrating for us, because it paints us in a reactionary light,” he said. “Our organization prides itself on being very proactive.”

Beverly acknowledged that he and other interested parties might not be able to save the house, but he said he wants a legitimate chance to try.

“We’re working on this,” he said. “If we can’t get it done, we can’t get it done. We’re not asking for five years. We’re asking for 120 days. It’s a substantial operation. It’s a big, big deal to move it.”

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