‘He makes a place worth living in’: Meet the painter behind some of Macon’s greatest buildings

This is the man who keeps the Hay House looking pristine

Tony Long, a painting contractor, talks about his involvement with painting and renovating the Hay House over the years.
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Tony Long, a painting contractor, talks about his involvement with painting and renovating the Hay House over the years.

Walking through some of Macon’s most prominent structures, the history flows through the halls, but few people hear the story of the man responsible for those buildings and the beauty they still possess.

Tony Long has been involved with painting and maintaining buildings since the 1950s, and he has won many awards for his preservation efforts including the Excellence in Preservation award at the annual Georgia Trust Preservation Awards ceremony in 2017.

“Once they’re gone, they can’t ever come back,” Long said. “I know there’s some fantastic new stuff, but when I go somewhere, I go to museums, old churches, historic buildings. I don’t go into new skyscrapers.”

Long’s painting business, A.T. Long & Son Inc., was started by his father, A.T. Long, after his return to Macon at the end of World War II.

“I must’ve had a gene that I enjoyed being around construction,” he said. “The most fun that I had was just getting in the truck and going with my dad everywhere.”

Long said he didn’t really start painting houses until he graduated high school in 1957.

“I must have painted a thousand closets learning how,” he said with a laugh.

Long said he graduated from Mercer in 1964 with a degree in math and economics, and his dad made him a partner in the business.

Long has since been involved with painting multiple buildings in Macon including the Grand Opera House and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. He said he loves decorative painting.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is filled with scaffolding while Tony Long and his artists paint the church in 2005. Maryann Bates Special to the Telegraph

Maryann Bates, a freelance photographer and artist who has worked with Long, said he has more energy than anyone she knows.

“Tony is the first one up the ladder, the first one up the scaffolding, and my God, you better be able to keep up with him,” she said.

Bates, who also had a studio at the Contemporary Arts Exchange, said she’s one of Long’s biggest fans.

“Macon has no idea what Tony has done for it,” she said. “To me, he is St. Tony, and he always will be.”

The recently closed Contemporary Arts Exchange in the Washington Block building on Mulberry was another one of Long’s endeavors. He allowed artists to have studio space, and the only cost they had to pay was the electricity bill.

“He’s like an old-fashioned, huge, beautiful steam engine that is not locked to one track,” said Eric O’Dell, a professor of fine arts at Mercer University and one of the artists who had a studio at the Arts Exchange. “I’ve always appreciated knowing that behind the scenes, his strong and sturdy shoulders were always creating space and room for us to do art.”

In looking at other cities who had revitalized their downtowns, it always started with artists, Long said.

“To me, what started downtown revitalization was that group of artists that people would come and see and show folks that, ‘Hey, if we can be downtown without getting mugged or having any problems, y’all can too,’ ” he said.

But, his support for artists didn’t stop there.

“One reason we moved here was it had more wall space,” said his wife, Jennifer Taylor. “We have a large collection of basically local and regional art, and we love getting to know artists and supporting them anyway that we can.”

Taylor said Long has probably been involved in some way with around 75 percent of the buildings downtown at least.

“He just feels, clearly feels very strongly, that you need to leave a place better than when you got there and do what you can to improve everybody’s lot in a community,” she said. “I admire that a lot, and I think that’s an important thing we need to engender in young folks.”

She said Long’s defining quality is that he knows everyone and is involved with everything.

“He’s able to pull in the needed people or groups or organizations to get something done, and he’s a real master at that,” she said.

Long also had a hand in the Macon Film Festival along with Craig Coleman and Tabitha Walker.

Long painted Macon Little Theater in 1961, which was the first time he had been in a theater with live performances. He began to attend plays and help backstage at the different theaters in Macon. He said he became involved with the production of the Nutcracker at the Grand Opera House in the mid-1980’s.

“I don’t do any of the dancing,” he said with a laugh. “But, backstage and making everything happen is me.”

This year’s production of the Nutcracker starts on Dec. 5 and runs through Dec. 9.

To honor Long’s support of the theater community, Theatre Macon named Sept. 8 “Tony Long Day” back in 2016, Taylor said.

“(He) has benefited the art community, the theater community, the preservation community, and downtown Macon, so we’re lucky to have him,” Taylor said.

O’Dell said Long has been one of the firmest believers in preserving Macon.

“He was the caretaker of things as they were quiet and not so well known for many years to where now I think they’re having their time in the sun and can flourish more, and Tony deserves an awful lot of credit for all of those things,” O’Dell said. “He is woven into the fabric of what this place is at all levels... He makes a place worth living in.”

Gene Dunwody Jr., an architect with Dunwody/Beeland Architects Inc., said that he has worked with Tony for several years to revitalize downtown Macon. He said he and Long would buy buildings to restore that nobody else wanted.

“I think he’s the most influential person in the … redevelopment of historic downtown Macon and the surrounding neighborhoods,” he said. “There’s nobody that has put more effort into saving downtown than Tony.”

Long said he loves being involved with the arts and preserving old buildings.

“When you look at all of the arts, music, visual arts, photography, just any of them, it’d be a sad place not to have art. It wouldn’t be any fun in my life without it,” he said. “For me, it’s a tremendous amount of fun. I enjoy everyday.”