Grant recipient hopes to save performing arts center
Of the buildings on Historic Macon Foundation’s Fading Five list, the Bobby Jones Performing Arts Center at first glance would appear to be the most hopeless.
Perched on a hill at the corner of Jefferson and Monroe streets, the building has doors that are broken out and the lot around it is overgrown. The interior is cluttered with garbage, with signs that it has been used as a makeshift homeless shelter.
It looks better suited as a filming location for a horror movie than a building with useful life still in it.
But Tonja Khabir sees a future for the building, which was constructed in 1917 as a church.
“I’m the most hopeful person ever, so I have a 100 percent hope,” she said as she stood outside the building recently. “Who knows when it could happen, but this has been a long journey to get it renovated, or just save it in any capacity.”
She has gotten a $5,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to explore potential uses for the building. Some want to return it to a performing arts center, but Khabir thinks it’s too small for that, and there are better existing venues for performing arts.
One idea is for it to become a cafe where local artists can show off their works. Another is for it to become a small grocery store specializing in healthy foods.
As a part of her grant, Khabir expects soon to organize a community meeting to allow people to give feedback on potential uses of the building. She will eventually compile a report that can then be used to pursue renovation of the building.
But before anything can be done with the property, there’s a huge hurdle to clear. The property is owned by the defunct Booker T. Washington Foundation, so it’s uncertain exactly how ownership might be transferred to a party interested in saving it.
“The ownership is the most important part of this whole process because even if we had a good idea and funding to go along with it, we’ve got to figure out the ownership,” said Ethiel Garlington, executive director of Historic Macon.
Fading Five list has success
With the Fading Five list Historic Macon names important properties that are in danger of being lost, then works to try to save the buildings. That could happen through either public or private investment. Once named to the list a building stays on it until either being saved or lost.
The effort has proven successful, with only one building on the list having been declared lost since the list began in 2015. Six of the 11 buildings that have made the list have been saved, and last year Historic Macon won a national award for its efforts.
Garlington said the Bobby Jones center can become one of those success stories, despite its challenges.
“The building is better than it looks from the outside,” he said. “It’s covered with vines and vegetation and is all grown up but once you get inside the building it’s actually in decent shape. It won’t survive much longer without a new roof and some attention, but it’s better than it looks.”
Khabir said her interest in the building is in the preservation of black history. For decades it was the First Congregational Church, an African American church established in 1868. The church remained in the building until 1991, and it was vacant until 1998 when the Booker T. Washington Foundation purchased it. After a few years, however, it was shuttered when the foundation lacked the funds to make the necessary repairs.
Khabir noted that the performing arts center was named for the first black tenured professor at Mercer University.
“I feel an indebtedness and responsibility to preserving my history and culture, but I think that as a community, the city and other parties should also feel that,” she said. “Bringing this back up to something that has an economic benefit, those are things that can improve the neighborhood and improve lives. I think that is in everyone’s interest to actually care about this building. It’s really just about aligning everyone.”
Here are the other buildings on Historic Macon’s Fading Five list:
Coaling Tower, 989 Seventh St.: Built in 1910, this unique structure once supplied railroad steam engines with coal.
Guy E. Paine House, 2733 Hillcrest Ave.: Built approximately 1912, this was one of the original houses in Cherokee Heights, a neighborhood on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Cotton Avenue District: This was a major center of black businesses in Macon during the era of segregation.
Train Recreation Center, 715 Oglethorpe St.: Completed in 1920, this building was constructed by the Bibb Manufacturing Co. to offer free recreation to its employees.