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Protestors decry destruction of Douglass House

With heavy equipment clearing away the remnants of the Douglass House in the background, more than 20 people gathered across the street Tuesday to decry its demolition.

The gathering was arranged by state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, who was out of town Tuesday. But in a statement read on his behalf by his aide, Aldrick Ingram, Beverly laid the blame for the demolition of the historic home at the feet of Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert.

“I want to emphasize that Mayor Robert Reichert used poor judgment in authorizing the Bibb County Inspection and Fees Department to pursue a demolition of this historic property, knowing that other diverse groups of Macon citizens were actively working through a breakthrough on an adapted renovation and reuse of the Douglass House,” the statement read. “Because of their poor judgment, we need to review and reform the process in which Inspections and Fees is going through to determine how we deal with historic structures. The composition and accountability of the Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission needs to be looked at as well.”

Beverly criticized what he called an “excessive use of discretion” by the P&Z board in its decision-making process.

Last week, workers began tearing down the former home of Charles Douglass, one of Macon’s first prominent black businessmen, who built the Douglass Theatre.

The demolition to clear the lot was necessary for Lou Patel, a Warner Robins businessman, to build a parking lot for his Dunkin’ Donuts franchise that will be built on an adjacent lot that was formerly home to Tremont Temple Baptist Church, which was torn down earlier this year.

A coalition involving Beverly, Historic Macon Foundation, Mercer University and other organizations had been working on a plan to move the house to property owned by Mount de Sales Academy. Ethiel Garlington, executive director of Historic Macon, said estimates to move the house were about $120,000, while the house would have needed another $300,000 in renovations once it was moved.

Last month, the Planning & Zoning commission voted 3-2 to deny the demolition of the house, but a report from a Savannah-based engineer said the house was “beyond repair at this point and needs to be demolished to eliminate itself as a safety hazard.”

At Tuesday’s news conference, however, several people criticized the move as a “loophole” to allow Patel to proceed with demolition. George Muhammad, a member of the Douglass Theatre’s board of directors, said the demolition of both the house and church are a sign of disrespect toward the black community.

“The community needs to realize that the Douglass House demolition was Mayor Reichert’s personal decision and an abuse of the system in favor of developer Lou Patel,” he told those in attendance. “(It’s) a blatant act of contempt for Macon’s black heritage and African-American historical preservation.”

Muhammad said several local contractors had previously said the building was in stable condition to be moved and renovated. He also criticized the Macon-Bibb County Commission for a lack of leadership in the process.

DAMAGE CHANGED THINGS

Reichert spokesman Chris Floore said Tuesday that the mayor had spent months working with Patel and the coalition of preservationists to try to find common ground on the issue.

“We’ve been working with both sides for several months to try to come up with a solution,” Floore said. “The mayor acted as a facilitator between both groups to find a way to move the house. That was our goal.”

The report on the structural damage changed things, Floore said. Under Section 110 of the county’s maintenance code, the report meant that the owner -- Patel -- had just two options: to make repairs to the house or to raze it. That decision was up to Patel, not Macon-Bibb County, he said.

Floore said he wouldn’t comment on Muhammad’s racial allegations.

“We’re not going to respond to those comments,” he said.

Muhammad said he had four “solutions” to prevent similar situations in the future: to identify and preserve other historic properties in danger; to reform the Planning and Zoning Commission to “follow their own policies” as well as the county business office; to elect new leadership for the city; and for residents to boycott the Dunkin’ Donuts franchise for the next “two to five years.”

Muhammad and others contended Tuesday that a similar demolition wouldn’t have happened had the property in question had historic roots in the white community, such as the Hay House or the Sidney Lanier Cottage.

After the news conference, Muhammad said the black community also needed to shoulder its share of the blame for “not doing what it should be doing” by being more conscious of issues like the Douglass House until it is too late.

Patel told The Telegraph Friday that he regretted the decision to tear down the house.

“I hate this had to happen,” he said. “I wish they would have moved it or could have moved it.”

Garlington, however, doubted his sincerity, saying Patel bought the building for business use, not to preserve it.

Garlington said other communities have “places in peril” lists for key historic structures, and that Historic Macon is in the process of preparing its own list.

“Unfortunately, we’ll never get ahead of all the endangered properties,” he said.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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