THOMASVILLE — The question had been posed to Jack Hadley repeatedly.
At the time, he didn’t have an answer.
Now, though, the founder and director of the Jack Hadley Black History Museum is working on answers to that oft-asked query, regarding the future of the Imperial Hotel.
“People over the years, ever since I've been back, have been asking, ‘Jack, what are you going to do about the Imperial Hotel?’” he said.
The SunLight coverage area of Milledgeville, Dalton, Moultrie, Thomasville, Tifton and Valdosta is looking at those places of potential historic significance that are in danger of being lost to history and what has been done to save those buildings for the future.
Who works to save history
Both Whitfield County and the city of Dalton have historic preservation commissions.
The city of Dalton has four historic districts, but the only historic district in unincorporated Whitfield County is 600 acres of Rocky Face Ridge, which contains numerous Civil War fortifications.
The Whitfield County Historic Preservation commission does not have any jurisdiction over privately-owned property, said Kevin McAuliff, the commission’s secretary.
"When it comes time to propose any other county-owned areas as historic districts, the proposal will come from the Historic Preservation Commission," said McAuliff. "The Historic Preservation Commission is working on design guidelines for any potential districts. Every historic preservation commission, under the state-enabling law, has the authority to adopt its own design guidelines. They adopt their own guidelines for themselves.”
Thomasville Landmarks Inc. was founded in 1966 with a mission to preserve, protect and promote the architecture, history and heritage of Thomasville and the Thomas County area.
The non-profit organization is housed at 312 N. Broad St., in the Hardy Bryan House, that Bryan built in 1833. It is the oldest two-story residence in Thomasville.
The city condemned the structure in May 1977, and it took several years to get ownership of the building, said Thomasville Landmarks executive director Mary Lawrence Lang.
The push to preserve historic buildings started years ago, said Tifton City Council member Frank Sayles, whose district encompasses the city’s historic district. Sayles also is the vice-chair of the Tifton Downtown Development Authority.
“Some people had the forethought to try to save some of the old buildings and preserve some of the old homes,” he said. “You can look at a lot of towns around us that didn’t preserve their historic buildings and now they wish they had. It helps with the character of the city and makes it a place where people really want to come. There’s a lot of folks that want to move to a town that has some sense of place and has historic preservation like that.”
Sayles said that the move to preserve historic buildings has been accelerated recently.
“We’ve been doing a lot," he said. "We’ve got a lot of grants in the past few years."
‘Telling a story’
Valdosta’s buildings give the area its identity, said James Horton, the City of Valdosta’s historic preservation and special projects planner. The Lowndes County Courthouse, for instance, is unique to Valdosta.
“There’s not another building that looks like it,” he said. “In downtown, there may be buildings that look similar to them, but there’s not exactly those same buildings anywhere and the arrangement of those buildings is unique to downtown; the size, the scale, the decorative items that are used on the outside and the inside of those buildings. The way they work with the landscape and the street layout is an important identifying factor for the people who live in Valdosta and Lowndes County.”
Valdosta’s historic neighborhoods and its historic downtown are the city’s face, Horton said.
“If we just had all commercial buildings, it would just kind of be like a foreign land,” he said. “It would be like a person walking around without a face. They give Valdosta its identity. They’re the face of Valdosta. They’re what make this place unique.”
Historic houses tell a story, Horton said, pointing specifically to the Wisenbaker-Roberts House and the Converse-Dalton-Ferrell House.
“Those homes have those historic names attached to them,” he said, “because those are the families that originated in those buildings and those are the ones that are the best known.”
The area known as Tockwotton in Thomasville developed from the 1850s to the 1920s. Judge Peter E. Love originally owned the area, and Landmarks’ revolving fund now owns Love’s house at 141 S. Love St.
In the 1850s, Love began selling small tracts of his land. One of the buyers included a Rhode Island family that moved to Thomasville and then named the area Tockwotton after a Rhode Island Indian chief.
The city annexed Tockwotton in 1857. During the Victorian era, winter residents and well-to-do locals built homes there.
The Warren Avenue-Love Street Historic District makes up a distinct area within the larger Tockwotton-Love Place National Register District. As Judge Love's estate sold parcels in the late 19th century, the neighborhood grew into Love Place, a community for middle class carpenters, blacksmiths and grocers. Its houses represent some of the most popular architectural styles and house types in Thomasville from around 1850 to the mid-20th century.
In Whitfield County, Prater’s Mill, built by Benjamin Prater in 1855, quickly became a hub of economic and social activity in northwest Georgia. Farmers from across north Georgia brought their corn to be ground at the mill. And the mill remained a vital part of the area for almost a century.
The first major restoration project in Tifton was the Myon Hotel, which was a longtime downtown anchor.
The Myon Hotel was first built in 1906 over the remains of the Sadie Hotel and was in use as a hotel until the 1960s, when the majority of travel shifted from U.S. 41 to I-75.
Retail stores remained in the lower floor, but the top levels fell into disuse and disrepair.
“This building really means a lot to Tifton,” said Tifton City Council member Sayles. “It’s kind of the focal point of downtown. If you look at pictures from 100 years ago, it pretty much looks the same. You see the Myon sitting there and some of the shops down Main Street. The street wasn’t paved or anything but you can still tell it’s downtown Tifton.”
He said that even after years of neglect the Myon was a beautiful building.
Saved for history
By 1971, Prater's Mill had fallen on hard times, recalls Judy Alderman, one of the founders and the long-time head of the Prater's Mill Foundation.
"Jane Harrell (another Prater's Mill Foundation founder) always said, 'The gaping holes in the roof matched the gaping holes in the floor,'" Alderman said.
Two businessmen owned the mill and a group went to one of the men and expressed the desire to lease the mill.
With a lease in hand, the group began the Prater's Mill Country Fair to fund repairs to the mill. The first fair was held Mother’s Day weekend in 1971, and there was a fair every month through December.
“That was awfully ambitious,” Alderman said.
The fair continued as a twice-yearly event for almost 30 years before being scaled back to once a year. The group continued the lease until 2010, when the Boring family, which owned the property, donated it to Whitfield County.
Today, thanks to the efforts of the Prater's Mill Foundation, the mill is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the annual country fair draws thousands of people from across the nation and even from foreign countries, and the proceeds continue to help fund the maintenance of the mill.
In 1984, a public-private partnership was reached between the City of Tifton, which needed a new location for City Hall, and local developer Harold Harper to restore the hotel. The project was completed in 1987.
The current location of Tifton City Hall is in what used to be the hotel lobby and atrium. City government offices take up three floors in that part of the building. The rest of the building, which surrounds a brick courtyard, was turned into retail, business and apartment spaces.
In 2013 another renovation was done since the building was sinking.
Harper, who passed away in February 2019, was a key figure in preserving many downtown buildings.
Harper was in the middle of another rehabilitation project when he passed.
The Twin Brick warehouses, which were included on Tifton’s National Register of Historic Places nomination form as “landmark structures,” were long abandoned when Harper purchased them. One renovation was completed in 2017, which took a long abandoned tobacco warehouse and turned it into high-end loft apartments and a restaurant.
The second warehouse, like its next-door neighbor, is being turned into lofts. Care is being taken to preserve as much of the original structure as possible, including the arched doorways and brickwork
Sayles said that another building that has been neglected is being looked at for potential restoration.
The Golden Building has, like the Myon, fallen into disuse and disrepair. It has been vacant for nearly a decade.
“We would like to see something done with that,” Sayles said.
Sayles, who said the building was built around 1911, went through the building with other Downtown Development Authority members.
“It’s a solidly built building,” he said. “Inside, you’d be surprised. It’s in good shape. It has a basement that’s not wet. There’s no water leakage down there, which is amazing.”
In Thomasville's Tockwotton neighborhood, the large old homes there were in a severe state of decline by the 1970s, a time of high gasp prices and high interest rates, Lang said.
"What was once a gracious homeowner-occupied block became a target for commercial redevelopment," she said.
A June 1971 a Landmarks publication said the area was “already zoned commercial” and was “headed for oblivion with four historic buildings to be demolished and the lush growth, including hundreds of trees, eliminated.”
Lang said the original plan would have demolished four homes to build a chain grocery store. Rather than the thriving neighborhood that exists today, she said, it could have become an underperforming and aesthetically barren site.
Landmarks purchased the houses, sinking the organization deeply into debt. A master plan, accommodating commercial uses while preserving the historic character, was developed.
Homes on the block have been restored, and the area is once again among Thomasville's most fashionable.
In 1990, the neighborhood was given the strongest protection possible when the City of Thomasville created the Tockwotton Local Historic District, protecting exterior changes through a design review process.
While the oldest structures of Thomasville's Warren Avenue-Love Street District are Greek Revival cottages, as the late 19th century progressed into the early 20th century, many Folk Victorian houses and Craftsman bungalows were added. The late 20th century began a period of decline, and many houses deteriorated substantially.
In 1998, Thomasville Landmarks and private residents launched a comprehensive effort that revitalized the neighborhood and led to its designation as a local historic district.
Thomasville Landmarks directly purchased and sold 19 dilapidated houses, all of which now have preservation easements in perpetuity. Landmarks also holds easements on more than 60 houses.
"These easements ensure that our investment of private donor dollars in saving an endangered property is sustainable over the long term," Lang said.
On the brink
In Moultrie, the Colquitt County Arts Center is in peril. The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation says so.
But by being listed on the preservation group’s Places in Peril list last November, the arts center now has access to resources that may help it secure its 90-year-old home.
As always, the question revolves around money.
The arts center is housed in the former Moultrie High School, which opened to students in 1929 and served as a school until the 1970s.
The arts center was conceived in a 1977 letter from Barbara Fallin to the Moultrie Service League.
“There is a real need here for the promotion of the arts,” Fallin wrote, and she suggested the old high school might be acquired for the purpose.
With this idea, the group convinced the Colquitt County Board of Education that if given title to the abandoned building, they could develop an arts institution.
The venerable building needs work. The arts center has been through some lean times, and maintenance has sometimes been postponed due to financial straits.
There’s a three-quarter-inch gap at the bottom of the exterior doors where they’ve sagged. There is rotten wood on the fascia all around the roof. The cupola atop the roof — which has become a symbol of the arts center — is rotted with missing louvers. A wing of the building does not have air conditioning.
Since the arts center made the Places in Peril list, officials have been to several Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation workshops. They’ve been in talks with the same architects who managed the renovation of the Moultrie public library last year.
They have approached the Colquitt County Arts Center Foundation for money to hire the architects to make a plan for the future of the building.
“We’ve started taking baby steps toward what needs to be done,” said arts center Director Connie Fritz.
Once the architects are signed on, it will take them about three months to get a plan together, Fritz said. It will be in phases, with the first phase to address structural issues, such as the rotten fascia and dilapidated cupola.
Until the plan comes together, arts center officials won’t know what it’s going to cost, but they can be pretty sure it will be a lot. An estimate from two county officials called for $1.6 million in repairs and upgrades.
Arts center officials are expecting the architect to propose some different solutions, so they aren’t sure how relevant the county’s estimate is.
For example, Arts Center Board President Ashley Goss said some parts of the building are not functional due to design issues. Officials want the architect to come up with some plans to make the space more usable.
“We hope the architect can use every square foot of this facility,” Goss said.
Arts center officials are already seeking grants to help cover the renovation’s cost. Fritz was preparing applications for one from the Fox Theatre Institute and one from the state Department of Natural Resources last week. But most of the funding will come from donations to a capital campaign that will begin once the architects present their plans. The arts center is receiving help from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and the University of Georgia’s Archway Project as it prepares for the fundraising effort.
Fritz has her eye on the building’s centennial in 2029 as a great time to have everything finished.
“You’ll start to see some immediate progress — I’d say after kickoff (of the fundraising campaign),” she said.
Meanwhile, the arts center will continue its operations. A variety of arts camps are planned throughout the summer, local actors presented “Steel Magnolias” recently, an annual quilt exhibit will feature Quilts of Valor in September, and the center is always on the lookout for more instructors.
The Imperial’s future
The Imperial Hotel, once imperiled, is on its way to returning to being a vibrant location.
Thomasville’s Imperial Hotel had been a stop for African American performing across the Southeast. It was one of the locations in what became to be known as “The Green Book,” which was chronicled in the Academy Award-winning film of the same name.
It operated from 1949 to the late 1969. One of Hadley’s museum board members came to him and asked about the Imperial. The investor who owned the building was ready to sell.
“Within a week, Landmarks heard about it and they jumped on board,” Hadley said.
With financial support from Landmarks and from the Williams Family Foundation of Georgia, Hadley had $40,000 within a week to 10 days.
Now with that backing, Hadley knew he had to buy the old hotel.
“I couldn’t say no,” he said. “I didn’t have a choice.”
An anonymous donor helped fund the new roof that went up this March, and the Kirbo Foundation was one of the organizations that helped Hadley and the museum buy the adjoining shotgun house. A fundraiser gala last fall also boosted the efforts.
Hadley, Thomasville Landmarks and their backers saved the Imperial Hotel before time and the elements laid it to waste.
“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “I’m really blessed that Thomasville Landmarks is working with us through the whole process. I’m just a guy who spent 20 years in the Air Force.”
As for that original question, he now can begin to form an answer. In the works is turning part of the Imperial into a satellite location with rotating exhibits from the Jack Hadley Black History Museum. The second floor once housed eight bedrooms and two bathrooms for guests, and a consultant has been hired to write a business plan for that portion of the hotel.
“Now they know,” he said. “God has placed it in my face and we are going to do something with it.’
At 83 years old, and in good health, Hadley said he wants to be around when the Imperial Hotel is made anew and welcomes another generation of guests and visitors.
“I want to make it all the way through,” he said.