2 men are breathing new life into Macon’s Cotton Avenue area
MACON, Ga. (AP) — In 2015, losses of two historic buildings in the Cotton Avenue area of Macon inspired creation of the Fading Five list to bring attention to properties in danger.
The Historic Macon Foundation’s rule for the list is that properties would stay on it until declared either saved or lost.
Today, the Cotton Avenue District, once a hub of black life in Macon, is the only property on the inaugural list that hasn’t been declared saved, but it is now well on its way.
Macon attorneys Virgil Adams and Brian Adams, no relation, in late 2017 bought an entire block of buildings in the district that were considered the most critically in danger. They took six months to move out tenants, then started cleaning out the buildings to prepare for renovation.
An engineering firm is currently working to make sure the buildings are stable, and once that is done renovations will begin. That could start any day, and the work is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The two will then lease out the buildings, which could be medical offices, professional services or other types of business.
With the completion of that project, the only building in danger left in the district will be the vacant Walton building, said Ethiel Garlington, executive director of Historic Macon. If Cotton Avenue stays on the list this year, it will only be because of the Walton building, he said. It’s also possible Cotton Avenue could come off and the Walton building itself would be put on the list.
Regardless, Garlington said, the work the two attorneys are doing is a major step forward for Cotton.
“It’s huge, frankly, for that stretch that we know those two gentlemen have invested in the neighborhood, and they know the value and history and will respect and preserve it,” he said.
The buildings they purchased include the one that houses H&H Restaurant, one of Macon’s most iconic eateries. That’s the only tenant that didn’t have to leave. They own all the other buildings along Forsyth Street — which used to be Cotton Avenue — from H&H to High Place. They purchased most of it from the estate of Albert Billingslea, a civil rights leader and building contractor who was one of Bibb County’s first black commissioners.
Billingslea had an office in the building adjacent to H&H, where he wielded considerable influence.
“A lot of politicians running for office knew that in order to have any chance of getting elected they had to come through Mr. Billingslea’s office on Cotton Avenue,” Virgil Adams said as he stood outside Billingslea’s old office on Feb. 11. “That was local, state and national office seekers.”
In recognition of Billingslea’s connection to the property, they are calling the stretch of buildings “Billingslea Commons.”
In the era of segregation, the Cotton Avenue area was populated by a wide range of black-owned businesses and was the economic center of the black community in Macon. Virgil Adams said there was even a black-owned bank there.
“That’s almost unheard of today,” he said. “Just think about the history of African Americans in this country, and you can imagine the pride that they felt just having a community and businesses that could service their community.”
State and federal tax incentives for historic preservation will be used for the project, which requires that the restoration maintains the historic character of the buildings.
After the Fading Five list started, preservation advocates also formed the Cotton Avenue Coalition, dedicated to preserving the district, and started the Cotton Avenue Revival Festival, which will be held May 11 this year.
Information from: The Telegraph, http://www.macontelegraph.com