Stor y by H.M. CAULEY Photos by JENNI GIRTMAN
Some people might see the brick building at 145 Auburn Ave. as an empty, worn-out shell that does little to enhance the beauty of the block.
Gene Kansas looked at that same structure and saw past the rotted wood, caved-in ceiling and mismatched windows. Instead, the local real estate developer envisioned a chance to restore a piece of Atlanta’s history not far from the Auburn Avenue Research Library and Georgia State’s welcome center, Centennial Hall.
Built in 1912, the two-story structure served a number of purposes in the predominantly black neighborhood. Its greatest renown began in 1928, when the second floor housed the offices of the Atlanta Daily World, the city’s African-American newspaper devoted to informing and advocating for the city’s minority and segregated population.
In a 2013 editorial, Alexis Scott, the current publisher and granddaughter of the paper’s founder, wrote eloquently about the paper’s commitment to civil rights, noting that the Atlanta Daily World pushed for quality: “Equal pay for blacks vs. white teachers; desegregation of buses and access to public parks, among other unjust laws. The paper clearly stated its belief that segregation was unconstitutional.”
In 1980, the building was identified as a “historic site in journalism” by the Society of Professional Journalists. But in 2008, the freak tornado that tore through downtown ripped off the roof, forcing the paper’s staff to relocate to new offices near the airport.
Four years later, weather-beaten and dilapidated, the building was saved from demolition by neighbor- » hood residents appealing to the Urban Design Commission, the city office that oversees historic buildings and districts. Kansas took on the project.
“It didn’t need to be torn down, even though everyone who saw it said it was a mess,” Kansas says. “It was, but I thought it was awesome and really very solid. And a lot of history took place here.”
Reclaiming history from useless eyesores has become a specialty for Kansas, who has been buying, selling, leasing and restoring properties since 2003. His company portfolio includes the restoration of the Clermont Lounge on Ponce de Leon Avenue, the revitalization of the Sweet Auburn Curb Market and the redevelopment of Commercial Row (the storefronts on the edge of the Margaret Mitchell house in Midtown).
More than 100 years old, the Dai-
Upon completion of the restoration, the 145 Auburn Ave. building will house two apartments, an Arden’s Garden juice bar and a Condesa Coffee shop. ly World building provides another chance to bring a battered piece of the past back to life.
“When I read about the controversy over tearing it down, I got involved,” Kansas says. “What really attracted me was the history and the will of the people to save it.”
Kansas has done his homework into the site’s background. “This was one of the few integrated buildings,” he says. “In the 1940s, it was a jazz club that brought in people like Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. The first African-American Girl Scout troop was housed here. And at one time it had apartments and a coffeehouse.”
Kansas plans to revive some of those uses for the 21st century. He has already signed Arden’s Garden for one side of the first floor and Condesa Coffee for the other; both are expected to open sometime this month. Upstairs is slowly being transformed into two apartments, each with two bedrooms and 1,250 square feet. Most of the rotted materials have been hauled away, and new floors and frames are in place. But wherever possible, Kansas is intent on reclaiming original elements such as the plaster walls, windows and 12-foot ceilings.
That dedication to preservation led to a partnership between Kansas’ company and the Midtown architectural firm of Gamble and Gamble to complete the Daily World renovation. Co-founder Lee Ann Gamble, who met Kansas five years ago when they were working out at the gym, found that his enthusiasm for the past matched her own.
“We had an instant connection,” Gamble says. “He’s such an easy person to talk to and very engaging. His range of interests — real estate, preservation and history — converged in this project. And I think that’s unusual for a developer. Most are interested in developing the community and making money. Gene has those interests as well, but he also has an underlying motivation to want to see long-term change for the good.”
Kansas also brings his passion for the past to the airwaves as host of “Sidewalk Radio,” a show dedicated to the telling the city’s history and culture through conversations around architecture, development, planning and preservation. Since debuting four years ago, the show has featured guests such as poet Pearle Cleage, former Mayor Sam Massell and Belt-Line creator Ryan Gravel, and airs on the fourth Monday of the month on AM1690.
The Midtown resident explains that he has two motivations for wanting to preserve the past. The first is a childhood spent in New Orleans, where he says “history is ingrained.” The second is the arrival of his first child, Levi, born in July 2014.
“That made me realize that if buildings like this aren’t here, he’ll have no clue about their importance,” Kansas says. “Future generations will know our stories by looking at our built environment. It speaks to who we are.”
Gene Kansas Commercial Real Estate. 75 Fifth St. 404-635-0027. www.genekansas.com ›
A local developer sees a window of opportunity to restore a piece of Atlanta’s past