Merchants Hall plans shot down

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By Tia Lyn Lecorchick staff writer

Kathi Russell, owner of the historic Mapp-Gilmore building located at 200 West Washington Street in Madison, appeared before the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) on March 11 to present her design proposal for the currently demolished building’s reconstruction in hopes of being approved for a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA), the next step required before reconstruction of the Mapp-Gilmore building can begin.

The commission unanimously voted to deny her request on account of the submitted architectural plans failing to meet the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) standards, which was the original condition for approval of the project.

During the discussion, Russell and the commission butted heads over the future of the project. According to Ken Kocher, preservation planner, Russell’s drawings depicted six features that did not meet HABS standards, which included an additional six-feet of height to the building itself, an enlarged, expanded and redesigned parapet, redesigning to the original shape and placement of the windows, and changes to the pilasters.

“I thought it was understood that you would have to adopt to HABS standards. We only approved this under the condition that you would comply with the HABS standards,” said Steve Schaefer, HPC member. “The designs in the application are not for a reconstruction, but a new construction,” said Richard Simpson, a HPC member. Russell argued that her plans included essential changes necessary for a building in the modern era and may be closer to the original building than the commission realizes. “All we were trying to do is deconstruct this building and build it back in the spirit of the building itself,” said Russell.

“We are in the 21st century, we are required to have some of these changes,” she insisted. “I am in business as a tea room owner. I need a certain amount of square footage. We cannot pay the price of this building, if we don’t make money,” explained Russell.

“Does it meet the HABS standards or does it not? It is not a question of opinion, but it is a question of fact. I am distressed because I think you always knew what the HABS standards were and yet have not kept by them,” said Schaefer. But Russell stood by her plans.

“All we are trying to do is bring up the building to its original height in 1905 when it was first built. We needed to enhance the parapet for ventilation,” said Russell. Russell believes the building appeared higher when it was first built because the street-scape later built up above the building, which has resulted in at least four feet of the building now underground.

Russell also reminded the commission of all the original materials she has retained for the building’s reconstruction. “I am not a brick expert, but I have 40,000 of these hand-cut bricks, and I intend to use everyone one of them,” said Russell. “These are the same plans I have always had.”

“And we have told you every time that these plans did not meet the design guidelines,” shot back Chris McCauley, an HPC member. According to Kocher, the commission is open to numerous changes to the Mapp-Gilmore building, but decreed that the six HABS standard violations must be amended before they could approve Russell’s plans.

“We appreciate what you are doing and we understand the difficulties of the building. But I have to wonder if the HABS standards would be that difficult for your architect to adhere to. Could you rework these plans to meet HABS standards and lose anything that you wanted as the owner? I am not an architect, but I question if a single one of these standards would be a problem for an architect or would keep you from running your business,” said Schaefer.

In a post-meeting interview, Russell responded to Schaefer’s line of questioning. “The question is not what do I stand to lose, but what does Madison stand to lose by holding up this project? And the answer is the tea room, the French bakery and the gourmet food gift shop,” said Russell of the potential loss of her three businesses.

Russell declined to comment on whether or not aligning her plans to the HABS standards would impede her business or if she will have her architect alter her proposed plan to meet HABS standards. Russell did, however, note that property belongs to her and her vision for it is faithful to its history as a testament to the African-American community.

“I’ve reviewed the plans. I’m the owner, and an entire community of people whose history belongs in this building have already reviewed it and confirmed it,” said Russell.

“Why can everyone else have such grand buildings, but not us? It’s almost as if the HPC’s decision is an intentional affront to the African-American community.” Russell plans to dedicate the second floor of the Mapp-Gilmore building to the remembrance of Merchant’s Hall in the Mapp-Gilmore building, which housed numerous African-American businesses, by displaying photos and historic exhibits related to the past businesses that operated in the building, like the funeral home and barber shop. Russell is set to appeal the HPC’s decision during April 14 city council meeting.

But this latest standoff has reignited passionate reactions from both supporters and critics alike. Mark McDonald, president of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, weighed in on the current controversy. “We were opposed to the building be taken down at all.

I heard her personally assure the Madison preservation commission that if she received permission, she would follow HABS standards. I am really disappointed that she is now trying to back out of her word. I think it’s a travesty of justice,” said McDonald.

“I believe it should have been preserved. Hindsight is 20/20, but I think most people are sorry it’s gone. Once something is demolished, it’s gone forever.” But supporters of Russell see the matter differently. John and Mamie Hillman, members of the Merchant’s Hall Preservation Society, are disappointed with the HPC’s decision. “I’m saddened by it because that decision causes a great delay in what we are trying to do for the community,” said Mamie Hillman.

“I don’t think they understand the full picture of it. This project is important to us as African-Americans, as well as to the whole of Morgan County.” “It’s about progress,” said John Hillman. “This is a class-act project. It would build a cohesive thing for the community.

We will continue to persevere and do what is good for the whole of us. The greater good is going to prevail in this matter, I assure you,” said John Hillman. Russell hopes the city council will rule in her favor next month. “If the HPC doesn’t understand what we are trying to do, hopefully the city council will,” said Russell.

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