American Legion Post 140 plans to demolish its rustic, 1930s-era building alongside Buckhead’s Chastain Park and replace it with a larger stone-and-wood structure. The old building is falling apart, post leaders say, but the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation is calling for it to be saved.
“If we don’t do anything, [the current building] won’t be there in five years,” said post commander Ken DeSimone, whose day job is serving as the Sandy Springs police chief. “It’s doomed one way or another. We make a new one or let it fall in on itself.”
Mark McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust, took a look at the building earlier this year at the request of a small group of pro-preservation Legion members. He says there’s another way.
“I frankly felt this was one of the easier preservation situations I’ve ever seen,” he said, adding in a written statement, “The Georgia Trust is strongly opposed to the demolition of this historic resource.”
“The only thing historic about the building is the fact that it’s old,” said Max Hilsman, a Buckhead resident and post official who has been shepherding the new building plan, explaining his own look into the building’s history. He said he might contact the Trust for more information, but also used a military joke to describe the Legion post’s caution.
“We call them ‘good idea fairies.’ They have an idea and flit in and flit out again” without offering any resources or plan, he said.
Post 140 at 3905 Powers Ferry Road serves military veterans mostly from the Buckhead, Brookhaven and Sandy Springs areas. Its house-like building has a stone fireplace, a deck and walls of irregular wooden planks painted green outside. Since at least 1954, it has served as a Legion post, deeded by Fulton County on the condition it remain in Legion use; otherwise, ownership reverts back to the county.
The post is known for community connections, including last year’s opening of a T-ball field next to the building and the renting of the facility to such groups as the Buckhead 50 Club. Legion members help run a Boy Scout camp and hold such fundraisers as a run for Buckhead’s Shepherd Center for brain and spinal injury treatment.
While the Legion and the Trust disagree on the building’s historic significance, little is known about it by either side. Hilsman said the common assumption is the structure was built as a bunkhouse for workers in President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal work programs. Backing the idea is the existence of similar structures at F.D. Roosevelt State Park in Pine Mountain, where “buildings there look exactly like our structure…They are also painted green,” Hilsman said.
Hilsman said he did some research about the building, with the Atlanta History Center directing him to its archives. He said the main research was reading through “Atlanta and Environs,” a definitive city history by Franklin Garrett, where he found no mention of the post building.
McDonald said the building looks more solidly built than a bunkhouse and may have been purpose-built as a Legion post, though he said he has done no research about it. Post 140 was chartered in 1936, DeSimone said, but no one knows exactly where, though it is believed it was not in the Powers Ferry Road building.
DeSimone and Hilsman say the building now has major structural issues, including a rotting kitchen floor, foundation problems and outdated wiring and plumbing. And the Legion post is starting to outgrow it, with membership swelling to around 200 in the era of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Following a vote of the post’s executive committee and general membership, the Legion is moving ahead with a plan to demolish the old building and erect the new one. The new stone-and-wood structure would stand on the same footprint as the current building, but would be larger. Hilsman and DeSimone said they have one historical element in mind: reusing the rafters and the stone fireplace. The post’s interior displays of military memorabilia also would be preserved.
“We’re dreaming big. Hopefully we can pull it off,” said DeSimone. He estimates the new building will cost over $1 million and require donations.
The plan requires a city Special Use Permit, as the post is grandfathered into a residential zoning, and is heading to a Zoning Review Board hearing sometime in November. The plan has received the blessing of NPUs A and B, as well as the Chastain Park Civic Association.
However, about a dozen members would like to see the current building preserved and rehabbed. Richard Whitner, a member of both Post 140 and the Georgia Trust, is the one who had McDonald visit the site earlier this year.
“Just the history of it and the fact we’ve been going to it since we were in high school,” Whitner said of why he and other members think the existing building should be saved. “Just the nostalgia.”
But Whitner indicated he is deferring to the post’s executive committee decision. Whitner said DeSimone discouraged making an executive committee presentation on preservation, but the pro-preservation Legion members also had no formal plan and did not follow up with McDonald’s offer of providing architects and contractors to advise them.
DeSimone said contractor estimated rehabbing would cost as much as new construction. “The building’s just past its useful lifespan,” he said.
McDonald said that is a common “kneejerk reaction,” but that preservation assistance is often available, and the cost of new construction might force the Legion to boost rental rates.
“The Georgia Trust believes the American Legion post is historically significant as a WPA-era building and should be preserved,” McDonald said in his written statement. “It is in good condition and offers excellent reuse possibilities. In addition, this building has served the Atlanta community and the American legion for over 70 years and has hosted hundreds of community events. Therefore, it is not only architecturally significant, but is a repository of memories from Atlanta’s social history.”
“I don’t think it changes our thinking,” Hilsman said of the Georgia Trust’s opinion, but added that the post is “respectful” of history. “I think it’s reasonable, at some point in the next couple weeks, to reach out to them,” he said.
He noted that major rehabilitation also would require a Special Use Permit, so the city process would remain the same.