historic preservation

‘You are as good as anyone’

Ruth Hartley Mosley always made an impression.

She was tall and beautiful, with piercing eyes. A commanding presence in any setting.

She didn’t have time for trifles. Her mother died when she was 12. Her father, a boot maker, instilled in her a sense of resolve and self-sufficiency that guided her all of her days. 

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She was born in Savannah in 1886, but lived in Macon most of her life, moving here with her first husband, Richard Hartley (Years after his death, she married Fisher Mosley.) She was a successful businesswoman during a time when the odds of such an achievement were squarely against a woman, especially a woman of color.

She owned a funeral home, more than a hundred rental properties and was one of the first women anywhere to earn a mortician’s license.

A nurse by training, Mosley helped teach dozens of black midwives. She also was active in Macon’s civil rights movement. After her death, she was an inductee into the Georgia Women of Achievement. (Authors Margaret Mitchell and Carson McCullers were in the same class.)

Still, many folks have never heard of her. 

“She had a vision, and she knew what she wanted,” said Gerri McCord, executive director of the Ruth Hartley Mosley Memorial Women’s Center. “She believed that if you had the ability to give, it was your responsibility to do so. … Not enough people have been exposed to her throughout the community.”

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The Women’s Center is located in Mosley’s former home. It’s a beautiful old building on the short stretch of Spring Street near the Cotton Avenue Historic District. It is a contributing building to the Macon Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Until recently, that district — Macon’s leading black business community at one time — was on Historic Macon’s Fading Five list of endangered properties because of intense commercial development pressure. The district itself has made substantial progress thanks to preservation efforts and the work of such groups as the Cotton Avenue Coalition, but the Women’s Center is not on so firm a footing. It needs structural work. There’s plenty of rotten wood. The plaster walls are deteriorating. (Mark your calendar, though. Starting Tuesday, Sept. 24, you’ll have a chance to vote online to help the center win critical preservation funding. Details are coming soon.) 

“It’s shameful for a place like this to be in our community and not be recognized or preserved,” McCord said this week during a look around the center. “I don’t think we know what we’ve got here.”

 During the turbulent 1950s and ‘60s, Mosley hosted civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, as well as Thurgood Marshall, before he was a Supreme Court justice. Her home was a refuge for them in the Jim Crow South, much like other sites that were featured in the movie “Green Book.”

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Mosley cherished Macon, and she wanted the best for its residents. Since it opened its doors to the public in 1978, the nonprofit Women’s Center has provided help in keeping with her wishes: increasing educational opportunities for women and enhancing their life skills, as well as providing services for the community. That has included classes for aspiring nursing assistants.

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Her estate included two trust funds. One provided financial assistance for needy students who wanted to become nurses or other health care providers. It’s been depleted. The other fund established the Women’s Center, but it, too, will soon be exhausted.

“She put her money where her mouth was,” McCord said. “It was very important to her to give back to the  community that gave so much to her. She tried to fulfill needs she saw in the community.

“She lived in her moment. She didn’t know that things would open up and be more inclusive. She left resources to provide for her people.”

Mosley died in Savannah in 1975 at age 89. She is buried in Linwood Cemetery, in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

The next time you’re strolling around Tattnall Square Park, take a moment to stop by the majestic fountain in the middle of the park.

At the base of the fountain wall, you will find words of inspiration and encouragement from influential Macon residents who’ve made a difference over the years.

Ruth Hartley Mosley is among them.

Her message there, set in stone, is as timeless as the values she held dear.

“You are as good as anyone. Never let the fact that you don’t have anything keep you from achieving.”

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Here’s what ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ film crew thought about downtown Macon

Flint’s Grocery is gone. So too are Weber’s Cafe, Jay’s Beauty Salon and the Rathman/Lewis drugstore, “where you get what the doctor ordered.”

The Middletown Journal, like hundreds of its latter-day brethren, has also shut down.

They were all part of the filming for “Hillbilly Elegy” along Poplar Street. Now, workers have knocked down scaffolding and repainted storefronts up and down the street.

Photo: Historic Macon

Photo: Historic Macon

It was our latest close-up for a major film, and several members of the small army of women and men working here said Macon should be proud of what it has downtown.

In particular, what it has saved downtown.

“You’ve got great buildings,” said Rick Riggs, the charge scenic artist on the set. “We were very pleasantly surprised at the architecture around town. … You’ve got great little storefronts. … There’s a great opportunity to revitalize the downtown area. We see it.”

Photo: HIstoric Macon

Photo: HIstoric Macon

Riggs was standing outside a row of remade storefronts in the 600 block of Poplar. He described the process of replicating street scenes from Middletown, Ohio, where most of J.D. Vance’s bestseller is set, during three periods: the late 1990s, in 2012 and the late 1940s -- in that order -- for shooting. Workers had to “distress” a site one day, then use historically accurate touches -- appropriate colors, for example -- when they re-created the boom times of post-World War II Middletown. 

In all, at least 20 stores or buildings were transformed for filming across the county, most of them in and around downtown. Ron Howard is directing the Netflix movie, which stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close. The memoir tells the story of Vance’s family in Middletown and their struggles with poverty, alcoholism and abuse.

During the height of filming in Macon, one worker took a break and extolled what he’d seen downtown. Standing on the sidewalk, he noted the old Armory Building at the corner of First and Poplar, which was completed in 1885, then pointed out St. Joseph Catholic Church a little farther up the hill.

He called downtown Macon “a gold mine.” The buildings, by and large, are in good shape, and for movie purposes, you can take a store, add neon signs and you’re back in the 1950s. Then you can take out the neon and add LED lighting for a more modern look. But the sites work equally well for both settings, he said.

Photo: HIstoric Macon

Photo: HIstoric Macon

Most of the folks in town for filming had never been to Macon, and almost all of them are gone now. Matt Sparks, a native of Jefferson, near Athens, is getting to know the city well, though.

He was assistant location manager for “Hillbilly Elegy” and a scout too. He arrived in town about a month before shooting began, and he’d just been in Macon in April for four days of shooting on HBO’s “Watchmen” series. During that filming, workers turned parts of Second and Cherry streets into 1940s Brooklyn.

“There’s a lot of room for opportunity here,” he said. “I look at the buildings and wonder, ‘What did this used to be?” Downtown Macon, he said, “has so much to offer.”

Plenty of forward-thinking Macon residents have reached the same conclusion in recent years as they converted long-dormant buildings into new retail or living space. You need only look at the soon-to-open Kudzu Seafood on Poplar, Famous Mike’s nearby, the Macon Beer Co.’s new taproom, which is nearing completion, or the dozens of other sites breathing new life, thanks to the preservation mind-set.  

When he could, Sparks took walks down alleyways and even paid a visit to the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park while he was here.

“There are parts of history that just flash out,” he said of downtown’s buildings. “For me, it brings character to the city.”

In time, one stretch in the 600 block of Poplar that was used for filming will be torn down to make way for the planned Hyatt Place, a six-floor hotel with more than 100 rooms. 

Joe Couch, another member of the “Hillbilly Elegy” crew, saw a good bit of that work during his years as a Savannah resident. But he knows you’ve got to pick your spots carefully.

Couch, a prop maker for more than 40 years, said he marvelled at what he saw downtown.

“These are beautiful,” he said, looking around. “You don’t see this much any more. A lot of places, they’re tearing down everything. You haven’t done that.”

Then he paused.

“You should show a reverence for them,” he said of the old buildings. “If not, they’re long gone.”

Las Vegas: A Preservation Theory Mecca?

Most people probably don’t think of Las Vegas, Nevada as a historic preservation hotspot. However, I recently attended the National Council on Public History’s (NCPH) annual meeting in Las Vegas and found several opportunities to engage with important questions facing the entire preservation community.

We had many great discussions about preservation and architecture at NCPH, but one opportunity that stands out is a tour of the Neon Museum. The museum was founded in 1996, and their initial collection was the “Neon Boneyard” that belonged to the Young Electric Sign Company, more commonly known as YESCO. Today, visitors have the opportunity to take hour-long guided tours of the outdoor collection.

The Neon Boneyard originally belonged to YESCO and it became the initial collection of the Neon Museum when the organization was founded in 1996. Today, the museum collects not just neon, but any sign from Las Vegas.  Image by Kim Campbell.

The Neon Boneyard originally belonged to YESCO and it became the initial collection of the Neon Museum when the organization was founded in 1996. Today, the museum collects not just neon, but any sign from Las Vegas. Image by Kim Campbell.

My group was lucky, in Las Vegas no less, to have Tracey Sprague, the Collections Assistant, lead our tour, so we talked a lot about preserving these signs. Although the Neon Museum does have an offsite indoor storage space, ninety-five percent of the collection is exposed to the elements of southern Nevada in the Boneyard. We asked Tracey how she felt about this fact, and she told us about the constant internal battle between keeping the signs visible to the public in the Boneyard and better preserving them in the private storage space. Since almost all historic buildings are exposed to the elements, we face similar issues of maintenance in historic preservation, though typically without the option of moving them to a more protected space.

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Although many casinos and hotels in Las Vegas are demolished to make way for totally new businesses, others have gone through several facelifts or “re-brandings.” The Golden Nugget is one of those casinos and is still open in the “Glitter Glutch” section of Las Vegas Today.  Images by Kim Campbell.

Although many casinos and hotels in Las Vegas are demolished to make way for totally new businesses, others have gone through several facelifts or “re-brandings.” The Golden Nugget is one of those casinos and is still open in the “Glitter Glutch” section of Las Vegas Today. Images by Kim Campbell.

Only a few of the neon signs in the Neon Boneyard now light up. When asked why this is the case, Tracey explained that the process of “restoring” a historic neon sign actually involves gutting the original electrical system and replacing it with a modern system to ensure it is safe. When rehabilitating historic buildings, we constantly face this same decision. Should we gut the building and essentially make it modern inside? How little can we remove while meeting minimum life safety requirements? This battle is ever present in the field, and while the Neon Museum has the option to strictly preserve some signs in their non-functioning state, preservationists are typically faced with the option to either allow a building to be demolished or make it functional for modern life.

Whether or not signs are rehabilitated to function is decided on a case-by-case basis. La Concha’s sign was relit for interpretive purposes, since the visitor’s center is now housed in the moved original structure.  Image by Kim Campbell.   

Whether or not signs are rehabilitated to function is decided on a case-by-case basis. La Concha’s sign was relit for interpretive purposes, since the visitor’s center is now housed in the moved original structure. Image by Kim Campbell.  

The Neon Museum presented one final key preservation issue: that of a moved building. The visitor’s center and gift shop is an incredible example of a mid-century modern structure in the Googie style. Paul Revere Williams, the architect of the building, was the first African-American architect allowed in the American Institute of Architects. (To learn more about Paul Revere Williams, check out this great episode of 99% Invisible recommended to me by my coworker Lauren Mauldin.) This building was originally La Concha Motel on the Las Vegas Strip. When it closed in 2004, it was threatened with demolition because real estate on the Strip is so valuable. To save the structure, it was moved to the Neon Boneyard site. While preservationists are all for saving buildings, many in the field disapprove of moving structures, arguing they are not the same “place” once their setting changes. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, I think we can all agree that La Concha’s new home next to the Neon Boneyard was a major preservation win for Las Vegas.