I got a call yesterday from Lori Johnston of Atlanta Homes and Lifestyles who wanted to interview me about the changes in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood that I have seen over the past few years, for an article for their May issue. Talking to Lori reminded me what an interesting and long time relationship I have had with this Intown neighborhood. I actually live right across the Belt-line tracks in Inman Park, but for the last few years I have been working on a project restoring and building at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Randolph Street, in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward. In fact I have such an ownership feeling about that corner that I have joked that like Monopoly, if you pass that corner you must pay me 200.00 to pass go.
My first experience with the Old Fourth Ward was back in the early nineties when my kids were little and played soccer at what we called then called the Ghetto Soccer field at the John Wesley Dobbs school on the corner of Irwin and Randolph Streets. At that time, it was a pretty scary place, especially after dark. But over the few years that I spent there watching little kids run up and down the field, I saw things begin to change. The dilapidated, abandoned houses were either renovated or torn down, homes that were in bad shape began to be repaired and soon new houses started to be built on the infill lots in the same style as the original ones. Little did I know back then when I was still a practicing Psychologist, that one day I would be playing a part in the revitalization of that neighborhood.
In the late nineties, I bought a warehouse in Inman Park to have a space to house the offices of the software company that I by then owned with my husband. While running that business, I renovated the building into two offices and five live-work spaces and moved the company and our family there in 1999. By 2003 all seven of the Krog Street units were finished and the remaining units sold. About that time we also sold the software company. I had always been involved in designing and building on a part time basis bigger and bigger projects. After I sold the company I came to a crossroads as to what to do next. Of course I could go back to clinical practice, but developing the Krog lofts was an amazing process that I just loved and I also attended the school of hard knocks and learned a few things in the process but it gave me the vision and the courage that I could actually do this as my art and vocation rather than a hobby and so with some trepidation and a lot of relief, I did not return to seeing clients and have to sit in one room hour upon hour, day upon day.
I came into this real estate development business to do what I loved so given this creative, artistic motivation I became What I would refer to as an “emotional investor”. Its not that I make bad business decisions it means that for me to get involved in a project it has to have something really special about it. When going to one of my favorite breakfast joints, Thumbs Up, In the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood right across the railroad tracks from my place on Krog Street (which we now run as a bed and breakfast called the Urban Oasis), I would pass a deteriorated Deco apartment building that started to call to me. I found out that it was called the Wigwam Apartment Building and over the next couple of months I just knew I could and should save the iconic 1940s building, which has since been voted one of the 100 most important buildings in Atlanta. In order for the numbers to work I also bought the two adjacent lots and have built two duplexes next to the historic building, first a historic reconstruction of the traditional duplex that had originally sat on that lot and the other that was just finished in late 2007 a “modern” cousin to the original building, called the Wigwam Annex.
Once I got into the Wigwam project I got involved in the neighborhood almost more than in Inman Park where I lived. I quickly found out that the beginnings of the change in the neighborhood that I had observed back in the soccer days was due to the efforts of a woman who moved back into the Old Fourth Ward with her family in the late eighties, Mtamanika Youngblood. Mtamanika had a vision of what the Old Fourth Ward could and should be and she set out to form an organization called the Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC) to accomplish her goal of restoring the neighborhood while keeping existing residents and keeping its mixed income demographic. She did this by including input from the neighbors to find out what was needed most and began to find ways to provide it. The HDDC helped people to get grant money to repair or renovate their homes, partnered with banks like Bank of America to build good quality homes on the infill lots in the same styles as the historic homes and instituted programs which assisted first-time homeowners and lower income families to purchase these new houses with low interest and no money down programs. There is a good article that describes Mtamanika’s philosophy and what part she played in saving the neighborhood where Martin Luther King was born and spent his early years.
Because Auburn Avenue was in the MLK Jr Landmark District, I had to work closely with the Atlanta Urban Design Commission on the exterior work on the Wigwam and the design of the other buildings. I found them to be a wonderful resource and learned a great deal about Historic preservation through this process. Although the restoration of the original building was a challenge and a huge amount of work it was personally a very rewarding experience which was acknowledged in 2005 when I received the Atlanta Urban Design Commission’s Award of Excellence and also the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s Excellence in Rehabilitation award for the Wigwam restoration. The two duplexes that I built after that along with the original building all now make up the Wigwam Condominium project and I think they work really well together and greatly enhance the street-scape.
While working on these buildings, I was in the right place at the right time to buy the little neighborhood grocery across the street from the Wigwam, that was all sad and boarded up. I restored that too and it now houses the delightful Lotta Frutta cafe. It really made me feel good when one of the recent articles about Lotta Frutta described the corner of Auburn and Randolph as “the cutest little corner in the Old Fourth Ward”.
Joe Stewardson is a friend of mine who bought and renovated the warehouse building on the corner of Irwin and Boulevard when I bought mine on Krog Street. He also bought the old Danneman’s grocery building on the corner of Boulevard and Edgewood and worked out deals to get some great additions to the commercial corridor; Dannemans Coffee, The Corner Tavern and Café Circa. Thumbs Up and Rolling Bones on Edgewood and The Highland Bakery on Highland have also been thriving businesses that have put us on the map.Then I also have to give some credit to Kwanza Hall ,our City Councilman who lives in the neighborhood. He has recently stated a large-scale Fourth Ward planning process to get resident involvement in getting ready for the growth that will take off as a result of the Belt-line and Parks projects on the books to begin soon.
As you may have noticed I think the Old Fourth Ward is a wonderful neighborhood and it really still has not been fully discovered. I think it probably has one of the highest potentials for appreciation over the next few years than any other Intown neighborhood. It is great place for people looking to live in an area that is already really nice and safe, yet under the radar.
Too bad for me that with the real estate crunch there are great deals to be had. The eight units in the original Wigwam Building, the two units in the Wigwam Duplex and one of the units in the newly completed Wigwam Annex have sold. I recently took the upstairs Annex unit off the market and rented it out to wait for better economic times. I have pictures of the Wigwam project on Flickr. There are sets on the original Wigwam Building, the Wigwam Duplex and the final which completes the project, The Wigwam Annex. Be sure to check out the before and afters of the historic Wigwam Building and you will see what a challenge it was inside and out.