A Case of Contagious Preservation in Dublin Ga.

The 1995 renovation of the Martin Theater set off a wave of preservation. In the background, the Dublin City Hall, renovated c. 1959. On the right, the 1913 Carnegie Library, soon to be an events center. In the foreground, a section of the Bicentennial Plaza inaugurated Spring 2014
The 1995 renovation of the Martin Theater set off a wave of preservation. In the background, the Dublin City Hall, which was once an elementary school. On the right, the 1904 Carnegie Library, soon to be an events center. In the foreground, a section of the Bicentennial Plaza inaugurated Spring 2014

• A landmark of Dublin’s African-American community saved from bulldozers

• People living downtown plus 150 new jobs

• A cloud service in a 102-year-old post office building

• New hope for Dublin’s “skyscraper”

DUBLIN Ga. – Everything old in downtown Dublin is new again and high tech.

The renovation of an 80-year-old movie house sparked the rebirth of a decaying downtown that now includes a world class IT center located in a 102-year-old post office building, a leading edge re-seller of wireless cellular minutes that’s housed in three of downtown’s original buildings, and an advanced wound treatment center being built in the city’s historic African-American business district.

Dublin Mayor Phil Best said the downtown resurgence has created 150 new jobs. But he believes the greatest reward is the sense of community that has been built.

There were so many naysayers. They said we couldn’t turn around a blighted area. It’s very rewarding to now see everyone pulling in the same direction,” the mayor said.

Dublin Ga. courthouse
Old Laurens County courthouse

Ironically, the urge to preserve may have been inspired by the demolition in the early 1960s of Laurens County’s elegant Victorian courthouse, built in 1895.

“If I had not been six years old, I would have been picketing out front of the building,” wrote local historian Scott Thompson. “Many folks just didn’t want to see the center piece of their heritage ripped down and replaced with a cold cookie cutter building, void of any character and charm whatsoever.”

While Thompson is an attorney, not an architect, his description of the new courthouse is spot on.

For nearly 30 years after the loss of the venerable courthouse downtown Dublin seemed to languish. A shopping mall was built on the opposite side of town and several modern movie theaters were constructed near the mall. Downtown buildings fell into disrepair and businesses fled.

A Turning Point in Dublin Ga.

Then in 1995 the city purchased the former Martin Theater building downtown. The movie house had sat empty so long a pond filled the stage end of the building. At one point the proud old building was used as a cotton warehouse. The building was gutted except for the four exterior walls and was renovated as a modern 620-seat performance space.

The Martin, renamed Theatre Dublin, has been a roaring success and has ignited a number of other renovation projects.

• A farmers pavilion named Market on Madison was constructed behind Theatre Dublin and the Fred Roberts. Locally grown produce and hand-made items are sold every Saturday morning, and the popular First Friday Concert Series is held from March to October. The three-acre space is also available for special events.

Dublin Ga. Market on Madison
When the Market on Madison was proposed naysayers said it would fail, that it was located in a “blighted” area.

• The 1926 art deco Fred Roberts Hotel was converted into a mixed-use facility with retail, professional and residential condominiums. Mayor Best and his wife Cile sold their house and moved into one of the Fred Roberts condos. Units in the building sell for up to $220,000. In the past three years 14 full-time residents have moved downtown.

Dublin Ga. Carnegie Library
The interior of the soon to be reopened Carnegie Library.

• The first phase of renovating and re-purposing the 1904 Carnegie Library building as an event space is on target for a July completion. A curated exhibit of 28 artworks from the State Art Collection will go on display from July 26 until September 11.

• Earlier this spring, development was completed on a plaza commemorating Dublin’s 202-year-history. Bicentennial Plaza links Market on Madison, Theatre Dublin, the Fred Roberts, the Carnegie Library, and the Dublin City Hall, which itself was an elementary school in 1959. When the building was converted into City Hall it was also gutted.

Two historic churches, Christ Episcopal (1898) and First Baptist (1908) face the Bicentennial Plaza.

Renovation and Revitalization Became Contagious

Morris Bank built a grand building across from Bicentennial Plaza. It features a quiet beautifully-landscaped pocket park with a fountain.

Deano’s Italian Grill took over a former movie house and dime store, restored the original brick walls and wooden floors and installed a wood burning oven imported from Italy. The eatery has twice been selected as one of USA Today’s “51 great pizza parlors.”

Rhino Wireless moved into three original buildings on Dublin’s main downtown artery, Jackson Street. Rhino buys minutes from major cellular networks and resells them to their dealer network.

Dublin Ga. Cummings Building
The Cummings Building (right) and the new location of the wound center (lower left)

Mayor Best located his own business in the restored Cummings Building on West Madison Street in Dublin’s historic African-American business district. A bakery shares the ground floor of the building with Best’s office. In the building next door a group of doctors are building the state-of-the-art Downtown Dublin Wound Center.

The Cummings Building was in an area that many said was beyond salvation. “It was ready for a bulldozer,” Best said.

But the building held great significance for many in Dublin. It was built by the city’s first African-American developer and housed the town’s first black-owned pharmacy and black Elks Club. James Brown, Little Richard and Otis Redding gave concerts in the parking lot behind the Cummings building. The mother of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson operated a restaurant in the building named Maude’s. Today, 20 people work in the building and five live in lofts above the retail space.

High Tech in Old Dublin

In my mind the most impressive development is the restoration of the 1912 Old Post Office on East Madison Street, a rather grim stretch that once housed pool halls and beer joints. I took Lewis Grizzard there to hoist a few at a dive bar named Estes.

Jeff Davis (r) conducts a tour of the Old Post Office Building, which now houses his IT company and colocation servers. Alterra Networks.
Jeff Davis (r) conducts a tour of the Old Post Office Building, which now houses his IT company and cloud service company, Alterra Networks.

I’m not the only one who was astounded by the rebirth of the post office. The building is the recipient of the 2013 Marguerite Williams Award for Excellence in Restoration presented by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. Now some see the former pool hall and beer joints as the perfect spots to locate antique shops and art galleries.

As a child Jeff Davis, the owner of the Old Post Office, dreamed he would one day buy the structure, a dream that came true. Davis located the original blueprints and the building was returned to its original state.  The main level of the building houses 15 employees of Alterra Networks, Davis’s computer networking and cloud service company.

Dublin Ga. high tech
Rack space in the  basement of the Old Post Office.

The 4,500 square foot bunker-like basement of the building houses the servers for Alterra’s cloud clients. With 2-foot thick walls, 12-inch concrete ceilings and steel construction, the post office building met the structural needs for a cloud building that could withstand an F5 tornado. In addition the building is 111 miles from the coastal hurricane zone. One hundred miles is the preferred distance for a cloud operation, so Dublin is in the safe zone but still closer to coastal clients than Atlanta.

Alterra’s client list includes community banks, school boards, accounting firms and small enterprises usually with 50 to 100 employees.

While Davis is a history buff and a preservationist, his primary purpose for renovating the post office building was economic. In today’s dollars, the construction cost of the building would be $23 million, Davis says. He acquired the building for $20 a square foot and estimates that new construction for a building suitable for cloud services would run $500 to $1,000 a square foot. “I couldn’t have afforded to do it otherwise,” he says.

Davis believes preservation is good business.

Dublin has always been about commerce. Everyone I talk to wants to know how we are going to make a preservation effort viable. Is it going to be a coffee shop, a bakery or a cloud service?” Davis said.

Dublin Ga. skyscraper lobby
Historian Scott Thompson (l), Mayor Phil Best (c) and developer Louie Curry Jr. (r) inspect the former lobby of the First National Bank, Dublin Ga.’s skyscraper.

New Hope for Dublin’s Skyscraper

Next on the renovation agenda may be the most challenging and significant venture of all, the restoration of Dublin’s seven-story “skyscraper.” For 101 years the First National Bank building has stood as the de-facto icon for the middle Georgia city.

Dublin Ga. skyscraper
Dublin’s “skyscraper” (1913)

Designed by the architect who was responsible for the Georgian Terrace Hotel in Athens, 10 Park Place at Five Points in Atlanta, and the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, the Dublin structure has been in steady decline for some 40 years. Several attempts to save it have failed.

Best says the preservation effort may now be only weeks away from receiving the historic preservation tax credit that would give the project a long-awaited green light. (UPDATE 8/9/14: The tax credit has been approved.)

Architectural plans have been drawn and financing is in place. Obtaining the $800,000 tax credit is the only hurdle that remains. For the first time since the 1970s the dream of saving the skyscraper is “very real,” Best said.

“We’re so much closer than we’ve ever been, and we have a lot of support.”

If restored the building would provide residential and commercial space with a penthouse apartment.

What Lies Ahead? Dealing with Education and Crime

Now in his fourth term as mayor, Best said Dublin’s two greatest challenges are improving education and dealing with crime.

“Crime has gotten a little out of hand, not compared to other communities but it’s not acceptable to us,” he said. “Our strategy is to prevent crime not just make arrests.”

Police officers on bicycles are being dispatched into high crime areas, one of them the neighborhood around Dublin’s scenic Stubbs Park on the outskirts of downtown. “People won’t use the park because they’re afraid to,” Best said.

By putting officers on bikes they will come in closer contact with people living in the neighborhood as opposed to riding by in a squad car, he said.

The city has also made a commitment to strictly enforce its dilapidated housing ordinance. So far 425 sub-standard structures have been torn down or brought up to code. Best said the city council is unanimous in support of this effort.

A proposed ordinance requiring code inspection of rental housing waits on City Council approval. Best is not a proponent of government intervention. But sometimes it’s required, he added.

A PERSONAL NOTE. In 1985 I left my post as editor of the Dublin Courier Herald. In my farewell column I described the Martin Theatre as a “rubble heap” and I hoped for brighter days for downtown Dublin’s blighted areas. But I ended by saying the city’s greatest challenge was a leadership vacuum. “A mayor who’s treated like a mayor and acts like a mayor, who plays second-fiddle to no one. That’s what I hope to see…More than any individual, the mayor can make any other dreams come true,” I concluded. I know the rebirth of downtown Dublin has been the result of hard work by many people, too numerous to mention. I’m only a distant observer now, but it appears to me that my wish for a great mayor came true.
Mayor Phil Best on the balcony of the Fred Roberts Hotel, restored as a commercial and residential condominium.
Mayor Phil Best on the balcony of the Fred Roberts Hotel, restored as a commercial and residential condominium.
Downtown Dublin is just 4.6 miles north of I-16. You’ve heard me say this before. Get off the damn interstate and see Georgia. Here are some useful links.

City of Dublin

Dublin Main Street

Visit Dublin Ga.

Old Post Office

Theatre Dublin

Market on Madison

Carnegie Library

Fred Roberts Hotel

Deano’s Italian Grill

Page House Bed & Breakfast

 

18 Responses to A Case of Contagious Preservation in Dublin Ga.

  1. Jo Anne McCloud Myers June 3, 2014 at 9:39 am #

    What a neat story, Doug. I’m sharing your blog with some locals in my area who have an interest in restoring and preserving some of our own neglected downtown buildings for the purposes of economic recovery. Dublin’s success is admirable and a great blueprint for other small towns. Thank you.

  2. Pat Aaby June 3, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    Heck, Doug, reading your wonderful stories is raising hell with my travel plans for the future. As a life long resident of the Pacific Northwest, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would see Georgia as a destination state.

  3. Marie Hooks June 3, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    Hats off to the committed visionaries whose efforts have produced so much beauty and pride by transforming old Dublin into a new and vibrant city. Mayor Phil Best has proven himself to be a tireless and very capable leader of this initiative. As a lifelong Dubliner, I thank Doug Hall for spotlighting the positive strides our community leaders have made in enriching the pride of heritage in our community as it builds for the future.

  4. Scott Beasley June 3, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

    Great story and I thank you for your response of all that is positive in Dublin.
    We have a great town with great leaders. We have many young leaders who are coming on board with commitments to continue all improvements to make Dublin a special place in Georgia. Thank you.

  5. Butch miller June 3, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

    Doug,I really enjoyed this article. In you are doing us proud! Keep up the good work!

  6. Mike Cummings June 3, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

    Doug
    I really enjoyed this article for many reasons but selfishly it reminded me of reading your stories when we first moved to Dublin.
    Mike

  7. Rodney Manley June 3, 2014 at 9:07 pm #

    Fantastic column. I love Dublin, even gave running a business downtown a shot after my ending my own journalism career. Should’ve stuck to writing, I guess.

  8. Todd June 4, 2014 at 7:49 pm #

    Very enjoyable read, you know the ole Adams funeral home near downtown was also restored by the Community Bank of Dublin Lauren’s County, and it is beautiful I highly recommend checking it out if you have a chance.

  9. Charles June 6, 2014 at 12:11 am #

    Doug,

    All of this has been going on and I have missed it on my visits? Poor vision I guess. Next time down (X-Mas?) I will have Dot give me a better view. Impressive!

    Charles

  10. Terry Corr June 11, 2014 at 11:39 am #

    This is a great piece, Doug! Although I was not born and raised in Dublin, I was accepted with open arms during my high school years there ~ and loved the community and it’s citizens ~ and felt very much at home there. 🙂
    None of my family has lived there for many years now, so the town has not been on our itinerary for quite some time. This article makes me want to make a visit soon. Thank you! ~ Terry (Mounts) Corr, DHS ’70

  11. Tom Proctor June 23, 2014 at 11:05 am #

    Great article, Doug. You do good work!!! There is still a lot of work to be done before Dublin shines like it did in the good old days we remember, but we are slowly getting there.

    • Doug Hall June 23, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

      Thank you for your compliment. I hope the progress continues.

  12. Jan Smith Johnson July 16, 2014 at 1:43 am #

    Love it! Oh, so many memories of childhood.

  13. Vicki August 11, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    One of your best, Doug, in my opinion. I’m so excited to see the thoughtful progress / restoration going on every time we are in Dublin, which is fairly often. We usually just go for the day and try to get there early on Saturday morning just to walk through the Market on Madison. We will be in town this Saturday while the Moving Wall is on exhibit. The Moving Wall was in our town a couple of years ago, and we have been to the Wall in DC as well, but it will be special to be in Dublin for this event.

  14. Ed White August 23, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

    Doug, so great to see you still doing what you do best. What a great article!! I’ve been following Scott Thompson’s articles as well. I’m impressed with what He is doing there in Dublin, and this article by you just makes me miss Dublin even more. I remember our childhood days and memories, some of those memories I would like to forget :-), but I’ve always looked up to you. I’ve not been back to Dublin that often, and when so it was very brief, and unfortunately in many cases to attend a funeral or the quick visits to my family there. I retired from the Navy after 31+ years, and have been living in San Diego for 6 since retirement, working of course still for the Navy as a Government Service employee. If you ever get out this way, please do look me up, as it would be great to see you, give you a hug, and give you a tour. Again, great article. Love you brother !!

    • Doug Hall August 23, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

      Nice to connect with you again, Ed.

  15. Patrick Reed October 19, 2015 at 2:38 pm #

    Wonderful to see what’s becoming of my hometown. (My dad, Dan Reed, was Dublin’s telephone company manager until he was transferred to Columbus in 1960 when I was ten). Especially touching to see renovation of the Carnegie Library, where I learned to love books. I know I wouldn’t have become a historian and teacher (43 years at Northern Virginia Community College, now at Raleigh’s Wake Tech Community College) without its resources. Also great to see the Martin Theater, where I could make a nickel pack of Neccos last through a double feature, has been preserved as well. I’ll plan to visit and see it all first hand at first opportunity!

  16. Jennifer Whipple whiddon September 10, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

    Love the news of Dublin- my hometown- wonderful to see the restorations taking place

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