By Henry Bryant
Hopefully, this is the first of several articles in the coming months that delve into bits of neighborhood history that have not been published in a while. This information came from files that recently surfaced at the East Atlanta Library. The old library building at 457 Flat Shoals Avenue, just south of the current branch on the corner at McPherson Avenue, remains one of the important contributing structures in the proposed East Atlanta Historic District now under consideration.
A 1946 Bond Issue in Atlanta funded the building of the Uncle Remus Library in West End and the East Atlanta Library on the east side, as well as a Negro Branch Library on West Hunter Street. Separate library facilities were provided in an era of racial segregation. The 30-minute ceremony for the new East Atlanta Library was held on Dec. 5, 1949. It, like most other libraries in the city, was for white citizens only.
The construction cost for the structure was $36,734 with $2,838 going to the architects Clement and Ford for design work. Furniture and draperies cost $4,000 and the landscaping cost $637. The total budget for the facility was $44,204. There was no air conditioning in the original structure; it was added in the summer of 1955.
The original red brick East Atlanta Library was designed with a recessed and columned portico with double front doors and two 18-pane windows that reached to the floor. Directly opposite the doors on the inside was a wood veneer circulation desk. On either side of the brick floored front porch were two matching reading rooms. The one on the south side eventually was for youth, and one on the north side eventually was for adults. Facing the street were two stunning bow windows with three 19-pane windows in each that complimented the windows on the porch. Directly inside the bow windows were informal seating areas, and on the walls, shelves surrounded library tables and chairs. Lighting was from streamlined pendulum fixtures hanging from the ceiling looking like flying saucers. By the time the library dedication was held, the library construction costs had risen to $48,996.51. About 8,000 volumes were scheduled to fill the shelves and leave room for more.
Other construction implemented during this expansion of the system included renovation of the main Carnegie Library located downtown on a site where the current Central Library would be built 40 or so years later. Also included was the Peachtree branch, which was located in its own building on the site where the High Museum would be built. The Library system at this time was owned and managed by the city of Atlanta and was not a part of Fulton County government. The East Atlanta Library was, and is, in Dekalb County. At the time of the dedication, William Hartsfield was mayor and attended the ceremony.
The bronze dedication plaque honored Alderman (City Councilman) E.A. Gilliam, who spearheaded allocation of funding to build the East Atlanta branch meant to serve the citizens of southeast Atlanta. A bronze plaque was placed on the wall during the dedication and stayed there until it was moved to the plaza area of a new library building when it opened in 2005 down the street at 400 Flat Shoals. The plaque reads: “This building is dedicated to Edwin Ames Gilliam and the people of East Atlanta who through their combined efforts made it a reality.”
By 1965, the library would hold 15,500 books crowded into 3,450 square feet. It was one of the busiest branches in the city. Students from four area high schools used it for research and recreational reading, as well as general use by a burgeoning population nearby. It was reported that the library was severely understaffed, with a 55-hour week schedule worked by 3.5 librarians and aides. Currently, the library is open 43 hours each week.
In 1974, an addition was made to the original East Atlanta Library structure. A lot of that addition was to the rear of the building and consisted of two alcoves on the rear of the reading rooms. On one side, it accommodated an expanded adult fiction collection, and on the other, a juvenile fiction section. Added to the front and southern side of the building was a 75-seat meeting room, updated restrooms, a small kitchen, and a large closet for audio visual equipment. The façade of the original part of the building remains unchanged today. That holds true for the 1974 addition as well.
In the middle of construction on the addition, the Diamond Construction Company defaulted. There were unpaid bills, lawsuits from suppliers, charges of racism, insolvency, and a levy from the IRS. The city finally terminated the contract and hired new builders to rebuild and finish this new section that had never really gotten off the ground. Maynard Jackson was the mayor at this time. Fulton County had still not entered the owner/manager picture yet for the library system.
In the early 1980s, ownership and management of the Atlanta Library system was transferred to Fulton County. The state of Georgia supplies funds for libraries to the counties and not to the cities. Unfortunately, three of the Atlanta libraries were located in Dekalb County. Briefly, the East Atlanta Library was scheduled to be closed. A small group of East Atlantans rallied the support from the neighborhood organizations in the libraries’ service areas. It took a lot to reorganize and redirect the plan that was in place, but with the help of state representatives and a statewide referendum, the East Atlanta library was saved. The small group of organizers eventually became the Friends of East Atlanta Library. Immediately after saving the branch from closing, they went to work making sure that maintenance on the library was not ignored or postponed. They then sought funding for building a new library. It took another 20 years, but it eventually happened. Karen Handel was the chairwoman of the Fulton County Commission and the Atlanta Fulton Library Board at that time, and she presided over the dedication of the new library when it moved down the street. In a land swap, the old building became owned first by East Atlanta businessman Jim Buzbee, and then by the Neighborhood Partnership. It is currently rented out by them for commercial purposes.