School, church could be made into residences

Laney-Walker Boulevard's old Immaculate Conception church and school could be torn down to build public housing. Or, history might intervene.

Erick Montgomery, the executive director of Historic Augusta, said the buildings are important to local black history. Also, the demolition probably won't pass a required state historic preservation review. He would like the Augusta Housing Authority to consider converting the buildings for residential use instead.

"It's an iconic historic building on Laney-Walker that could be saved," he said.

A housing authority representative, however, said he'll wait for state guidance before making a decision. Georgia's Historic Preservation Division reviews federally funded projects to determine whether they adversely affect historic buildings. The Immaculate Conception review should be finished by mid-September.

"We understand (Historic Augusta's) concern," said Richard Arfman, the authority's director of Planning and Development. "But we think it would be cost-prohibitive to adapt the buildings for our use."

The Immaculate Conception church and school was built in 1913 by the African Missionary Fathers of the Catholic Church, and over the years, neighborhood children of all faiths were educated there. Beginning in 1958, two additional school buildings were constructed.

"It's not as grand as Sacred Heart or Holy Trinity, but when you consider the African-American Catholic presence would have been small, it's pretty remarkable Augusta would have had a black Catholic church," Montgomery said.

In the 1970s, the Catholic diocese closed the church, but the school used the site until 2009.

Christine Miller-Betts, the executive director of the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History, said she learned only recently of the housing authority's desire to tear the buildings down. If more people knew, the housing authority would hear resistance, she said.

"It's too valuable; it's been here for many years," Miller-Betts said. "I think it would be an interruption of the historic corridor."

The Laney-Walker neighborhood might value its history, but it also appears to need housing.

In 2007, the housing authority sold Gilbert Manor to what is now Georgia Health Sciences University, and in 2009 it tore down Underwood Homes. That's more than 500 units of public housing, Arfman said.

"There's a need for more public housing, especially for seniors," Arfman said. "When we demolished Gilbert Manor, we told community leaders we'd replace some of it, and they said they'd like to see it along the Laney-Walker corridor."

The authority would like to build 24 single-family and duplex homes at the Immaculate Conception site, blending the design with nearby Heritage Pine subdivision.

Asked about converting the old buildings, Arfman said the old Immaculate Conception church sits close to the street, has been remodeled into small rooms and has a leaking roof.

"It would be nice to save it. But I don't think we have the money and if we did, I don't think we could use it for housing," he said.

Montgomery, though, said historic schools convert nicely into housing. A church can be re-purposed as a community center.

"Old buildings have problems, but they can be brought back," he said. "If it's done right it's not necessarily going to give you any more trouble than a new building."

Reach Carole Hawkins at (706) 823-3341, or carole.hawkins@augustachronicle.com.