Atlanta Artists Find a Home in a Rehabilitated School Building
Though she didn’t know it at the time, Adana Tillman was prepared from a young age to be an artist. As a kid in Akron, Ohio, Tillman watched as her mother skillfully quilted elaborate creations and eventually enlisted her to help with small projects, like making pillows that required a simple straight stitch. Later, mother and daughter took sewing and advanced embroidery classes together. Tillman’s work grew to include other visual arts, such as painting, beading, and hand-dyeing.
Today, Tillman lives and works as an artist in Atlanta, and her unique textile pieces combine her skills as a quilter, a visual artist, and, most importantly, a close observer of people. “They’re all about the exploration of self and how people show themselves to the world,” says Tillman. “I believe each piece shows a person you may know or would like to know, and they all have an identity.” It’s a nuanced art that depends on both deep technical skill and the ability to decipher and express people’s fundamental natures.
For someone whose work depends on exposure to other people and draws inspiration from everyday life, Tillman’s former home in a dark basement apartment was far from ideal. But her palette changed recently, when she moved into her own studio in the Academy Lofts development in southwest Atlanta—a mixed-use preservation project with the express goal of connecting people and building community.
In many ways, this is not a novel purpose for the building that once housed George W. Adair Elementary School. Located near leafy Adair Park, it was a community hub for the surrounding neighborhood from its opening in 1912 until its closure in 1973. “In days past, the school was figuratively and literally the center of the neighborhood,” says Atticus LeBlanc, the CEO and founder of PadSplit, an affordable housing company, and one of the developers of Academy Lofts. “It’s where neighborhood kids went to school and the epitome of what we think of as old Americana, where kids would walk home for lunch because there was no cafeteria.”
Today, after being abandoned for years and on the brink of collapse, the onetime school is poised to resume its role as a thriving center of community activity. In addition to 10 units of affordable housing for artists—who receive subsidized rent in return for providing community outreach and education—Academy Lofts will feature five market-rate apartment units, 20 additional affordable housing units, a coffee shop/restaurant and event venue, and nonprofit office space.
But the community that Academy Lofts will serve is decidedly different from the one that birthed George W. Adair Elementary School. Designed originally by Edward Dougherty, one of Atlanta’s premier architects of the time, the school was built by the son of George W. Adair, an aide to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest—an irony not lost on anyone. “Everyone likes the fact that the school built in honor of the guy’s Confederate dad is now affordable housing in a predominantly African American neighborhood,” says Stan Sugarman, another of the project’s developers. (He and LeBlanc are cofounders of Stryant Construction, the contractor for the building’s stabilization and the commercial and event spaces.)
How different is the new vision for a structure that once honored the memory of a Confederate soldier? Just ask Krystle Rodriguez, the Atlanta businesswoman Sugarman recruited to operate the site’s future coffee shop/restaurant, Darling Josephine, along with the 5,000-square-foot event space that was once the school’s auditorium. Rodriguez says many women have told her how difficult it can be to meet new people, particularly for those in the LGBTQ community. Typical options might be book clubs, or Pilates or spin classes.
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“I’m realizing all of these places created for women are under the guise of self-improvement,” says Rodriguez. “I wanted to have a place where you are perfect the way you are when you walk in and have the ability to meet like-minded people in a safe environment. At the same time, I was speaking to a close friend in the LGBTQIA+ community who was expressing how there were no spaces for where they are in their lives. A lot of those spaces are nightlife and bars, which we love, but if you have two kids and a job you want to be in a community before 11 o’clock at night.”
Rodriguez also has a defined mission for the restaurant component. She sees it as a test lab for entrepreneurs who rarely get the opportunity to move beyond pop-up eateries—especially business owners who are women of color and/or LGBTQ. Darling Josephine and the event space, designed by MT Studio Architecture, are under construction and are expected to open late this year.
While the coffeehouse/restaurant and event space will serve as an instrumental tool for building community connections, so will the arts. Tillman and other artists are able to call Academy Lofts home because of a partnership the developers forged with The Creatives Project, a local nonprofit group formed a decade ago, in the wake of the Great Recession.
“I had contact with [real estate] investors, and all of them were concerned about their properties and the fact that they were sitting vacant,” says Neda Abghari, the group’s founder and outgoing executive director. “I had this idea to connect investors and artists working two or three jobs to have enough income for studio space. The thought was to bring property owners together who would donate space to artists, who would then donate time to communities impacted by a lack of arts education funding.”
Thus was born Art-Force, The Creatives Project’s affordable housing program. Located at the Academy Lofts, the program provides artists with a two-year residency that includes subsidies for rent and studio space along with career development and promotion. In exchange, the artists commit to teaching and sharing their skills with underserved communities nearby. Much of that outreach and instruction will take place in the event space, which Rodriguez will also use for weddings and other gatherings.
Abghari says the process of selecting artists for a residency is as much about understanding their approach to giving back as it is about filling their housing needs and supporting their work. “A big part of [the application process] is a proposal for educational programming, and we get an idea of what they would want to present to the community,” she says, noting that the review panel includes stakeholders of the community the organization seeks to serve. “It’s not always the program they end up executing, but it gives us an idea of where they’re coming from and their passion around teaching and giving back.”
Among the other tenants of Academy Lofts are five residents who formerly experienced homelessness and moved into 400-square-foot studios during the summer of 2021. They will receive health care and counseling services, in addition to housing. This arrangement happened thanks to the involvement of another nonprofit, Partners for Home, which was launched in 2015 to administer Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding and lead a coordinated effort among nonprofits, businesses, and government to end homelessness in Atlanta.
“Supportive housing is tricky to finance, even more than affordable housing, because you don’t just need an affordable unit,” says Cathryn Marchmann, CEO of Partners for Home. “You need a subsidy, because the person coming in won’t be able to pay the market rate or affordable rent.”
The HUD funding through Partners for Home was just one ingredient of many that the developers had to assemble to make the $8.2 million project economically viable. The financing package also included $1.3 million in federal historic tax credits supported by the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC), a $2 million New Markets Tax Credit allocation via NTCIC’s Irvin Henderson Main Street Revitalization Fund, state historic tax credits, and a loan from the city of Atlanta to support the creation of 30 units of affordable housing. “The layers of financing allowed us to overcome the high cost of preservation and offer discounted rents to both commercial and residential tenants,” says Sugarman.
When LeBlanc and Sugarman won the school building at auction in 2014, it had last been used as an office space by the Atlanta School District until about 2000. It is a testament to the design skills and craftsmanship of the original architects and builders that the structure was still standing after years of neglect. But it was deteriorating fast, and because of a legal dispute between the city and the school system over the ownership of the property, the development team had to wait three and a half years to close the sale.
Though the Gothic Revival brick exterior remained in stable condition, moisture and neglect were taking their toll on the wood framing and floors throughout the interior. The roof had largely disintegrated. In addition, the upper floors of the school had collapsed, leaving remnants of the custom-built wood lockers that once held student books and clothes.
The original chalkboards remained, as did some lesson plans and books, and the chair-desk combos where pupils spent their days. “In some ways, you are captivated by the apocalyptic scene,” remembers LeBlanc about the first time he set foot in the school. “They added a cafeteria in the 1950s, and the floor had caved in. It created a weird courtyard that was covered in ivy and leaves. It was almost like a secret garden where you stepped into a portal of old England.”
When Sugarman and LeBlanc were finally able to start renovating the school, they had to figure out how to make use of the building’s configuration in a way that made it financially viable. They turned to Charles Lawrence of the Atlanta architecture firm Lord Aeck Sargent to spearhead the historic preservation work. Lawrence teamed with the contractors to develop construction documents that ensured the project met the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, so it would qualify for federal historic tax credits. “[Lawrence] worked through the process of salvaging the old trim and flooring, and the rest of the rehabilitation work,” says Sugarman. “He worked with the plaster team to restore as much of the old plaster as possible.”
Sugarman’s top priorities were to save the common areas, including the auditorium, and turn them into a place for the larger community. “My vision was saving that auditorium, and everything else was happenstance,” he says. “There’s a need for community spaces tailored to 100 people who want it for fundraisers or art shows, or if your kid’s music class wants it for a recital, or you just want to have an adult birthday party outside of a restaurant.” The developers also prioritized keeping some of the classrooms as close to their original condition as possible.
Sugarman was initially skeptical about including the 35 residential studios, which would help ensure the financial health of the project. “I had a prejudice that nobody wants to live in 400 square feet. I was worried that we would build it and nobody would come,” he says.
But architectural factors changed Sugarman’s mind. The studios, designed by Atlanta-based LBA, have 14-foot ceilings and large windows ushering in natural light—a combination that gives the living spaces a bright and airy feel. Sugarman also views the school’s old hallways as attractive communal spaces that encourage residents to gather. “The building at its best is the hallways,” he says. “[They] are wide, with great woodwork and great wood floors and wide stairwells. Nobody builds like that anymore. We want to allow the residents over time to take over the hallways so they can hang art and put seating areas there and get out of their apartments.”
If you ask Xavier Lewis what kind of artist he is, he pauses. “If I had some cool answer, I’d tell you. I just enjoy and feel compelled to create,” he says. After focusing his attention and passion on basketball as a kid, Lewis—who also goes by Xay Zoleil—transitioned into dance, music, writing, and comedy. He spent time as a dance director at Grayson High School near Atlanta and works as a choreographer. He currently has a solo exhibit at the Atlanta Contemporary museum.
But if there’s a through line of sorts in all that Lewis does, it’s an impulse to teach and share—a fact that makes him chuckle now. He says he was a disruptive class clown in high school. As he began teaching in dance studios, he realized what an impact he could have. “Teaching is serving—it’s service—and I think I realized the importance of it starting in studios,” he says.
Lewis will have ample opportunity to indulge his desire to serve at the Academy Lofts. “The venue is a dream come true,” he says. “I will do community classes and produce a show, and I hope to get a few of the other artists to add to the collaborative efforts.”
For an artist like Lewis, physical surroundings matter a lot. Not long after he heard about the possibility of living at the Academy Lofts, he says he became obsessed with the prospect, even driving past the building multiple times a week. The chance to live near other artists who could become collaborators and the opportunity to teach were enticing. But so, too, was the building itself.
“When I drove past it first, I was in awe,” says Lewis, who has been impressed with other historic preservation projects around Atlanta. Now that this is his home, Lewis says the windows and natural light and craftsmanship all around him provide a steady source of motivation. “This is the first time I wake up and feel inspiration in my living space,” he says. “I don’t take that for granted, and I feel that inspiration every day.”
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