May 4, 2017

Reviving Atlanta's Sweet Auburn Water Tower

The Atlanta, Georgia, district of Sweet Auburn, which was twice added to the National Trust’s America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places (in 1992 and in 2012), is one of the country's most significant African-American heritage sites. It is home to Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace and burial site (along with his wife). Many of the historic sites associated with civil rights, including the house King was born in and the church where he preached, are well preserved today as a telling legacy of Sweet Auburn’s heritage.

Once the wealthiest African-American district in the country, Sweet Auburn started its decline in the 1980s. Still, Atlantans held on to the hope that the historic neighborhood would once again be a central part of their city.

An early step to achieve this goal included designating Sweet Auburn as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Four years later, Coretta Scott King and Christine King Farris founded the Historic District Development Corporation, which focused on revitalizing Sweet Auburn’s residential area.

Fast forward a few decades, and the historic houses lining the streets in Sweet Auburn have the distinct appearance of being lived in and well maintained, and the newly formed nonprofit Sweet Auburn Works is transforming the area using guides from the National Trust's National Main Street Center. The eastern edge of Atlanta is becoming a social and cultural hub once more.

The Sweet Auburn Water Tower
Renaissance Apt. Located on the downtown side of Auburn Avenue.

photo by: Stan Kaady

Sweet Auburn's main thoroughfare, Auburn Avenue, has a collection of historic and new buildings.

Sweet Auburn’s revitalization continues still. One of the most unique historical aspects of Sweet Auburn is the 100-foot-tall concrete water tower that stands proudly on a manicured patch of grass. Though it is surrounded by the Water Tower Stacks residential complex, the tower is still one of the most noticeable sites in the Old Fourth Ward in Sweet Auburn. Built in 1909, it used gravity to drop 100,000 gallons of water on a nearby cotton factory in case of fire (which, incidentally, happened in 1916). The factory survives as the Studioplex, a mixed-use urban environment.

While the water tower survives too, it has long ceased being functional. But now, the National Trust and Heineken are collaborating with Atlanta-based ABV Gallery in 2017 to revive the water tower as part of The Cities Project. After a thorough cleaning, a new interior mural and lighting, the Old Fourth Ward Tower will be a strong testament to Sweet Auburn’s historic past.

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

Related Stories

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

Learn More