Years in the making, a facelift and interior conversion for a landmark Sweet Auburn building that once housed Martin Luther King Jr.’s office is moving forward.
Known for its corner neon sign and distinctive façade, the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge on Auburn Avenue is being prepped for a rehab that would broaden its uses, open more affordable spaces for local businesses and nonprofits, and create more of a tourist attraction.
The three-story structure with a basement level stands where Auburn Avenue meets Hilliard Street, lording over the Atlanta Streetcar loop through downtown. The lodge was built in 1937 and, among other notable uses, was once home to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s first offices.
The lodge’s ownership group, Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, is working to finalize financial commitments by year’s end in hopes of beginning construction in the second quarter of 2024, according to Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority.
As part of that process, owners have asked Invest Atlanta for a $250,000 predevelopment loan sourced from Eastside Tax Allocation District funding that would cover renovation aspects such as engineering and architectural design.
In 2021, the project received $1.5 million in grant funding from the same source. Plans have called for that money to be combined with federal tax credits for historic preservation and private donations to fund what was expected to be a $10.2-million project.
Increasing costs and changes in funding availability have complicated matters since then, according to Invest Atlanta.
Nonetheless, the lodge owners’ plans call for reopening the historic building as a 16,000-square-foot multipurpose space by the first quarter of 2025.
Prince Hall Masons, who still use part of the property as meeting space, intend to continue to line up permanent funding sources as predevelopment work takes place, according to an Invest Atlanta project summary. Another small section of the property spanning about 1,300 square feet is being divided between two tenants, the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty School Museum and a barbershop.
Plans call for converting the basement and first floor into an educational and interpretive exhibit featuring King’s former office, leased and operated by the National Park Service. The AJC has reported that memorabilia and documents stored at the lodge pertaining to King and the civil rights movement will be preserved.
Elsewhere, plans call for converting the second floor and storefronts along Hilliard Street into spaces for local businesses totaling about 5,000 square feet.
The Prince Hall Masons, meanwhile, will continue to lease the third floor and a section of the second floor for meetings and other activities.
Invest Atlanta notes that ownership has vowed to increase square footage dedicated to affordable lease rates to roughly 30 percent of the building, or 4,800 square feet, for 25 years.
After opening in 1937, the building was expanded four years later. Atlanta civic leader and businessman John Wesley Dobbs spearheaded the project, and the building initially served as homebase for the Prince Hall Freemasons, a predominantly Black branch of the North American Freemasons, according to the Atlanta History Center.
In addition to King’s personal SCLC office, the building also housed historical organizations such as WERD Radio Station.
Invest Atlanta officials note that preserving the building would activate a historic asset, improve economic mobility, and feed into the revitalization of the Historic Sweet Auburn District.
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