The Georgia Trust, a state nonprofit organization bent on saving, maintaining and revitalizing historic Georgia buildings, properties and locations, has placed Albany’s Tift Depot on its 2013 Places in Peril list, drawing attention to a crumbling piece of Albany’s history.
“Each year, hundreds of historic buildings and properties across the state are threatened by new development, neglect and a host of other reasons,” Mark C. McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust, said. “So our goal is bring some attention to these sites and serve as matchmaker between their owners and the people who can help them save these pieces of Georgia history.”
The depot is among 10 other historic sites throughout Georgia that the trust has placed on its list — places that include the Hancock County Courthouse in Sparta and an inn dating back to 1815 in Toccoa.
Tommy Gregors, executive director of the Thronateeska Heritage Center, said the added attention the Georgia Trust can bring to the center’s efforts to save Albany’s first rail depot is welcome.
“Let’s be clear: This isn’t a restoration project; we’re trying to save the building,” Gregors said. “Once we get it stabilized, we’ll come up with a plan on how best to re-use it. But for now, our attention is on keeping the structure intact, and I’m hopeful that the Georgia Trust will help draw some attention that will help us do that.”
Built in 1857 by Albany founder Nelson Tift, the depot is one of only five antebellum rail depots left in the state and is the only one this far south, Gregors said.
Currently, the biggest threat to the structure is fallout from a decision made in the 1890s to build a second depot nearer to downtown, a move Gregors said led to redevelopment of the railyard and a building decision that would lead to the structure’s future demise.
“Before the other depot was built, this depot sat on a hill,” Gregors said. “That was great because it allowed for all the rain and water to flow away from the building. But when they re-did the railyard, they filled it all in, and the depot was then on a slope, which allowed water to settle near the base of the building.”
Over time, Gregors said, salt and minerals from the moist dirt around the base of the building began leeching into the bricks and mortar — essentially eroding them from the inside out.
“So what you have is a salt line where the bricks are literally crumbling,” Gregors said. “Everything below that line is turning back to dust, and everything above that line is still intact.”
The bricks are crumbling to the point that the back wall of the depot collapsed, threatening the entire structure.
But now an effort is under way, thanks to the voters of Dougherty County, to use sales tax proceeds to shore up the structure.
More than $500,000 in special-purpose local-option sales tax dollars have been allocated to prevent the building from crumbling. A portion of that money is currently being used by the Coastal Heritage Society out of Savannah, whose team of historically-minded brick masons has begun work reconstructing the structure’s collapsed back wall.
“You can’t just build a brick wall,” Gregors said. “These guys are trained brick masons who deal with historically sensitive projects. They work to keep the style of building the same so that it matches as best as possible the rest of the building.”
Inside the structure, the building is remarkably intact. The floor boards do creak, and some are a little loose, but on the whole the integrity of the building — at least from the inside — is still sound.
Thronateeska still uses it to house some of its exhibits, trinkets and other items, but Gregors hopes one day that it will be a highly sought-after entertainment space.
“There’s so much potential for this space,” Gregors said. “It’s big and it’s just such a unique building.”
To do that would likely require millions of dollars in additional funding, money that Gregors believes would have to come from private donors or grants.
“It’s going to be tough, but we’re looking at grants that we can apply for and to use that $500,000 as a match; we’re planning on developing some kind of a private fundraising campaign,” he said. “I believe that this building is worth it.”