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Historic Pullman Yard deserves protection

The state of Georgia is selling the Pratt-Pullman Historic Site; a unique, publicly owned property in Atlanta’s historic Kirkwood neighborhood. The history and monumental architecture of this site, along with the Hardee Creek woodlands, is significant and should be protected. After all, it is owned by you and me and every other Georgian and is a part of our shared cultural heritage.

It was 1904 when Nathaniel Palmer Pratt built Fulton Foundry and Machine Works in the nascent little hamlet of Kirkwood — he was 46 at the time. At age 21, Pratt, an ambitious chemical engineer and native of Milledgeville, founded Pratt Laboratory, later to become Pratt Engineering. His success was due to several patents, including one that would later help send his cousin on to become Coca-Cola’s chief chemist and one of the few men to know Coke’s secret formula.

Pratt Engineering produced complete, ready-to-assemble machinery for sugar refineries and fertilizer processors and, briefly during World War I, gunpowder making. Entire factories were assembled, tested, disassembled and shipped from the Kirkwood facility. Their stamp can be found on historic machinery around the state, country, and world; Pratt sent factories to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and even Brazil.

In 1919, Ernest Woodruff, who at the time was also busy buying the Coca-Cola Company, purchased a portion of Pratt’s operations - specifically, the patents and machinery used by a Pratt startup that would later be used to carbonate the sugary drink.

The Pullman Company bought the Pratt facility in 1926 and converted it into their southeast maintenance and repair facility. Passenger rail during the first half of the twentieth century saw no bounds to growth and was highly romanticized in literature and film - and the Pullman facility reflected that with its modern, efficient assembly-line plant. Sadly, our love affair with trains ended and the Pullman Company eventually went bankrupt.

The Pratt-Pullman site continued to operate as an Evans Railcar maintenance and assembly plant for a number of years until just before the Olympics came to Atlanta, when the State of Georgia bought the site for a fancy dinner train service that ran from Underground to Stone Mountain. However, the state pulled funding after the Olympic luster wore off.

The Pratt-Pullman Historic Site has been derelict ever since. Dystopian films like “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” have shot at Pratt-Pullman specifically for its post-apocalyptic looking decay — the result of decades of deferred maintenance. In 2012, the State made $51,000 from film shoot rentals, more than covering the annual cost of mowing the grass and patching holes in the perimeter fence.

The Pratt-Pullman site was placed on the Atlanta Preservation Center’s endangered places list in 2001, and in 2009 the Kirkwood neighborhood, including the Pratt-Pullman site, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although the Atlanta City Council unanimously voted last year to designate the Pratt-Pullman Historic Site as an officially recognized Historic Building and Site - which would have afforded the property real protection of its historic assets, lawyers for the State Properties Commission contended that the city did not have jurisdiction to do so. The State’s argument pointed to laws that direct state agencies to preserve publicly owned historic properties — laws the State appears to be ignoring. The property has since been put up for sale, without any deed restrictions or covenants that would preserve the historic buildings. Such deed restrictions were included in earlier proposed sales of the site and their absence is a cause for concern.

In a letter supporting the historic designation, President and CEO of the Atlanta History Center Sheffield Hale wrote, “the historic significance of the Pullman Shops cannot be understated. Pullman Shops’ story ties directly into Atlanta’s past as a railroad and industrial center. From a historical standpoint, it is a must — for in many ways this is an Atlanta story.” Preservation of this iconic property is supported by thousands of petitioners, preservationists, the local neighborhood associations, the local NPU-O, the Atlanta City Council and planning department, and State Senate Resolution SR180.

As the noted historic preservation expert Donovan Rypkema states, “Rehabilitating historic properties conserves taxpayers’ dollars, our local heritage, and the natural environment. Rehabilitating historic buildings and using the infrastructure that is already in place to serve them is the height of fiscal and environmental responsibility.” We continue to urge the state to do the right thing, but time is running out. Once the property is sold, the fate of the Pratt-Pullman is in the hands of private developers.

Charles Lawrence holds a master of science degree in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a heritage conservation specialist and manages historic building reuse projects throughout the Southeast.

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