Becoming South Decatur, Building Community Institutions

History is an imperfect art. I suppose that’s why its products are merely working drafts.

While working on the South Decatur urban homesteading project I was reconciling the documented historical boundaries for the area known until recently as South Decatur but which is now known as Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood. As I was working with the historical maps and legislation that enlarged Decatur in the early twentieth century, I found some inconsistencies in the city’s official annexation history map and the boundaries detailed in the legislation allowing the city to expand its corporate limits.

The city’s official annexation history map only shows one annexation event in what is now the Oakhurst area: 1914:

Credit: City of Decatur.

The 1914 annexation act revoked the Town of Oakhurst’s charter and facilitated its annexation by neighboring Decatur. That happened in 1915. The boundaries described in the 1914 legislation, however, omitted much of what most Decaturites consider Oakhurst, notably the area that includes the Oakhurst Village business district. Decatur actually annexed that area after the legislature passed additional legislation in 1916.

South Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood showing the boundaries delimited in the 1914 and 1916 annexation acts. The 1914 act contained only the Town of Oakhurst corporate limits.

Much of today’s Oakhurst remained unincorporated DeKalb County until 1917 when the second annexation law took effect. Communities in the 1916 annexation area included the Atlanta Suburban Land Company’s East End and Poplar Springs subdivisions. In fact, the area now considered the heart of Oakhurst — Oakhurst Village — was actually the centerpiece in the Poplar Springs subdivision.

Atlanta Suburban Land Company’s undated (c. 1890) plat of Poplar Springs.

The Atlanta Suburban Land Company still owned large tracts of land in the area that was added to Decatur in 1917. Like many of their contemporaries, the subdivider-developer created physical and social infrastructure to support its new suburban subdivisions it hoped would one day become independent towns. Like Kirkwood.

One of the institutions the land company created was a school at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Oakview Road in its East End subdivision. The first school at the Fifth Avenue site was built in the spring and summer of 1891. It occupied the property until 1926 when Decatur constructed a new architect-designed building. Over the next 77 years, that building was enlarged and its grounds expanded to accommodate playing fields and more facilities. It continued to function as an educational institution and community building where meetings were held and polling occurred.

East End School (bottom) and Poplar Springs shown in a 1912 subdivision plat. DeKalb County land records.

The school was first known as the East End Grammar School. It also appeared in various historical documents as the “East End Academy.” At some point during the early 20th century, the school became known as the “Poplar Springs School” before it came to be known as the Fifth Avenue Elementary School.

According to ads run in the Atlanta Constitution while the school was under construction, the building was completed in the summer of 1891 and it opened Monday, September 7, 1891. “The free school building is underway,” wrote realtor H.W. Wilson in ads printed in April 1891. “The latest improvements are in the building and the very best patent school desks that are made have been ordered.”

People who bought lots in any of the Atlanta Suburban Land Company’s subdivisions could send their children to the school. So could their tenants. Tuition was waived for five years and other children could attend for a “modest cost.” Like all of its contemporary institutions, the school was founded in a segregated society and it was open only to white children.

Atlanta Constitution, August 12, 1891.

By November 1891 there were about 40 students attending the new school. A year later, there were 55. “A fine school on a spot which but a little while ago was in the woods speaks volumes for the rapid growth of East End,” wrote the Atlanta Journal on October 14, 1892. “The building was erected a year and a half ago and it is one of the most commodious of school houses.”

After 1891, the next major milestone was reached in 1917 when Decatur annexed the surrounding area and incorporated the old school into the town’s public school system, which was founded in 1901. The Fifth Avenue School became Decatur’s smallest elementary school.

1915 DeKalb County real estate atlas. East End School site highlighted. When this map was made, the area illustrated had not yet been annexed by Decatur. Original on file, DeKalb History Center.

Just ten days after the area was incorporated into Decatur, the town council passed a resolution accepting the donation of the school from the land company as “a gift to the people of Decatur.” The original resolution is still archived in the city’s records.

1917 Town of Decatur resolution. Original in the City of Decatur archives.

In 1926, Decatur authorized funds to build a new brick school at the site. Hapeville builder G.F. Wells submitted a $19,458 bid that included a design by noted Atlanta architects Edwards & Sayward. The firm, founded by William A. Edwards (1866-1939) and William J. Sayward (1874-1945), became a leading designer for commercial, institutional, and government buildings throughout the Southeast. They designed many of Decatur’s early 20th century landmark buildings, including the old high school, City Hall, and buildings at Agnes Scott College.

1926 Poplar Springs School drawings title block. Original on file, Dekalb History Center.

The Edwards & Sayward design was for a Romanesque-informed building with an arched main (east) entrance and a cast stone keystone. The building was to be well-lit by large wood double-hung sash windows and covered by a hipped composition shingle roof. An optional cupola was shown in the plans. Had it been built, it would have added another $400 to the project.

1926 Edwards & Sayward drawings for the new Poplar Springs (Fifth Avenue) School. Originals on file, DeKalb History Center.

The school quickly outgrew its new building and by 1928 the city was acquiring adjacent parcels for expansion. One of the parcels added to the school site in 1935 was the site of a gruesome 1896 murder as well as nearby residential lots. The city also closed Evans Street, which ran west to east between Fourth and Fifth avenues.

1937 City of Decatur sketch map showing the Fifth Avenue School parcels.

Funding for expansion was authorized and the Edwards & Sayward firm was again retained to design an addition to its 1926 building. The new addition included a cafeteria, kitchen, auditorium, and new classroom space.

1936 Edwards & Sayward drawings for the Fifth Avenue School expansion. Originals on file at the DeKalb History Center.

The addition was completed as a joint effort by the city and the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). The city requested $7,216 from the WPA and received the complete grant to complete the project.

The expansion project ultimately cost $21,500 and was completed in 1937. Decatur parents circulated a petition thanking the city when the new addition was completed. “We take this means of thanking your board and the board of education for the beautiful and commodious building that your efforts have made available,” reported the Atlanta Constitution in its November 30, 1937 edition.

The school continued to function as a segregated city school throughout the mid-20th century. After desegregation and after South Decatur became majority African-American in the 1960s, the school deteriorated. By 1999, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there were 209 students enrolled in the Fifth Avenue School, all of them African-American.

Fifth Avenue School (demolished 2010). Credit: City of Decatur 2009 Historic Resources Survey. Oakhurst inventory forms.

In 2004, the city closed the school and according to posts in local blogs, the abandoned school became a blighting nuisance in the Oakhurst neighborhood. A new school, the 4/5 Academy at Fifth Avenue, was completed in 2011 after the older buildings were demolished one year earlier.

4/5 Academy. 2011 photo by author.

Our understanding of the past changes as more information becomes available. Decatur’s historical annexation map can be easily updated. What we thought about the history of our neighborhoods and buildings will change as our information changes. The City of Decatur in historic resources surveys done in the 1980s and in 2009 never recognized the historical significance of the old Fifth Avenue School and it was allowed to deteriorate and it was demolished. All we are left to piece together the school’s history are an incomplete photographic record, some old maps and legal records, and the fading memories of our neighbors.

As a newcomer to Decatur, I wasn’t here in 2007 when the neighborhood was torn apart by a contentious effort to create a historic district. I’ve been told that the historic district issue is not ripe for revisiting and I’ll leave that matter to my neighbors with stronger roots in the community. But I wonder how much of Decatur’s unexplored and undocumented history has been lost because the historical record is incomplete and there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that historic places are not demolished before we know their full stories.

© 2011 David S. Rotenstein

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