Atlanta mansion being restored piece by piece

Atlanta mansion being restored piece by piece

From an open-air, rubble-strewn ruin, the Grant Mansion is piece by piece reclaiming its role as the stately anchor of the historic Grant Park neighborhood southeast of downtown Atlanta.

The home is perhaps one of only two undisputed antebellum buildings remaining in the city limits.

Built in 1856 by railroad executive Lemuel P. Grant, the home was reportedly spared by General William T. Sherman during his burning of Atlanta in the Civil War because Grant was a fellow Mason.

"Gone With the Wind" writer Margaret Mitchell tried to rescue it in the 1940s, but the person to whom she loaned the money instead removed key parts of the house, such as the front porch.

By the time the Atlanta Preservation Center bought it in 2001 for its headquarters, the three-story mansion had been reduced to an entry hall and back wing. The upper stories were gone, leaving the first-floor east and west wings exposed to the elements. The group raised enough money by late 2008 for a temporary roof hidden behind the remains of the upper story walls.

"We watched in agony for years as the woodwork decayed because it was exposed," says Boyd Coons, the center's executive director. "When we finally got past that and got the roof on, we felt like we could breathe a sigh of relief because we weren't losing original material any longer."

They then hired master craftsman Sandy Crowe to restore the interior.

In Crowe, the center found a man able to meet both their demands for historical accuracy and their pay-as-you-go pace. He started with one 10-foot-tall window - about $8,000 in labor and materials, Crowe says.

"By the time I finished the first window, they said, 'We've got some more donations, so will you do another?' " he says. Five times he had to commission custom blades for his shaper so he could reproduce interior trim that couldn't be salvaged.

One year later, he has finished the windows and repaired the interior woodwork and masonry. He says he's impressed that fellow craftsmen did the same work 150 years ago without power tools.

"You feel like you get to know the craftspeople that were involved originally," he says. "It's amazing how good some of this stuff fits. They had a lot more pride than the folks we have now."

The next step at the Grant Mansion is reconstructing the front and back porches. Rebuilding the upper stories will follow at a cost of $1 million to $2 million.

"That's a huge amount of money for us," Coons says. The group's annual budget is about $280,000, so the project proceeds as money comes in, he says. Donations of money, time and materials, and matching grants from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, have kept the project afloat.

The finished building will continue to serve as the group's headquarters and also will retain unrestored elements to show how close the Grant Mansion came to oblivion, he says.

"You have to be creative, and invest time and thought into using assets in a way that produces something unique," Coons says. "We think we have something unique for Atlanta."

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