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ACHF Preservation Awards Showcase Morton Theatre

Athens has a great number of historic resources, and while I whine and complain when one shows up on the chopping block, we are far better about preserving and rehabilitating them than most towns.  

For the past 43 years, the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation has given awards for local historic preservation. This year’s Preservation Awards will be presented Monday, June 3 at 6:30 p.m. and the public is welcome.  

“The award winners represent all aspects of Athens, and we want everyone and anyone to feel welcome to come and enjoy the stories just waiting to be told,” says Amy Kissane, executive director of the ACHF. A reception following the awards is sponsored by Heirloom Cafe.  

The annual awards play an important role in fulfilling the ACHF’s mission by highlighting the projects, and more importantly the people behind them, that keep the town’s historic fabric vibrant. Awards are given in nine categories, including outstanding rehabilitation, for which multiple awards are given. There are three memorial awards, which are rotated each year. This year, the memorial award is the Phinizy Spalding Award, named for the late University of Georgia professor and Cobbham resident who was one of the first in the city to restore historic buildings. It is given “to recognize a member of the Athens area community who has had an extraordinary impact on the preservation and appreciation of Athens-Clarke County’s historic resources.”

Past award winners have included the Morton Theatre, Ted’s Most Best, Sips Espresso, Taqueria del Sol, the Hawthorne House and many others. 

Individuals also are eligible for awards. In 2009, when then-Mayor Heidi Davison and the ACC Transportation and Public Works Department won an award for restoring the historic brick sidewalks along Hancock Avenue in the Reese District. Tom Ellis, currently under fire for a controversial addition on Dubose Avenue, also won an award in 2009 for an infill house on Cohen Street.   

This year’s awards will showcase an amazing venue with a rich history. The Morton Building, opened in 1910, is one of the first and oldest surviving African-American vaudeville theatres in the country. It was built in 1909-1910 by Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Vaudeville was prevalent until the 1930s; it brought together musician, dancers, trained animals, impersonators, acrobats and athletes on the same bill. Entertainers such as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Duke Ellington played at the Morton Theatre.  

For years, it helped form the center of the downtown black business district known as Hot Corner. Though the building is now known as the Morton Theatre, the name written at the top of the building is “Morton Building,” due to the fact that when first built it was the home of numerous black-owned businesses, including doctors’ and dentists’ offices, a pharmacy, restaurants, barbers, bakeries and a mortuary. 

The theater was renovated in the 1930s, and a projection booth was added. However, a small fire in the projection booth caused the theatre to be closed by the fire marshal. Though the theater was closed, the rest of the Morton Building continued to operate. 

The building remained in the Morton family until 1973, when it was sold to John T. Bond of Bond Properties, Inc. Though the theater and many of the offices on upper floors were neglected, several businesses continued to operate out of the Morton Building, including El Dorado, the first vegetarian restaurant in Athens. Spaces within the Morton Building, including the theater itself, were rented out to musicians such as R.E.M. and The B-52’s as practice space. R.E.M. even filmed part of the music video for “The One I Love” there.

In 1987, the citizens of Athens-Clarke County came to the rescue of the Morton Building by voting for a SPLOST that included $1.8 million to rehabilitate the theatre, including its caved-in roof, and the rest of the building.  In 1991, the Morton Building came under the aegis of the ACC government. Since then, it has operated as a partnership between the nonprofit Morton Theatre Corporation and the ACC Leisure Services Department. SPLOST 2010 provided another $600,000 for improvements to the energy systems in the Morton Building and will include heating, ventilation and air conditioning components, windows and roof work, to keep the building weathertight and operational.