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Rich history, controversy mark jail site

POSTED: February 26, 2012 12:30 a.m.

If it weren't such a serious matter, it almost would be funny, this dispute over the former Hall County jail property on South Main Street in Gainesville.

In recent years, the city wanted to buy back the property from the county, which acquired it in 1978. The city wanted to get rid of a jail in that midtown redevelopment area. Corrections Corp. of America leased the detention center from the county in 2008, but now it wants to change the agreement because of the lack of prisoners. That's supposed to be a good thing, isn't it, when you don't have enough lawbreakers to fill a jail?

The private company wants to buy the facility for $7.2 million and isn't paying rent until a deal is reached.

It's ironic that in 1978 the city sold the property to the county, which wanted it for a detention center. Even then, there was controversy over the site, though it had nothing to do with the county building a jail there.

The location is the former site of the old Main Street School, a white-columned brick building through which thousands of Gainesvillians passed in elementary school. It also was historic because many considered the site as the birthplace of public education in the city. The Rev. C.B. Lahatte started the Gainesville Methodist College there in 1881, and the city followed with the founding of Gainesville College there in 1884. Gainesville College was the forerunner of the present city school system.

So in 1978, when Hall County commissioners and Gainesville commissioners, as they were called then, were negotiating the sale, the Hall County Historical Society and others interested in preserving historic sites, were upset, to say the least. The county had offered $250,000 for the site, and it would tear down the old school building to build a jail.

But the opposition became so fierce, the county backed off the demolition part of the deal. It didn't want the onus of tearing down a historic building. Neither did the city, but the county wouldn't agree to the sale until the building was gone.

This encouraged the preservationists, led by the late Sybil McRay, considered at the time Hall County's unofficial historian.

Unfortunately, their optimism was short-lived. At 3:30 p.m. on March 17, 1978, a wrecking ball slammed into the stately white columns of the old Main Street School, the building's walls came tumbling down, and crumbled along with them the hopes of the Save the Main Street School movement.

What was so curious was the swiftness with which the city consummated the deal. Bids by the wrecking companies were opened at 2 p.m. at City Hall. An hour and a half later, the successful bidder, Georgia Mountain Contractors, had its equipment on the site and slinging its 3,000-pound steel ball into the historic columns.

Government at any level, often accused of molasses-like movement, had never been known to act so quickly. A worker on the project told a reporter he was told to get over there and do enough damage right away so that the building couldn't be saved.

They probably figured that if notice had been given of the time of the demolition, Mrs. McRay and friends might have chained themselves to the Main Street columns.

So the county took possession of the property and built a detention center. Four years ago, the city thought it had a deal to buy back the property for $4 million because it didn't want a jail in midtown. But the county backed out and instead leased the property to Corrections Corp. of America.

Now the property is up for sale again; the city again tried to buy it, but the price was too high.

Obviously, you can't save every old building.

But what if Mrs. McRay's band of preservationists had prevailed? What if the old Main Street School still stood, possibly being used as a museum, welcome center or offices? What if a jail hadn't been built there? How would that property fit into midtown redevelopment plans?

The old Candler Street School off Green Street in Gainesville was declared surplus, too, just like the old Main Street School. It escaped the wrecking ball and now stands as a historic landmark filled with offices and significant to thousands of Gainesvillians who spent their elementary school years there.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501, phone 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.johnny.



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