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Midtown mural plans will revive a Gainesville landmark
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The original mural on the OddFellows Building on Athens/Sycamore Street. The mural was destroyed with the building to make way for the expansion of E. E. Butler Parkway. The mural is being revived as a public art project by Vision 2030. Photo courtesy Tina Carlson

Vision2030 of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, as the name proclaims, is all about the future.

But one of its initiatives, public art, takes a peek into the past to accomplish one of its goals.

Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

Nathaniel Shelton, a longtime Gainesville schools counselor and teacher, is now retired, but still substitutes regularly. In 1967 he organized the Gents Club with about 13 boys who were disadvantaged or inclined toward trouble. His idea was to change their attitudes and offer them a new direction.

The Gents Club was a success, helping scores of boys over about three decades who might not have amounted to much otherwise. Members helped out in the community, sponsored pageants for girls, provided recreation on Gainesville’s southside, operated a teen center for boys and girls, created a chorus and provided a number of other activities. 

One of its projects was to beautify the Gents Club part of town. They helped paint a mural on the side of a building, the OddFellows Building on Athens/Sycamore Street. The idea had come from the Gainesville Arts Council, which adopted it as a bicentennial project.

This is where the Public Art Committee of Vision2030 comes in. Frank Norton Jr., chair of the committee, came across a picture of the mural, unearthed its history, and the committee decided a duplication of the artwork would fit nicely into its plans to spread art through the community. He even found one of the original artists, Karen Hawk, who was a student at North Georgia College, now the University of North Georgia, at the time. She now lives in North Carolina and has agreed to come replicate the wall artwork.

Other artists from the college included Jolynne McEwen, Susan Bruggeman, Judy Marble and Gina Campbell. Some worked on the project during the Christmas holidays. Gents Club members Joe Norman, Curtis Haynes, Mike Childers, Tony Hudson, Earnest Mason, Bobby Lott and Anthony Cheeks were among those who worked with Shelton to complete the painting.

Frank Norton used his birthday to start a GoFundMe page to raise money for the new project. At last count, it was closing in on $5,000.

The new mural will be on the side of a building in Midtown Gainesville.

The original painting was on the OddFellows building at the corner of Sycamore (Athens Street) and Summit Street. This was a landmark in the southside community for years. It not only was the site for the OddFellows lodge, it contained numerous businesses. In the 1950s it housed Greenlee Funeral Home, Burns Barber Shop, Athens Street Café, Chamblee’s Drug Store and Dr. F.D. McCoy’s office. Mattie Lowe’s Beauty Parlor was upstairs. Linda Rucker Hutchens and Ella J. Wilmont Smith reported in their book on local black history that the drugstore originally was owned by Dr. N.A. Doyle, the first black physician in Hall County. 

The cornerstone of the OddFellows building listed Dr. Doyle as secretary of the building committee with R.A. Chamblee as president and G.W. Stephens treasurer.

The building was a victim of Urban Renewal, abandoned for the widening of Sycamore/Athens Street, now E.E. Butler Parkway.

Carol King, now Carol Keavney living in California, wrote about the mural and the building when she was writer for The Times. She described the painting as a “coming together of all colors representing the American melting pot.” She recalled as a child she and her friends keeping their distance from the funeral home, but remembered ice cream cones, snowballs and other goodies at Chamblee’s Drug Store.

Tina Carlson of Vision2030’s Public Art Committee is coordinating the “lost wall” art project. The committee will be talking more about it at a State of the Art event at Hunt Tower Oct. 28.

As for the Gents Club, it has been inactive for several years, but Shelton said there is interest among some in Gainesville High School to resurrect it, or at least revive some of the activities the club promoted. He sees a need for it now just as he did in the past.

Watch for more local history in this column next Sunday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville; 770-532-2326; johnny.peggy@gmail.com or vardeman1956@att.net.

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A colorized version of the original mural on the OddFellows Building on Athens/Sycamore Street projected onto its coming home in midtown Gainesville. Photo courtesy Tina Carlson
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