Georgia Original series: This is the second in a series of stories spotlighting area residents who have contributed to the betterment of Hall County through their community works. In this series, The Times will highlight one person each month.
For almost a century, Carl Lawson has watched and had a hand in the changing landscape of the Gainesville community.
While most people his age are taking life easy, the 95-year-old is still a “very busy man.”
Lawson still drives himself to meetings and appointments which he keeps carefully scheduled in his desktop calendar. He still uses the same business cards and letterheads he’s used in his real estate and insurance company, the Carl Lawson Agency, for more than 25 years. Though his office has long since moved from the pyramid-shaped building across from the Hall County Library System’s Gainesville branch, many people remember the downtown landmark simply as “Carl Lawson’s place.”
“His agency was the pyramid building,” said Jim Mathis Jr., chief executive officer of the North Georgia Community Foundation and a former neighbor of Lawson’s. “It think that was his landmark. Everybody knew it was Carl Lawson’s place back in those days.”
Lawson, sitting behind his computer desk in his small fourth story office on Green Street recently, laughs as he recalls the challenges he faced in the 1960s while trying to build the oddly-shaped office building.
After “seeing the writing on the wall” that his office, housed in an old hotel, would be demolished to construct the present-day library building, Lawson purchased a lot across the street.
“Sure enough, the city came in and redid the whole intersection there where the library is,” Lawson said. “My lot was cut. Instead of cutting it in two, they left me with a triangle lot.”
Unsure of what to do, Lawson hired local architect George “Bear” Newton Jr.
“He was a genius in some ways,” Lawson said. “He had the most vision of any man I’ve ever known about buildings. So I talked to him about that triangle lot.”
An odd-shaped building
The men decided to build a triangle building, with stone walls and a wooden roof.
“We started building the thing and gave our plans to the city for them to fool with and everything,” Lawson said. “They said the zone won’t let you put a wood roof on it.”
So the men added a very small shingled “roof” to the top of the building and called the wood roof “walls.”
After some back and forth, the city changed the zoning rules for wood roofing.
Lawson ran his business in the building from 1966 to 1985 and sold the building in 1995. Today, the building is empty with a rental sign hanging in the doorway.
Lawson put his hand up to the window to peak inside recently. He pointed to his former office, the old file system and the upstairs conference room. He said he feels “the effect” has been lost since the wood roof has been replaced with standard shingles and the natural colored rocks have been painted gray.
But Lawson remembers all the attention the building received when it was still new.
“When we opened that thing ... people used to come by, traveling through Gainesville and I’d see people getting out of their car and taking pictures of it,” Lawson said laughing.
The pyramid building isn’t the only picturesque location Lawson helped create.
A changing landscape
The city Lawson grew up in looked very different from the Gainesville in existence today.
Lawson remembers growing up on his family’s 100-acre property on Clarks Bridge Road. A little dirt road ran in front of his house.
“Daddy sold that place when we moved to town for $2,500. That was the home and 100 acres of land,” Lawson said. “A local doctor bought it about 20 years ago for about $2 million. That’s how things have increased.”
In the days of his youth, Lawson said the Chattahoochee River often flooded roadways after heavy rains.
His oldest brother, Herbert Lawson, who lived to be 102, worked as a civil engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was involved with a plan to build a dam for water safety and flood control. Lawson said his brother was assigned to work in Roswell with the first crew to survey the Chattahoochee River for the ideal location to build a dam in 1928.
“He worked down there for a year and a half surveying with a crew,” Lawson said. “They sent a report into the corps of engineers home office in Washington that they found the ideal place. It was a little place north of Roswell and close to a place called Buford.”
Many years later, Lawson became the president of The Upper Chattahoochee Development Association, a group of people who met with the Corps of Engineers monthly during the construction of Lake Lanier and the Buford Dam representing the counties along the Chattahoochee River. When the dam construction was completed in 1956, Lawson was one of nine members to pull the switch and start the dam for the first time.
“(Herbert Lawson) was one of the first crew that surveyed the site for the dam and I was in the crew that closed it up,” Lawson said laughing. “The oldest boy in the family surveyed the dam and the youngest one closed the switch that closed the gate.”
Three years later, the lake reached full pool for the first time and Gainesville’s growth started to take off.
Lawson said two things influenced the growth of Gainesville above all else, the lake and air conditioning.
“Air conditioning brought business in here and then the lake brought people in here,” Lawson said. “Those two things have done more to building up this place.”
But Lawson has tried to build the community in other ways, too.
He served as the chairman for the Hall County Community Chest (now the United Way of Hall County), the district commissioner for the Boy Scouts of America and president of the Gainesville Jaycees. He was also a member of the Elks Lodge, Greater Hall County Chamber of Commerce, the American Legion and the Lions Club, among others.
Gainesville City Councilman Bob Hamrick said he’s known Lawson for “a long, long time” through his service to the community.
“He has served on various committees within the city,” Hamrick said. “All of them contributing to the quality of life that we enjoy.”