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Cooley house is one of last remaining structures from Martin Institute
The Cooley House in Jefferson is one of the last remaining structures of the Martin Institute built in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration. - photo by Tom Reed

JEFFERSON — With its stately white columns and red brick exterior, the Cooley house in Jefferson looks like a very pretty house on a very quiet block.

As passers-by may just take the exterior beauty of the home on the corner of Martin Street and Institute Avenue at face value, but that would be a shame. The true greatness of the home lies inside.

The home at 276 Martin St. is one of the last remaining structures of the Martin Institute, built in the early 1800s.

According to Lucian Knight, author of "Georgia’s Landmarks, Memorials and Legends" published in 1914, it was "one of the noblest institutions of learning in America" and produced such "bright names as Justice Joseph R. Lamar of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Honorable John N. Holder, twice speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives."

Tom Cooley was born in Jefferson in 1918, so he knows a lot about the building’s history and the area itself.

"From here on up to Washington Street was the Martin Institute campus. I was born a block away from here and as a children we used to play on the school’s campus," said Cooley, current owner of the home.

"There used to be a big two-story dormitory across the street. When they tore that down, they used the windows and a lot of the rafters from that building to construct this one."

Cooley’s home was built in 1939 by Works Progress Administration crews. WPA was a federal program established in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a way of providing economic relief to unemployed Americans. It is estimated that during its eight-year history, the WPA employed more than 8 million people constructing everything from highways to public buildings.

"There were a lot of really skilled people working on these projects and this house," Cooley said. "They were skilled, but they just couldn’t find work."

After being built, the building was used as vocational classroom space for the school.

"(The front of the main floor) was used to teach the girls home economics. It was set up like a real home. The kitchen had stoves lined up along the wall and there was closet space for each of the girls to store their supplies. When I bought the building in 1979, there were still labels on the closet shelf with the girls’ names," said Cooley.

"The back rooms were used for other vocational classes."

Shortly after the new building was constructed, the overall Martin Institute went through some massive changes.

"The main building burned in 1942 by arson, but the (Cooley house) was still used for classes, even after the main building burned and the new high school was built in 1947," said Guy Dean Benson, a member of the Jefferson City Schools Board of Education.

"Besides the daytime vocational classes, the (Cooley House) was used to offer night classes to the soldiers returning home from World War II. A lot of those guys had to drop out of school because they were drafted, so this was a way for them to continue their education when they got back."

Gus Johnson, Cooley’s nephew, has fond memories of the house, dating back even before his uncle purchased it.

"I was in high school in the early 1950s and my agriculture classes were held (in this building). We used to have Future Farmers of America meeting here, too," said Johnson.

"There are a lot of good memories here in this house."

Prior to being purchased by Cooley, the building served many different purposes.

According to Benson, it was used for a while as a storage facility by Charlie Wilson, grandfather of Jefferson school board member Damon Wilbanks, and also as the public library.

Cooley purchased the house in 1978 and began to move in after retiring as a Connecticut engineer in 1980.

"I worked up and down the East Coast, but I always knew I wanted to retire here. After I bought the house, I went to work restoring it. It took five years, but I had fun doing it. When you’re doing something that you enjoy, it doesn’t feel like work."

While he was busy dividing rooms, building an indoor staircase to the basement and adding a circulating hot water heating system with base radiators, Cooley was careful to retain the original charm of the structure.

Many of the windows are still the hand-blown originals and the original oak flooring is still intact throughout the house.

"I was single and didn’t have any children, so I always knew I would sell this house. I just never imagined I’d be here 30 years," Cooley said. "I wanted to be able to retain as much history as possible, so I tried to preserve as much of the original work as I could."

During its last meeting, the Jefferson City School Board discussed taking a look at the home to see if it could be used for some much-needed office space.

"If the school purchased it, I think that would be a wonderful use for the house," said Johnson. "It would be like coming full circle.