MARTA Commissioned Historical Report on West Peachtree Street Church before Demolition

October 20, 1978

Mr. Richard Stanger Urban Design Section
Planning and Marketing Division
MARTA
401 West Peachtree St., N.W.
Atlanta, GA 30308

Dear Mr. Stanger:

Enclosed herewith is the historical narrative with photographs of The Abbey (The Atlanta Unitarian Church, 669 West Peachtree Street, N.E.), which was prepared at your direction as mitigation against the loss of the building to the City of Atlanta due to MARTA construction.
This report conforms with professional standards for historical documentation and archival standards for permanence in materials. It is our understanding that this document is to be presented to the Atlanta Historical Society for permanent retention in the public domain, to be available for future research and reference as a part of the Society’s collections of original materials.

We believe this portrait is an accurate recapitulation of the Abbey history, and we are pleased to be of assistance to you. We hope that this report meets with MARTA’s own requirements for this inquiry.

Sincerely yours,

Darlene R. Roth President
This report partially fulfills a mitigation agreement made between MARTA and the Georgia Historic Preservation Officer, Ms. Elizabeth Lyon, Acting. It was the feeling of both parties that the building, while not eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, merited such a report. The building was described in 1977 as part of the construction of MARTA’s rapid transit system. The effort was coordinated by Richard M. Stanger, Manager of Urban Design.
METROPOLITAN ATLANTA RAPID TRANSIT AUTHORITY BOARD OF DIRECTORS:
ATLANTA:
Dr. Johnnie L. Clark
Mr. John Evans
Mr. John R. Myer
Mr. Lyndon A. Wade, Secretary
CLAYTON COUNTY: Mr. John G. Glover, Jr.
DEKALB COUNTY:
Mr. Daniel B. Pattillo, Chairman
Mr. William R. Probst, Vice Chairman
Mr. John H. Weitnauer, Jr.
FULTON COUNTY:
Dr. J. E. Lowery
Mr. Harold Sheats, Treasurer
GWINNETT COUNTY: Mr. K. A. McMillon
EX OFFICIO:
Mr. G. W. Hogan, State Properties Commission
Mr. Thomas D. Moreland, Georgia Department of Transportation Mr. W. E. Strickland, Georgia Department of Revenue
Mr. Alan F. Kiepper, General Manager
Mr. Morris J. Dillard, Assistant General Manager of
Planning and Public Affairs Mr. Manuel Padron, Director of Planning and Marketing

THE ABBEY:
The Atlanta Unitarian Church, Re-used Mitigation Documentation prepared for Urban Design Section Division of Planning and Marketing
Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA)
by
The History Group, Inc.
Steve Grable, M.A. Darlene Roth, Ph.D. with
Dana F. White, Ph.D. Elizabeth J. Meredith
October 1978

Note: Preparation of this report has been financed in part through a grant from the Urban Mass Transit Administration, under provision of Section 3 of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1969, as amended.
The primary research copy of this document, with original photographs, has been placed on deposit with the Atlanta Historical Society, 3099 Andrews Drive, N.W., Atlanta.

A second copy with original photographs has been retained by MARTA.

ABSTRACT

In 1977 the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) demolished a Gothic Revival church building at 669 West Peachtree Street, N.E., since it lay in the path of the north rail line currently under construction. The church, which was erected in 1915, served the local Unitarian congregation until 1948, when the building passed into ownership of the Bible Baptist Church. In 1969, the building changed hands again and was converted into a restaurant known as The Abbey.

This report seeks to recapture the religious, social, and artifactual history of the building, as mitigation against the loss of the structure to the City of Atlanta. The report is given in three sections covering 1) Unitarianism in the South, 2) the local Unitarian congregation, and 3) the use of the building as a restaurant, including a full pictorial record of its architectural features.

The original congregation has long since removed to another location, and The Abbey, which was displaced by the demolition, has relocated at 163 Ponce de Leon, N.E., to another church building, itself renovated for restaurant usage.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ABSTRACT    iii
TABLE OF CONTENTS iv
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Methodology 1
I. Unitarianism in Georgia and the South 2
II. The Atlanta Unitarian Church 6
III. The Abbey: The Church Re-used 16
Footnotes 39

LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Map, Unitarian & Universalist Churches, 1884-1953 8
Photo 1: West elevation, 669 West Peachtree St. 11
Photo 2: Details of the west elevation 13
Photo 3: Interior of former nave 19
Photo 4: Nave looking north 21
Photo 5: Chancel space with bar 23
Photo 6: Details of the west windows 25
Photo 7: Narthex of the church 27
Photo 8: Detail of west windows, narthex level 29
Photo 9: Octagonal “chapel” 32
Photo 10: Interior of the “chapel”/bar 34
Photo 11: Detail of nave ceiling 36
Photo 12: Stairway from narthex to balcony 38

METHODOLOGY

In the preparation of this report, The History Group, Inc., was confronted with special research problems, most notably, the absence of organizational records for the Unitarian Church for the period 1915 to 1948, when the congregation occupied the structure in question. Apparently, all these records were destroyed in a fire at a member’s house in the late 1940s.

Without institutional records, it was necessary to resort to other sources to reconstruct the building’s history. Preliminary research during the summer of 1977 included an examination of city directories, building permits, and Sanborn fire insurance maps, which together revealed basic structural information, the date and cost of construction, the successive uses of the property, and the occupants of the building after the Unitarians sold it in 1950. Interviews were conducted among local church members and others to obtain information not otherwise available, and a review of secondary literature was made to prepare the background sections on Unitarianism in Georgia and Atlanta.

In addition, MARTA supplied The History Group with a set of photographs highlighting the building’s physical setting and architectural features. Assistance in captioning these pictures and describing the building’s interior was provided by Elizabeth Meredith, architectural consultant to MARTA.

UNITARIANISM IN GEORGIA AND THE SOUTH

Unitarianism came to the South from New England in two waves of missionary activity–one before the Civil War and one after. Antebellum efforts were largely unsuccessful in establishing permanent congregations, and the Unitarian congregations which were formed–such as in Augusta and Savannah, Georgia–regularly floundered from insufficient funds, opposition from the local orthodoxy, and hostility to the abolitionism of the national association.

Formed in 1825 in Massachusetts, the American Unitarian Association propagated its faith successfully in New England, but it was unable to promote large scale expansion in the developing sections of the country, including the South.’ By 1850, 90% of the Unitarian congregations in the country were still located in the Northeast, especially in and around Boston.

Unitarianism was itself self-limiting. To begin with, the movement had no formal creed to bind together its constituents; instead, it looked to a “larger intellectual and religious life, free of restraints imposed by a doctrinal system.”2 Then, too, the liberal faith of Unitarians often bred internal controversies and dissension, precluding unified action on specific goals, such as expansion. Finally, other sections of the country were simply not prepared to accept the Unitarians socially and religiously and therefore to support them financially.

During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Unitarian missionaries established churches in Richmond, New Orleans, and Charleston, to serve congregations primarily composed of commercial merchants who had migrated in from New England.3 The first Unitarian congregation in Georgia was formed in Augusta in 1826.4 In 1827 the congregation erected a meeting house, with fund-raising assistance provided by Samuel Gilman, the Unitarian minister to the Charleston congregation. In 1830 the Augusta congregation welcomed its first (and only) full-time minister, Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School. Although Bulfinch attempted to win community acceptance, he was unsuccessful, and he departed in 1837 for a position in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Without a strong leader, the Augusta church dissolved, beset by financial difficulties and continuing religious controversy.
The Unitarian Church formed in Savannah in 1830 had a better chance for survival, since its congregation was larger to begin with. Nevertheless, in its twenty-nine year history it never gained economic independence from the American Unitarian Association, upon which it depended for operating subsidies and minister’s salary. It also faced severe criticism from the Savannah community.

Increasingly, during the pre-Civil War period, southern Unitarians felt trapped between the presence of slavery in their communities, on the one hand, and the anti-slavery stance of their main funding sources, the New England churches.5 Northern Unitarians often threatened to halt the flow of financial contributions unless the missionary churches in the south began to support the abolitionist cause; southern congregations protested, pointing out the difficulty of opposing the racial views of their section. During the late 1830s at least two attempts were made to burn down the Savannah church, indicating the intensity of local antipathy toward the Unitarians. Economic instability and the political controversy surrounding the parent organization finally led to the dissolution of the Savannah congregation in 1859.

II. THE ATLANTA UNITARIAN CHURCH

Of the Unitarian churches in the south, only Charleston and New Orleans survived the Civil War, and these two disappeared by 1884.6 Concerned that it might be lagging behind the expansion of other denominations, the American Unitarian Association undertook a more aggressive missionary program. Accordingly, the Reverend George Leonard Chaney was sent to Atlanta to organize sympathetic individuals into an active congregation. During the spring and fall of 1882, Chaney preached around town, and succeeded in getting ten members for the new church.7

The congregation held its first meetings in the Kimball House, then, after a while, bought a lot on the corner of Forsyth Street and Church (now Carnegie Way) for a building. [Refer to church locations on the Map, page ] The Forsyth Street location served the congregation from 1884, when the building was dedicated, to 1900, when the property was bought by the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie Library. Reverend Chaney made certain that his sermons and civic involvements were not offensive to the orthodox religious groups, so he avoided embroiling the Atlanta church in controversy.8 Yet, though they did not face stringent local opposition, the Atlanta Unitarians remained small in numbers and dependent on the national organization. They had to borrow $7000 from the American Unitarian Association for the construction of their church, and they continued to rely upon the Association as a constant source of funds. Between 1883 and 1900, the congregation never exceeded 133 persons, and the average attendance at meetings rarely rose above 60.9 A random sample of the parishioners in these years shows that the membership was largely drawn from white-collar occupations–respectable persons, but not wealthy ones, and unable to make substantial contributions to their church.10

Selling the Forsyth property in 1900–for $25,000–enabled the congregation to pay off its loan, build a new church in a different location, and declare a surplus of $500.11 But solvency was short-lived; to meet operating expenses the congregation had to turn to its parent organization. In 1913 the second church building was sold, presumably also to pay off debts.12 Again, the Unitarians were able to profit from the sale: the northward expansion of the Central Business District had encroached on their site, but it had also increased the property’s value significantly. The Unitarians moved out of the commercial area and relocated further to the north in an environment that was still predominantly residential.
LEGEND
1 Unitarian, Forsyth and Church (Carnegie Way), 1884.
2 Unitarian, Spring and Cain (International), 1900.
3 Universalist, 16 East Harris, 1900.
4 Unitarian-Universalist, 669 West Peachtree, 1915. [Subject of this report.]
5 Unitarian, Boulevard and North, 1953.

It is this third Unitarian structure, located at 669 West Peachtree Street between Ponce de Leon and Third, which is the subject of this report. [See Photos 1 and 2.] Construction began in 1914 under a contract with builder C. Shelverton, and was completed in 1915, for a cost of $15,000.13 Situated next to the church, on the rise above West Peachtree, was a house, dating from around 1904, which the Unitarians used intermittently as a parish and which was demolished when this property was finally sold in 1951.14

Photo 1 (Archivist Note: Insert of Photo Pending – Jul 19, 2014)

West elevation of the Unitarian Church building, as it looked in its days as The Abbey. Gothic Revivial in style, the former church had a traditional east-west orientation with the opsidal end facing east towards the rising sun. An elaborate, but non-figurative stained glass window marks the west elevation.
(Photographer, Martin Stupich, 1977)

Photo 2 (Archivist Note: Insert of Photo Pending – Jul 19, 2014)

Details of the west elevation connote English Medieval architecture. Note the use of red brick with limestone trim, 4 centered arch over the main window, and perpendicular window mullions.
(Photographer, Martin Stupich, 1977)

Three years after the completion of their building, as an economic measure, the Unitarians merged with the Universalists, a local branch of another liberal Christian organization.15 For some years the combined congregations were known as the Liberal Christian Church, but in the 1930s, the groups reverted to earlier nomenclature and referred to themselves as the Unitarian-Universalist Church.16

The local merger was accomplished years before the two national associations combined memberships, which happened in 1960. The first “official” act of cooperation between the two denominations occurred when the American Unitarian Association and the Independent Christian Society (the Universalists) issued a joint hymnal in 1937.17 Later, the organizations became the Unitarian-Universalist Association.

Universalism, like Unitarianism, began in New England as a reaction against the orthodox churches, and like the Unitarians, the Universalists attempted to extend their congregations to the south in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In 1879, the Reverend W. C. Bowman organized a Universalist church in Atlanta, which lasted only one year. A second attempt was made in 1895 by missionary-minister Q. H. Shinn, and he succeeded.18 The Universalist congregation erected its own house of worship in 1900 at 16 East Harris Street in Atlanta, which was used until the merger with the Unitarians in 1918.
Despite their similarities, the two groups differed toward questions of race. The Universalists, said to be the more politically and socially conservative of the two groups, opposed opening the church to black members. In the late 1940s, the congregation split over an application for membership from a black faculty member of Morehouse College.19 About the same time, the American Unitarian Association declared its opposition to all forms of racial segregation and informed its churches that it would not support unintegrated congregations. The Atlanta congregation, like the Savannah congregation of the nineteenth century, refused to capitulate to national pressures against regional racial practices. The conflict was not resolved, and the Atlanta Unitarian-Universalist Church disbanded in 1948. The West Peachtree property, which reverted to the national association, was sold in 1951.20

THE ABBEY: THE CHURCH RE-USED

In 1951 the Bible Baptist Church bought the building and used it as a meeting house and a bookstore until it sold the property in late 1968.21 During this time, the premises underwent no structural alterations. The next owner was William Swearingen, who bought the old church in 1969 and converted it into a restaurant called The Abbey. The name, the decor, and the continental cuisine of the restaurant made good use of the building’s medieval architectural style. The church nave became the main dining room with the side windows plastered over and then decorated with tapestries depicting medieval scenes. [See Photos 3 and 4.] The room was filled with heavy wooden tables, leather “monks” chairs, carved wooden accessories, and brass candelabrae. At one end of the nave was the bar, filling the old choir chancel. [See photo 5.] At the other end of the nave, on the west wall of the building, and above the balcony, were the original stained glass windows of the church, once a gift from a sister Unitarian congregation in Massachusetts. The windows were altered only enough to fit the name “Abbey” among the glass panes. [See Photo 6.] Additional dining space was obtained in the narthex, which was furnished the same as the main dining room, with the lower panels of the west wall windows dominating the room. [See Photos 7 and 8.]

The only major structural changes made to the original building were in the downstairs area, which was converted into the kitchen. Kitchen installations included, new cabinets, modern lights, ovens, cleaning equipment, and electrical appliances. A small room on the same level was equipped as a cocktail bar and given the ambience of a monasterial wine cellar. It served as a bar and waiting room until 1973, when a 2300 square foot “chapel” was added to the church at a cost of $90,000 for this purpose.21 Both the interior and the exterior features of the new room iterated the architectural style of the church. [See Photos 9 and 10.]

When MARTA demolished the restaurant-church at 669 West Peachtree, the Abbey was able to relocate on Ponce de Leon at Piedmont in another church building very near its previous location. Although the original Abbey building was lost, the experiment in adaptation was continued in the new quarters, and the same solution was found to the dual problems of locating a restaurant and filling a vacant downtown structure.

Photo 3 (Archivist Note: Insert of Photo Pending – Jul 19, 2014)

Interior of former nave looking towards east. Interior detailing uses English Medieval vocabulary of 4 centered arches and wood trusses.
(Photographer, Martin Stupich, 1977)

Photo 4 (Archivist Note: Insert of Photo Pending – Jul 19, 2014)

Former nave interior looking north. Nave windows were blocked in on interior, but remain intact on exterior.
(Photographer, Martin Stupich, 1977)

Photo 5 (Archivist Note: Insert of Photo Pending – Jul 19, 2014)

Detail of original chancel space as bar for The Abbey.
(Photographer, Martin Stupich, 1977)

Photo 6 (Archivist Note: Insert of Photo Pending – Jul 19, 2014)
Interior details of the west windows. Interesting grape vine motif connects original function of the building with re-use as a restaurant. Inscription “Abbey” was a later addition to the window.
(Photographer, Martin Stupich, 1977)

Photo 7 (Archivist Note: Insert of Photo Pending – Jul 19, 2014)
Narthex of the church. Balcony is located above this anteroom.

(Photographer, Martin Stupich, 1977)
Photo 8 (Archivist Note: Insert of Photo Pending – Jul 19, 2014)

Detail of west windows, narthex level. (Photographer, Martin Stupich, 1977)

Photo 9 (Archivist Note: Insert of Photo Pending – Jul 19, 2014)
Octagonal “chapel” or English chapter house design was added to the existing building, when the church was used as a restaurant. The well detailed “chapel” was functionally a bar.
(Photographer, Martin Stupich, 1977)

Photo 10 (Archivist Note: Insert of Photo Pending – Jul 19, 2014)
Interior view of the chapel/chapter house/ bar. A very thoughtfully detailed addition befitting both the original church function and the building’s reuse as a restaurant.
(Photographer, Martin Stupich, 1977)

Photo 12 (Archivist Note: Insert of Photo Pending – Jul 19, 2014)
Stairway from narthex up to balcony. (Photographer, Martin Stupich, 1977.)

FOOTNOTES

‘Edwin S. Gaustad, Historical Atlas of Religion in America, (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 129.
2Gaustad, p. 129; see also Clement Eaton, Freedom of Thought in the Old South, (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1940).
3 George H. Gibson, “Unitarian Congregations in Ante-Bellum Goergia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, 54 (1970), 147.
4 Gibson, 148-149. 5Gibson, 159.
6 Louis D. Becker, “Unitarianism in Post-War Atlanta, 18821908,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, 56 (1972), 349-364, p. 349.
7 Thomas H. Martin, Atlanta and Its Builders, (Atlanta: Century Memorial Publishing Co., 1902), vol. II, pp. 574-575.
8 Becker, 351-354.
9 Becker, 358.
10 Becker, 360-361.
11 Becker, 359.
12 lnterview with Peggy Beard, Unitarian-Universalist Church member, August 13, 1978.
13 Building Permit, 1914, Atlanta Historical Society.
14 Interview with Peggy Beard; with Jean Hess, Unitarian-Universalist Church member and widow of Dr. Aubrey F. Hess, pastor of the West Peachtree congregation during the 1930s, August 14, 1978.
15 Gaustad, 130, 131-132.
16 Atlanta City Directories, 1915-1938.
17 Gaustad, 133.
18 Undated pamphlet, Unitarian Church; Universalist Church Pamphlet, 1934, both from Unitarian-Universalist Church, 1911 Cliff Valley Way, N.E., Atlanta.
19 Interview with Peggy Beard; Jean Hess; with Jean Wells, Unitarian Universalist church member, August 14, 1978.
20The American Unitarian Association sent the Reverend Glenn 0. Canfield to organize a new society in Atlanta in the early 1950s. This time no barriers existed in gaining members and forestalling racial integration. By 1953 a church was constructed at North and Boulevard. In 1960 this same church began another structure on Cliff Valley Way, which was completed in 1966. From interview with Peggy Beard.
2 ‘Building Permit, 1973, Building Inspector’s Office, City
of Atlanta.

SOURCES NOT LISTED IN FOOTNOTES:
Sharon Bailey, “‘The Abbey’ Moves to Another Church,” Atlanta Constitution, July 18, 1977, p. 5B.
Earl Wallace Cory, “The Unitarians and Universalists of the Southeastern United States During the Nineteenth Century,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Georgia, 1970.
Willie Downer, interview, spokesperson for the Bible Baptist Church, August 15, 1978.
Franklin Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1969 [1954]).

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