Once a jail, soon homes for needy. Atlantans donate services to low-income project

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

``You won't see a public-housing project with Greek-revival columns and concrete walls 42 inches thick anywhere else in the country,'' says Renny Scott, the enthusiastic director of the Glencastle project. The formidable-looking structure Mr. Scott is describing is the Stockade - Georgia's oldest standing prison, built between 1887 and 1910. The penitentiary, which closed its doors in 1929, stands less than a five-minute drive east of Atlanta's capitol dome and bustling downtown.

Until recently, the vacant structure - which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Sites - was filled with broken glass, rusted bars, and pigeons. Kudzu vines still cover the front steps and drape the barred windows. Although the prison had been boarded up, local youths vandalized the interior and sprayed the walls with graffiti. Drug dealers sold cocaine in the stairwells, and vagrants slept on the cool cement floors.

Today, the prison is the site of an innovative housing complex and community center for Atlanta's working poor. With the aid of private businesses, the Family Consultation Services Inc. (FCS), a local urban ministry, plans to convert the old prison compound into an apartment complex and community center for the city's working poor.

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``Many people must choose between paying grocery bills and paying rent,'' Scott says. ``Glencastle will become an entry point for stable community living.''

In Atlanta, as in many other American cities, low-cost housing is limited. Although the Atlanta Housing Authority recently placed almost 1,000 families in newly renovated units, according to deputy director Bettye Davis, about 650 families are still on the waiting list. Anita Beatty of the Homeless Task Force says that some families are so frustrated by the waiting that they won't even apply for housing.

The Glencastle project will provide 67 units of low-cost housing. Scott plans to work with community contacts, shelter coordinators, and local churches to find tenants. He says, ``We'll have a long waiting list by the time the building is ready for occupancy in 1990.''

With recent cutbacks in federal funding, community agencies working with the poor and homeless must look to the private sector for money and services. Like several other projects here, the Glencastle effort will be funded by nonprofit groups and private sources.

Private firms have already responded to Scott's request for aid. Almost one-third of the $3.4 million budget for the Glencastle renovation will come from in-kind donations from major firms throughout the city. Five architectural firms and five engineering firms have volunteered their services. Several national companies are donating materials and labor for construction, which will begin early this winter.

Scott says, ``We're working in partnership with the Atlanta business community. Glencastle will be a gift to the city and will save the city $3 million in housing.''

The volunteer architects have drawn up plans for the conversion. According to Dick Bradfield, the primary architect involved in the design and development of the project, much of the original exterior structure will be undisturbed except for the removal of all of the bars on the windows and the addition of a porch and new entrance.

Mr. Bradfield, who has won awards for his public-housing designs in the Southeast, says, ``The renovation will preserve the rusticated stone and turrets to maintain the historic integrity of the building. But almost everything in the interior, which was gutted years ago, will be redone.''

The heart of the concrete hulk, a wide corridor with stone staircases at each end, will be transformed into a three-story atrium with hanging baskets and plants. Bradfield also hopes to find a local artist to weld together some of the old window bars to create a sculpture for the entry circle.

Former stables next to the prison are already being used for FCS offices and a warehouse for home-building supplies. The blacksmith shop, where inmates once forged shackles, will be converted into a nonprofit restaurant, chapel, and day-care center.

City officials recognize the Glencastle project as a tremendous challenge. Norman Koplon, director of the city's Bureau of Buildings, says, ``The team is made up of topnotch professionals - it's a coordinated volunteer effort that will reap benefits for the city's poor.''

Although the FCS has built over 40 low-cost homes in the past seven years, Glencastle is the largest project it has attempted. Scott admits that the project was started by accident. Last year, FCS tried to purchase the old stables for warehouse space from local developers. But the developers, who were eager to dispose of the property after they failed to receive funding, refused to sell just the stable.

The prison and surrounding 4.2-acre lot were obtained by FCS with the help of Tom Cousins, an Atlanta developer, who also has donated predevelopment services.

Scott hopes that the Glencastle project will also serve as a job training site for urban interns as well as the city's poor. Twelve formerly homeless men are now working in the warehouse, handling materials and driving delivery trucks. ``We will create construction jobs and employ the previously unemployable,'' Scott says.

``Glencastle tells the story of what was and what can be. It will become a symbol of Atlanta's reconstruction and compassionate core,'' he adds.

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