Editor's Note: In 2012, the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station – Freedom Rides Museum was selected to receive the National Trust/Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Award for Federal Partnerships in Historic Preservation thanks to an exemplary sustained federal/non-federal partnership initiated by a Section 106 consultation. Do you know of an exceptional project that deserves to be recognized with a National Preservation Award? Click here to learn about the Richard H. Driehaus National Preservation awards. Nominations are due Friday, March 8.
By: Audrey Entorf
In the early 1990s, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) began planning for a new courthouse in Montgomery, Ala., to accommodate expanded court space needs and increased security requirements, beginning a complex and lengthy collaboration culminating at the end of 2012 with a National Preservation Award.
After weighing alternatives, the idea of an annex connected to the historic federal courthouse emerged as the best option, and two blocks adjacent to the courthouse were selected as the preferred site for the new annex. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act required GSA to take into account the effects of its project on historic properties and to involve interested parties. GSA surveyed the two-block area and identified four buildings considered eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Affected Historic Properties
In downtown Montgomery two of the most significant buildings in American civil rights history sit side by side. Associated with events that transformed the American South and continue to inspire human rights movements worldwide, together they tell powerful stories about two wings of the American civil rights movement: the pursuit of judicial remedies and the use of nonviolent protests.
The first building is an elegant, Classically-inspired 1933 federal courthouse and former post office in which U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., presided over many crucial civil rights cases and issued decisions that shaped American constitutional law. The federal courthouse was renamed in 1992 to honor Judge Johnson.
The second building is the modest Art Deco former Greyhound Bus Station. On May 20, 1961, Freedom Riders, protesting racial segregation in interstate travel were attacked by a mob upon their arrival outside the station. The events surrounding the riot led the Kennedy administration to side with civil rights protestors for the first time and request a broad Interstate Commerce Commission order that effectively ended segregation in interstate travel. The Freedom Rides galvanized the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, shaped the Kennedy administration’s approach to civil rights, and brought to the fore moderate Montgomery business leaders who condemned the police inaction, eventually leading the city to desegregate its schools, library, airport, and public parks.
Also affected by the project were two locally important buildings: the 1830s Italianate Figh-Pickett House and the Art Deco Bartlett Professional Building.
Historic Preservation Consultation
As part of the Section 106 process, GSA consulted with the state historic preservation office--the Alabama Historical Commission (AHC)--on the planned courthouse annex and held a public meeting in the federal courthouse. In addition to GSA and AHC, key consulting parties included the courts, U.S. Marshal Service, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), Montgomery County Historical Society (MCHS), and Greyhound Bus Station Advisory Committee (GAC).
Working in close partnership with GSA, the courts, and the architect, AHC was involved at every step of the design process beginning with initial block and stack concepts, through the selection of the final design and completed construction documents. In addition to the annex, GSA oversaw the rehabilitation of the historic courthouse. Historic preservation stakeholders were included throughout the design process to ensure that historic properties were factored into project decision making.
A memorandum of agreement between consulting parties signed in 1996 outlined steps to mitigate the effects of new construction on the historic properties. Written and photographic documentation was completed for the Greyhound Bus Station, Figh-Pickett House, and Bartlett Building. To accommodate the construction of the courthouse annex, the Figh-Pickett House was relocated and became the headquarters of the MCHS, the Bartlett Building was demolished and newer additions to the Greyhound Bus Station were removed.
From the beginning of the project, public meetings garnered valuable community input to inform GSA’s decisions. The importance of the site impelled all parties to ensure that the lessons it offered about the unique history of Montgomery and about the civil rights movement, with its national and international significance, would be accessible to the widest possible audience and future generations.
As a result of the partnerships forged in the Section 106 process, GSA agreed to lease the bus station to AHC for a nominal fee with plans to turn it into a museum telling the story of the Freedom Rides. While the museum plans were being developed, GSA worked with AHC to maintain the bus station and had it listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Last spring all of these efforts coalesced in a spectacular preservation success. On May 20, 2011, the 50th anniversary of
the 1961 Freedom Rides, AHC opened the Freedom Rides Museum in the historic Greyhound Bus Station. The opening included comments by Freedom Riders led by Congressman John Lewis. U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson delivered the keynote.
After the opening ceremonies, the court dedicated the Frank M. Johnson, Jr., Collection, an exhibit honoring Johnson’s life and career in a conference room near his courtroom. A program in the courtroom recounted Johnson’s legacy and the Freedom Rides cases over which he presided. A private lunch between Freedom Riders and former Governor John Patterson, who, in referring to the Freedom Riders in 1961, famously announced that he could not ”guarantee the safety of fools,” was held in Judge Johnson’s former chambers and was followed by a press conference in his restored courtroom.
In the fall of 2012, GSA and its partners, AHC, the courts, and GAC, were honored to learn that their collaborative efforts would be nationally recognized by the presentation of the National Trust/Advisory Council Award for Federal Partnerships in Historic Preservation at the Trust’s annual meeting in Spokane. Following this, in early December, the award was brought to Montgomery where the local community turned out to celebrate the efforts of all involved at a ceremony in the historic courtroom where Judge Johnson once presided.
For more than 20 years Audrey Entorf has served as the Regional Historic Preservation and Fine Arts Officer for the U.S. General Services Administration’s Southeast Sunbelt Region based in Atlanta, Ga.