Gene Kansas is a real estate developer, preservationist, radio-show host, writer, historian, marketer, and a graduate student in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts Digital Media program. He is also a storyteller, and some of his favorite stories are set at 145 Auburn Avenue, known locally as the Atlanta Daily World building.
Back in the 1940s, one of the building's two storefronts housed the Poinciana Club, one of several jazz and blues venues that anchored an energetic music scene in Sweet Auburn, then the most vibrant, prosperous African-American community in the city, if not the country.
That particular half of the pattern-brick structure’s ground floor is now Condesa Coffee, where Kansas is seated at a cafe table nursing a glass of iced coffee.
“Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong made appearances here,” Kansas says, gesturing to a poster of the blues legend on the wall. “Benny Goodman played here too, right where we’re sitting. The musical history of Auburn Avenue is hot, and this building is part of that.”
Once destined to meet the wrecking ball, the building was purchased in January 2014 by Kansas’ eponymously named commercial real estate company, which oversaw its historic rehabilitation and rebirth in March 2015.
The other half is occupied by Arden’s Garden, a purveyor of fresh juices and smoothies. A central staircase provides street access to the second floor, which houses two 1,250-square-foot apartments decorated 1930s style in a space that is also of historic significance. From 1948 until 2008, it was home to the Atlanta Daily World newspaper. Founded in 1928, it is the oldest continuously operated African-American newspaper in the country.
The adaptive reuse project attracted a remarkably large number of Tech alumni as partners and collaborators. Renovation planning and design were handled by Gamble and Gamble Architects, headed by associate professor of architecture and 1991 Georgia Tech alumnus, Michael Gamble. Several other architecture alumni from the firm were also involved, including associate architects Ian Fralick (B.S. 2009, M.S. 2013) and Kasia Zycinska, (M.S. 2013), and project manager Amber Einarsson, (M.S. 2011).
Georgia Tech civil engineering alumni provided general contracting and engineering services: Rex Wallin of Dakota Contractors (M.S. 1972) and Michael Planer (B.S. 1986, M.S.1987) of PES Structural Engineers .
“I didn’t set out to hire or collaborate with a lot of Georgia Tech people, but I’m really happy that it worked out that way,” Kansas says.
“Georgia Tech is widely known for its prowess in technology, education, and careers, but not so widely known for the liberal arts. I find it compelling that this project, which really is about history and community, brought together the more technical types of degrees to collaborate. This project would not have turned out as well as it did without all of us working together. I have seen firsthand the power of combining disciplines, and I hope this example inspires others to do more of it.”
The building’s fortuitous, unexpected attraction for Georgia Tech alumni continued even after the renovation work was complete. The owner of Arden's Garden is Leslie Zinn (IM 1991). The co-owners of Condesa Coffee are Amin Rida (Ph.D. ECE 2011), Moe Reda (AE 2014), Daniela Staiculescu (M.S. EE 1998, Ph.D. ECE 2001), and Octavian Stan (M.S. EE 1995, Ph.D. ECE 1999). One of the apartments is leased to Jeff Chermley (M.S. BCFM 2016), and the other to Chelsea Boyle (IAML 2014) and Eric Matson (BA 2014).
The way Kansas sees it, a structure such as the Atlanta Daily World building, built in 1912, is much more than bricks and wood. It holds stories that embrace culture, history, and memory, and imparts a sense of place, a community identity, that connects individuals to the community and with each other.
By revealing these qualities of culture, history, and memory, stories become the contextual glue connecting the past to the present and — in a community like Sweet Auburn, which is struggling to regain its once-prosperous footing — helping pursue its future viability.
Digital media is a very efficient, affordable, and effective way of discovering and sharing these stories, according to Kansas.
One way in which he tells the story of the Atlanta Daily World building is through a digital time capsule created for an augmented- and mixed-reality class focusing on the Sweet Auburn Historic District taught by Professor Jay Bolter, Wesley Chair of New Media. The course focused on the Sweet Auburn Historic District.
“Bolter and Nassim JafariNaimi, both faculty in the Digital Media Graduate Program within the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, have been working on a web browsing platform called Argon that allows augmented- and mixed-reality applications for art, entertainment and cultural heritage,” says Kansas. “Unlike traditional time capsules, ours allows you to see, hear, experience, and contribute your own artifacts and memories. You can come into a place like the Daily World that has a rich history and not only get a cup of coffee at Condesa, but also be able to listen to the history.”
The time capsule also details the restoration process, which was documented in part with a small camera that was moved to different parts of the premises.
“Every five minutes, it took a picture so we have a time lapse record of the entire eight months of construction.”
The tornado that twisted its way through downtown Atlanta in March 2008 severely damaged the structure’s roof, tearing off a substantial section. The Atlanta Daily World newspaper was forced to move to a suburban location, and the building sat vacant, rapidly deteriorating from the inside out due to continual water damage. In short order, a consensus formed that the building was too far gone to save.
“Stories add value. The deeper the connections are to a story, the greater the value. And value motivates people, and motivation creates action that results in change. When you’re talking about an area like Auburn Avenue, without the story to connect people and bring them in, you won’t get change.”
In 2012, a developer’s plan to purchase and at least partially raze the structure drew protests from citizens upset about the demise of yet another Atlanta architectural landmark. The Atlanta Preservation Center added its voice in opposition, and Sweet Auburn’s Historic District Development Corp. along with the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation led a petition drive that gathered 1,100 signatures. The Urban Design Commission settled the matter when it refused to issue a demolition permit.
Not long afterward, Kansas happened to be walking through the area when he met Alexis Scott, publisher emeritus of the Atlanta Daily World and granddaughter of the paper’s founder, W.A. Scott. Kansas knew about the controversy surrounding the building’s future, and he asked Scott if she would show him through it.
“It was quite an experience to take a tour of a building with a steward of its legacy,” he recalls. “She’s telling me about her uncle, C.A. Scott, who was editor during the civil rights movement, while we're looking into his office where Martin Luther King Jr., Daddy King and other civil rights leaders would sometimes gather to discuss current events.”
Kansas bought the building from the Scott family and invested $1 million in its renovation. He regards the building’s history as a key asset.
“Stories add value,” Kansas explains. “The deeper the connections are to a story, the greater the value. And value motivates people, and motivation creates action that results in change. When you’re talking about an area like Auburn Avenue, without the story to connect people and bring them in, you won’t get change.”
His interest in combining storytelling, technology, and real estate influenced his choice of a master’s thesis. He is creating a web platform to map what he calls the visible and invisible parts of a city, both of which help inform personal and community identity. The former is the present-day built environment, while the latter includes history, culture, and other identity-shaping influences. The idea is to “give context and reference to who we are as individuals and as a community,” says Kansas.
“For example, if we had never found the ancient city of Pompeii, we would be missing much knowledge about who we are as a civilization. In Atlanta, a place known for tearing down old buildings — Lowe’s Grand Theater, the Old Governor’s Mansion, and Terminal Station, to name a few — we cannot fully understand who we are without exploring some of the places we’ve lost.”
“What I’m trying to do in digital media is give people the ability to map these places we’ve lost and experience them in a media-rich type of environment so that we can better understand where we are by expressing where we’ve been.”
A native of New Orleans, Kansas first set eyes on Atlanta during the summer after his junior year of high school, lured by a Guns ‘n’ Roses concert and the chance to see a Braves game. He was impressed and decided to move to Atlanta as soon as he finished college. After receiving an undergraduate degree in entrepreneurship from the University of Arizona in 1995, Kansas returned to Atlanta and was hired as a content developer for Turner Broadcasting’s new website.
“It was a miserable failure,” Kansas avers ruefully, shaking his head. “It had a chat room and blogs and other bells and whistles, but no one went to it. It was way ahead of its time. The internet wasn’t a strong presence back then. It was a great experience, though. And I learned that you can have a great story, but if no one knows about it, what have you really done?”
After spending some time writing for Creative Loafing and Atlanta magazine, Kansas formed a marketing company. Many of his clients were in real estate, which kindled his interest in that area. In 2003, he formed Gene Kansas Commercial Real Estate.
Kansas, who lives in Midtown Atlanta with his wife and son, expects to graduate from Georgia Tech in 2016. He hopes to teach, imparting some of the lessons learned from the Atlanta Daily World project.
“I’d like to bring business experience to a design curriculum,” he says. “Business people need to know more about culture, and the design and liberal arts side needs to know more about business.”
Kansas pauses, and then shifts his attention to the coffee shop’s entrance.
“We had to take up the old warped flooring, and right there,” he says, pointing to a spot just inside and to the left of the front door. “Under the wood flooring we found a hole dug into the ground with a metal box in it. The box measured about two feet by one foot. It was filled with old Prohibition-era liquor bottles. I don't know who put them there or why, but I’m sure it’s a great story.”