The Morton Building

The Morton Building occupies an important place in the history of Athens' black community, forming, at one time, along with the now-destroyed Union Hall and Samaritan Building, the core of the downtown black business district. Through the years, the building has housed the offices of many prominent black professionals, a number of black-owned businesses, and the Morton Theatre, the major entertainment facility for the black community of the city for many years. The Morton Theatre is also the only theatre from the early Twentieth century which survives in the city.

Built in 1909-10 by Monroe Bowers ("Pink") Morton, it was described in 1914 by the Athens Daily Herald as the "largest building of its kind owned exclusively by a colored man in the world." In addition to the Morton Building, Morton (1853-1919) owned between twenty-five and thirty other building in Athens, including a "$ 10,000 marblestone building" which remains today as a commercial structure on Clayton Street. Active in the construction industry, he was the contractor for the Wilkes County Courthouse in Washington, Georgia and participated in the construction of a government building in Anniston, Alabama.

He lived in a large residence on Prince Avenue, a street lined with many Greek Revival and Victorian-era mansions, the homes of many prominent residents of Athens. Although Morton had little formal education he became a successful businessman and a prominent figure in Athens' history. In 1896, he was chosen as a delegate to the Republication National Convention and was appointed to the committee which officially informed William McKinley of his nomination as the party's candidate for President. The following year, he was appointed U.S. Postmaster for Athens, a position which he held for five years "to the entire satisfaction" of the business community. By 1914, Morton was publisher and editor of the Progressive Era, a local black newspaper. Unfortunately, few copies of this newspaper are known to have survived from the period of his ownership.

Although the Morton Theatre is architecturally significant, the architect is not known. When the building was acquired by the present owner, a set of plans for a theatre, prepared by architect Frank Cox of Chicago, was found in the building. It was believed that these were the original plans for the Morton Building, which had been simplified in actual construction. Research has proved these plans to have been for the renovation of the nearby New Opera House. Renovations were made to this building in 1906 and it is possible that M.B. Morton, a contractor, modified Cox's plans for the construction of his own building.

Many of Athens' black doctors, dentists and pharmacists practiced in the Morton Building. Among these were Dr. Ida Mae Johnson Hiram, the first black woman to be licensed to practice in the state, and Dr. William H. Harris, one of the founders of the Georgia State Medical Association of Colored Physicians, Dentists, and Druggists and perhaps the most prominent of the city's early black physicians. Other black doctors and dentists included Dr. Isadore Horace Burney, Dr. Burnett L. Jackson, a dentist, and Drs. Farris and Albon Jackson, both physicians -- all three Jackson brothers were members of a remarkable family which included three physicians and two dentists.

 

A great many other black businesses have been located in the Morton Building over the years,including the first black-owned drugstore in the city owned by Dr. E.D. Harris, many insurance companies, pool halls, restaurants, barber and beauty shops, undertaking establishments and a bakery. Two known renovations of the theatre occurred in 1918 and in the 1930's. The first involved the addition of the pressed metal ceiling and changing the basic interior wall color from light blue to beige, the second included the addition of a projection booth which replaced the original upper-level gallery. The theatre continued to be the center for important gatherings for the black community until it was closed after a small fire.

The building remained in the Morton Family until 1973, when it was sold to Bond Properties, Inc., the remaining partner John T. Bond, being the previous owner. Although the theatre and most upper level offices were derelict, the Morton Building continues to house a beauty salon, a bookstore, a restaurant, and photo lab. The theatre had been opened to the public on several occasions over the years, in an attempt to stimulate interest in the restoration and reuse of this wonderful old building which is inextricably bound to the cultural and social history of the community which it served so magnificently.

In 1980, using a combination of state and federal funds, the building was purchased by the nonprofit Morton Theatre Corporation. Local bands such as Dreams So Real, The B-52's and R.E.M. occasionally used the building for rehearsal space and filming music videos. In 1987, the citizens of Athens-Clarke Country came to the rescue of the Morton through the passage of the special purpose local options sales tax (S.P.L.O.S.T) that included 1.8 million dollars for the restoration of the theatre. In 1991, ownership of the building passed over to the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government. In the fall of 1993, followed by the signing of a management agreement between the Athens-Clarke Country Unified Government and the Morton Theatre Corporation, the theatre was re-opened. The government provides staff to enable the theatre to function as a community performing arts center, while the non-profit Morton Theatre Corporation develops programming and maintains operating policies.

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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