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Care being given to restore Porterdale Gym as architect intended

This image shows the work of the masonry crew after chiseling out the filled-in  brick "quoins" (an external solid angle of a wall) on the northeast corner of the Porter Gymnasium.  This is believed to be the the way Macon architect Ellamae Ellis League intended for the facade to appear when the gym was completed in 1938.- Special photo

This image shows the work of the masonry crew after chiseling out the filled-in brick "quoins" (an external solid angle of a wall) on the northeast corner of the Porter Gymnasium. This is believed to be the the way Macon architect Ellamae Ellis League intended for the facade to appear when the gym was completed in 1938.- Special photo

PORTERDALE -- Work is moving forward on the first phase of the rehabilitation of the Porterdale Gym, and last week masonry workers took steps to restore the facade to the way the architect who designed the structure intended.

"Some sort of porch had been added to the gymnasium's facade after 1938 when it was constructed," City Manager Bob Thomson said. "The thinking is that in order to have a smooth surface to attach to the porch, the decorative inset courses of brick were filled in. To restore that portion of the facade back to (architect) Ms. League's original design, the filled-in sections were removed back to the original indentation."

The gym will initially be used as an open-air event space and is expected to begin accepting bookings by late summer. It was originally hoped the facility would be ready by June, but Thomson said rain and budgeting difficulties had caused some delays.

"Friends of Porterdale will be having their reunion there the first weekend in August," Thomson said. "Some of the finishing details may not be ready, but it will be near substantial completion. The Newton Chamber is thinking about having the annual Taste of Newton there in September."

The venue will available as a public space, attracting such events as art exhibitions and weddings. Eventually it is hoped that the building can be roofed; however, estimates to cover the facility have been as high as $2 million.

The Porter Gym was the centerpiece of the town in its heyday and was built as a gift to the city from Oliver and Julia Porter, owners of Bibb Manufacturing Company. It burned in October 2005 and the city has sought to restore it since that time.

It was originally constructed with wood floors and wood bleachers that could seat as many as 5,000 people, and Porterdale residents have many fond memories of community events that took place in the gym.

To create their gift, the Porters sought out Macon architect Ellamae Ellis League, a pioneering woman in the architectural profession during the early 20th century. At a time in the South when "acceptable" occupations for a woman were limited to school teaching or running a boarding house, League not only worked as an architect, but founded her own respected firm.

According to a 2009 Macon Telegraph interview with League's son Joseph League, his mother hated being referred to as a "woman architect," but it was to be a distinction that followed her for life.

She is said to have become an architect by necessity when in 1922 she found herself divorced at age 23 with two small children.

In profiling League as part of Women's History Month in 2005, the National Park Service stated that though she had no prior training as an architect, she came from a family that had six generations of architecture in its background. She first joined the Macon firm of Dunwody & Oliphant where she worked as an apprentice for four years. During that time she also took correspondence courses from the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in New York and later, leaving her children with their grandparents, studied a year in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Fountainbleau.

After returning to Macon, she worked for two more years for another architectural firm, but by 1933 she had decided to become a registered architect. State registration required a degree in architecture or 10 years experience in the office of a practicing architect and successful completion of an extensive exam. Although she lacked the engineering background that was part of the examination, she received a crash course in engineering from her uncle and on her second try, passed the test.

By 1934, when only 2 percent of American architects were women, League began to build a successful firm in her own name that would continue for more than 40 years.

She took on a variety of commissions, including churches, schools, hospitals, public housing and, of course, the Porterdale Gym in 1938.

Her philosophy followed that of the French school she attended of "designing something that answers the need of the owner as far as function is concerned and which is pleasant to look at for both the owner and the public."

That philosophy seems to have withstood the test of time as now in 2013, the Porterdale Gym is being restored as something that will be both functional and pleasant to the eye.

League closed her architectural firm in 1975 at the age of 76 after receiving numerous prestigious state and national professional awards. Her daughter, Jean League Newton, followed in her mother's footsteps as an architect and in the 1940s both she and her mother designed a home in the Macon suburb of Shirley Hills that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. League lived there until her death in 1991 at age 92.