After over 35 years of saving key historical sites and creating the city’s annual festivals, Heritage Sandy Springs has become history itself, quietly dissolving in February. The next chapter will be written by the city government, whose plans for such assets as a museum and the Sandy Springs Festival are still evolving.

The nonprofit was founded as the Sandy Springs Historic Community Foundation in 1985 to save the city’s namesake springs at Heritage Green on Sandy Springs Circle. It then helped save the historic William-Payne House and turned it into a museum and created the long-running festival, all before the city was incorporated.

The Williams-Payne House, home to the Heritage Sandy Springs museum. (File)

Even before the pandemic, Heritage Sandy Springs was struggling. Its executive director retired in October 2019 after 13 years at the helm. Deborah Minor, a board member with nonprofit management experience, took over the role without pay in one of several cost-cutting moves.

But with zero revenue from rentals in the usually busy spring at Heritage Green, the four full-time staff members were laid off in April 2020. Beard later said that the nonprofit was two weeks away from missing payroll when that decision was made.

As recently as early 2019, HSS still had big plans. It confirmed a master plan for improvements to Heritage Green. Those included a new band shell for the amphitheater, outdoor restrooms and creating better entrances.

A plan to complete a redesign of the historic spring on Heritage Green by the end of 2020 also fell victim to the group’s demise. Permitting issues delayed it in 2018. The design would have let the spring bubble up as a small, glass-enclosed fountain under an abstract canopy surrounded by seating. The spring remains hidden under a metal grate and wooden pavilion. 

The city’s namesake spring as it appeared in late 2017. (File)

In 2020, the city replaced a 30-year lease for HSS created in 2008 with a five-year operating agreement. The city said that would enable more coordination with City Springs programming.

In April 2020, the city and HSS jointly announced a partnership to keep two mainstays of the nonprofit in operation, the Concerts on the Green and the Farmers Market.

The last CEO of the nonprofit, Bob Beard, had said in summer 2020 that the organization still planned to revive its historical education efforts after the pandemic. But with the dissolution of the corporation behind the group, perhaps the most important group in preserving the city’s history is only a memory itself.

“We had to shut our doors. Couldn’t make it missing a full year of rentals,” Beard said.

Additional questions about HSS and its education program weren’t answered.

The Heritage Sandy Springs historic site, its venues and the former nonprofit organization’s events have come under the direction of the city’s cultural arts department, Create Sandy Springs, and its director, Shawn Albrechtson, Mayor Rusty Paul confirmed in a February interview. Concert programming at Heritage Green, the HSS museum, the Farmers Market and the Sandy Springs Festival will be planned and managed by that department, along with the city’s Performing Arts Center and the future Cultural Arts Center.

‘Save Our Springs’ and history

Decades before the city formed, its namesake springs at Sandy Springs Circle and Blue Stone Road were threatened with development consigning them to burial in storm sewers. But the people who would go on to form the foundation with the help of other community organizations were able to “Save Our Springs” in 1984.

The tale of how the springs were saved and the Williams-Payne House was likewise rescued from demolition and moved to the springs’ site were detailed in Garnett Cobb’s 1999 booklet “The History of the Sandy Springs Historic Community Foundation, Inc.”

In October 1984, a couple named Mabry filed to rezone 1.3 acres of property at Sandy Springs Circle on the south side of Hildebrand Drive from residential to commercial. An office and specialty shop complex were planned. On that property, the springs were enclosed in a concrete frame in the front yard, destined to be lost to history in a storm sewer.

A month later, members of the “Save Our Springs” campaign and city civic organizations attended Fulton County Commission’s zoning hearing. Their lobbying efforts worked and the county voted to deny the commercial rezoning and buy the land for public use, Cobb wrote. The Mabrys were paid more than $533,000 for their property. With another half-acre of property left from construction of Sandy Springs Circle, the Sandy Springs Historic Site was formed.

A concept sketch of the long-stalled redesign of the spring on Heritage Green. (File)

Cobb did more than write the history, also leading the Sandy Springs Garden Club in asking Portman-Barry Investors to donate an old country home sitting on the northeastern corner of Mount Vernon Highway and Ga. 400. With a bit of research, it was confirmed it was a remodeled farmhouse, one of eight known 19th century structures that were left in then-unincorporated Sandy Springs.

While the house was undergoing repairs, the springs were restored and dedicated in 1988.

Named after two of its owners, the Williams-Payne House was donated and moved to the springs. Fundraising, renovations, restorations and furnishing the home with period furniture took until May 1990, when it opened to the public. 

Paul called the site the legacy of the city. It goes back to Native American times with Mount Vernon Highway originating as a Native American highway where the springs were an important stopping point. Later the springs site was a Methodist campground and the water was crucial.

A costumed pet parade kicked off the 2014 edition of the Sandy Springs Festival, a local tradition for over 35 years. (File)

“When we call it Heritage Sandy Springs, it truly is,” said Paul. “I mean, it goes back hundreds of years. And that museum is an effort to try and capture the legacy of this community and preserve it. And I think that’s important.”

HSS had other cultural legacies. Known early on as Founders’ Day, what became the Sandy Springs Festival began in 1986 and continued as a tradition until 2019. It became the foundation’s biggest fundraiser, but in later years attendance began to drop.

City plans

The master plan for Heritage Green originally included the city’s Cultural Arts Center, envisioned as housing the offices of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust and its exhibit “Anne Frank in the World,” which is currently on display in a Roswell Road shopping center.

A neighboring auto shop property at 151 Hilderbrand Drive was purchased for $1.8 million in April 2020 as a potential expansion of Heritage Green and possible site for it. By October the city had chosen instead a site at City Springs in front of the Performing Arts Center.

Now police cars are parked on that former auto shop and the police department’s bicycle unit uses it for offices. The city has yet to confirm the future use of that property.

Police cars parked at the city-owned former auto body shop next to Heritage Green in late 2020. (John Ruch)

A plan for the Cultural Arts Center will come before City Council no later than this spring, Paul said. The city is working with the Holocaust commission to help fund the center, with the “Anne Frank In the World” exhibit a key piece of the plans.

“I feel very good about where the Holocaust Commission is in its fundraising campaign to fund the Anne Frank museum portion of it,” he said.

But at the Heritage Sandy Springs site, Paul said, the Williams-Payne House needs some work, as it is in some disrepair.

The city announced that its visitors and tourism bureau, Visit Sandy Springs, would move its offices into the former Heritage office building once it is declared safe under public health guidance with the pandemic. Staff may operate the museum if it fits into their work schedules.

If the prediction regarding COVID-19 that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Biden’s chief medical advisor, shared with the Georgia Municipal Association in late January remains on track, even larger groups of Americans will be attending sporting events in the fall, Paul said.

“If we can get to that level of safety, then we feel comfortable that we can start with events inside the Studio Theater and the Byers Theater,” Paul said, referring to facilities in the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center.

That will signal the launch of arts, entertainment and cultural events in the theaters that will cater to diverse groups, such as Hispanic and African American communities, Paul said.

Socially distanced outdoor concerts will return by the end of April. Concerts have morphed into this year’s socially distanced Concerts by the Springs starting May 9 at Heritage Green. 

As for the Sandy Springs Festival, the city plans to remake it into something more attractive to today’s audiences. Paul has said a move from the prime days of college football in the fall is likely, which probably puts it off for another year until 2022.

“The timing of the festival is a crucial factor. Having it in the fall, particularly the early fall [or] September timeframe, conflicted with other festivals and conflicted with that great Southern tradition of college football. And it was hot,” Paul said.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.