Hidden in Plain View: History of Savannah's Old McKelvey Powell - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

Hidden in Plain View: History of Savannah's Old McKelvey Powell Building

SAVANNAH, GA -

Every Thursday morning Teddy Adams and a group of gentlemen who call themselves "The Breakfast Club"- take their usual seats at the Garden of Eden Restaurant. It's a chance for them to not only reconnect with each other... but their past.
 
It was in this same building- on the third floor many years ago- where Adams spent most of his childhood- long before this restaurant ever existed. "I was at Cuyler in the 8th grade when I started frequenting this place," Adams recalls. "It was popular because we could come up here and practice and do anything constructive at no cost."
 
That was in the mid 1950's. This was Adams' first time back in that room since then.
"Musicians came up here a lot of times to rehearse and practice... and me being an aspiring youngster who wanted to be a musician, I would come up and hang around. And I met the most important person in my life musically here... my mentor, Willie Draper."

Although the scenery has changed quite a bit, the Savannah jazz legend has vivid memories of what once was... when what is now known as the Con-Ed Center was the Mckelvey Powell building and MLK was West Broad- often referred to as "the main drag."
 
Over time, many faces have been through this facility... from soldiers to students... even national dignitaries. Richard Nixon paid a visit here when he was Vice-President of the United States.

Originally built in 1926, by African American magnate William McKelvey and his partner, Edward O. Powell, the McKelvey-Powell Building was a hub of black business and social life in Savannah during a time of racial segregation. For many years, it housed a barbershop and funeral parlor. By the 1930s, it became a popular place for local and nationally recognized performers.
 
"In those days, the local black men's clubs sponsored jazz and dances," says local historian Dr. Charles Elmore. "They had marathon dances. You know in the movies where the people dance all night long? They had them at Powell-Hall. It was so exciting!"
 
Elmore says it wasn't long before the building was bustling. Frank Dillworth, Jr. became the owner of McKelvey Powell Hall in 1932. He changed the name to Powell Hall and then, Elmore says, it REALLY became a jazz mecca.

But by 1942, it would serve the community in a different capacity- housing a USO for black soldiers during World War II. Five years later, two of Savannah's civil rights giants organized the West Broad Street YMCA.

"In 1947, Rev. Ralph Mark Gilbert and W. W. Law wanted to have a place for black soldiers to come after the war and in keeping with the theme of the USO- looking after their educational, spiritual, and religious affairs and well-being, that is how it morphed into the West Broad Street Y."
 
The YMCA would remain in Powell Hall for a little more than 20 years before moving to May Street in 1968. "Once the West Broad Street YMCA left there it was in bad repair and they had to really overhaul it to bring it back," Elmore says.
 
The late Rev. Bennie R. Mitchell and his congregation at nearby Connor's Temple Baptist Church took on the task. The building was eventually purchased and renovated and in August of 2003, it was dedicated as a community resource center.
 
Today, it remains a part of living history- a reincarnation of its former self.

"Connor's Temple today has brought that spirit back in the Con-Ed building," says Elmore. "You can go there and eat soul food in the soul food restaurant. You can go there and be educated as a citizen. You can get the room on the 3rd floor and it still fulfills the same function that it was designed to."

Here's an interesting sidebar: Dr. Elmore's father, Norman, was on the board at the original West Broad Street Y. Bringing the story full circle, Dr. Elmore helped write the historical marker that now stands in front of the building.

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