The family and the college on Gaston

The recent news about Armstrong State University involves a possible merger with Georgia Southern University about 50 miles west down Interstate-16. In the 1960s the controversy was about whether the college should expand in downtown Savannah, and a solution moved the school about a dozen miles south on Abercorn.

Although Monterey Square survived the expansion plans of Armstrong Junior College, a couple of years later professor Harry C. Merritt and his students from the University of Florida proposed tearing down much of the “bad architecture” around the square, including the Mercer House, according to a story that appeared in the Nov. 16, 1965, edition of the Savannah Evening Press.

While Mills Lane IV had not approved of all of his family’s projects, he did approve of the red brick mansion his grandfather started building in 1909 on Forsyth Park at the corner of Gaston and Drayton designed by an architect from New York City. Mills Lane Jr. was born in that house on Jan. 12, 1912.

A block down Gaston Street at Bull, the George F. Armstrong family had given their mansion to the city to set up an institution of higher learning, and Armstrong Junior College opened in 1935. That same year Mills Sr., “one of the college’s most important benefactors” according to school records, gave a building to the college two lots from the main building for classrooms and later the college library.

In the 1960s Mills Jr. and his wife, Anne, and other community members were distressed about the college’s plans to expand beyond the Armstrong House and the nearby six buildings. A proposal called for the elimination of some houses around Chatham Square including Gordon Row. Other buildings planned for demolition were on Bull Street north to Liberty Street and on Whitaker Street along the park.

Mills Jr. provided a solution in 1962 by donating 250 acres of land on the Southside so the college could grow without destroying a significant part of downtown. He also worked with the Historic Savannah Foundation to purchase six of the threatened buildings through its revolving fund. Mills IV later continued the tradition of filtering funds through Historic Savannah as a way of anonymously preserving expensive tracts of history.

Next: Mills Lane IV and his parents were enthusiastic about improving Troup Square. His work restoring the exterior of the Unitarian Universalist Church was a favorite project.

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

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