UPDATE 6/7 2:21 p.m.: City press release misidentified Smalls-Napier House
Three houses burned down early Saturday morning in the Olde Town Morrow assemblage next to Southlake Mall.
Crews were still spraying water on a debris pile Saturday morning.
The call went out sometime after 12:30 a.m. No injuries or deaths have been reported. However, according to a press release issued Saturday afternoon by the city, “Investigators believe a group of individuals was in the home before the fire started, as early as 8:45 p.m. on Friday, June 3, and the fire was visible by midnight.”
Saturday’s fire apparently started in one building and spread to two others. All three were destroyed.
Fire Chief Roger Swint said, “The location and intensity of the fire are suspicious, and early indications suggest this fire is likely the result of arson or fire setting by a person or persons.”
Transients have been seen occasionally on the property and some of the houses and shops have broken windows and walls.
“Unfortunately, The District has been a frequent target of vandals, even as new tenants have begun moving into the site,” Interim Police Chief David Snively said in the press release. “Our detectives have successfully identified several previous offenders, including an attempted arsonist, and we will work tirelessly with fire investigators to determine the exact events surrounding this incident, as well.”
Morrow’s fire marshal and the State Fire Marshal’s Investigations Unit, which deployed accelerant detection K-9 teams, are working the scene.
Anyone with information about people or vehicles in or around the area between 8:45 p.m. Friday and 12 a.m. Saturday is asked to call either the Morrow Police Department at (770) 941-4006 or Georgia Arson Control at (800) 282-5804. You can remain anonymous and could be eligible for up to a $10,000 reward.
The development, which consists of several buildings with historic architecture that were moved from other locations and reassembled as a group, was recently rebranded as The District. The city has used part of the site to host some holiday events like St. Patrick’s Day and Día de los Muertos. A row of dilapidated commercial shops, backed by a deck overlooking a wetland, remains open to the elements. Some trees between the shops and I-75 have been removed and the city has looked at other major repairs along the creek and wetlands. The wooden bridge remains closed to traffic.
Olde Towne Morrow was the focus of two grand jury investigations involving then-city manager John Lampl, who in March 2011 had testified before a special-purpose grand jury about alleged wrongdoing at Olde Towne Morrow. Although Lampl was not a named defendant in that investigation, he later was charged with lying under oath to a special-purpose grand jury, conspiracy in restraint of free and open competition, and perjury. Those charges were nolle prossed. In July, he was charged with four counts of conspiracy, eleven counts of false statements, and one count of perjury.
Lampl had appealed, arguing that his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination had been violated, and that the special purpose grand jury could not make him swear a valid oath because they only had authority to investigate county officials.
The Georgia Supreme Court ruled the special purpose grand jury, which can only investigate county officials and not city officials, had overstepped its bounds by issuing an indictment. However, the court disagreed with Lampl’s argument that any allegedly false statements he might have made to that special-called grand jury were therefore off-limits from prosecution.
In July 2011, then-District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson convened a regular grand jury to consider similar charges. That jury did indict Lampl, who eventually pleaded no contest to lesser charges of falsifying fire reports, specifically that residential sprinklers had been installed instead of the mandatory commercial sprinklers. The perjury, false statement, and conspiracy in competition counts were nolle prossed. As a first offender, Lampl was sentenced to six months’ probation and more than $12,000 in fines and restitution, his records were sealed in March 2017, and his probation noted as complete the following month.
In 2019, Lampl won the mayor’s seat and went back to pushing for Olde Towne Morrow’s redevelopment.
The Clayton Crescent asked Lampl whether the three formerly residential houses that burned had commercial sprinkler systems installed, or whether they were not required to if they were not yet being used. Lampl referred us back to the city’s press release but did not comment on whether the buildings had any sprinkler systems.
In the press release, Lampl said, “This is a very sad day for our community. The District has become an important community gathering space, the home of many city events, and the site of several new businesses. The loss of these beautiful, historic homes at the heart of our city is a cruel blow to the residents and community members who utilize this area. We grieve with our community, and with the business owners who have poured their dreams into this venue, and we are committed to identifying and holding responsible anyone who was involved in the catastrophic damage caused by this fire.”
We’ve also asked the city whether any new businesses had leased or begun moving into any of the three buildings that were lost. The press release says the development is “poised to become the commercial hub of Morrow. After years of effort and very recent redevelopment, nearly a half-dozen businesses are making plans to occupy space in The District “
Morrow City Manager Jeff Baker added, “Two of the buildings in The District were under contract, and architectural plans are being reviewed for two others even as new requests for commercial space are being processed by the city. This is a devastating setback just as we’ve begun to turn the corner and fill the long-vacant spaces at The District; and it is an especially tragic loss of history, including the Napier-Small house, a distinguished example of Greek Revival architecture built in 1846 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
The two-story structure was listed on the National Register in 1971. It once stood at 156 Rogers Avenue in Macon. In 2017, it was sold to Lloyd B. Clark, according to Bibb County tax records. Those records show a photo, dated February 10, 2021, of the house at its original site.
At press time, it was not clear whether the property, which sold for $121,250 and is valued at $264,733, is still active on Bibb County’s tax rolls. The land is valued at $39,008, for a total with accessory and other values of $304,698.
The Clayton Crescent visually confirmed, in person, an almost-identical house at 156 Rogers Avenue on June 7. That house is correctly identified as the Smalls-Napier House. The similar wooden structure that burned here is the Leroy Napier House; the structure in Macon is the Smalls House or Napier-Smalls House, built in 1846 by Skelton Napier, who was Leroy Napier’s brother. The Clayton News-Daily reported in 2007 that the Leroy Napier house sold for $1, was divided into four pieces, and trucked up to “Olde Morrow” for reconstruction. Today, Central High School stands on the Leroy Napier house’s former site. The house had previously been moved to make way for another school.
In February 2021, we reported that a contractor called Mia Quality, Inc. had been doing renovations on some of Olde Towne Morrow’s buildings.