“A community of restoration.” Those words, inscribed on a wall in the spacious atrium of the J. Smith Lanier Academic Building at Point University, refer to Psalm 80:3 and the university’s mission as a faith-based institution.
The description is also literally true. Point has been restoring and repurposing buildings in downtown West Point since relocating there in 2012. The imposing main campus building was built in the 1940s as the headquarters of major textile company West Point Pepperell and was greatly expanded with a three-story addition in the 1970s. Several other repurposed downtown buildings – furniture stores, a restaurant, a retail shop, and even a car dealership — now house facilities of the private, accredited, liberal arts university founded in East Point in 1937 as Atlanta Christian College.
“God brought us here, not just to relocate a college, but to help restore the town,” said Point President Dean C. Collins.
That’s exactly what has happened, said West Point City Manager Ed Moon.
“Point has had a very positive impact, especially downtown, but also for the whole city and the surrounding area. It’s great to see the students out and about, going to class and visiting local businesses. It’s brought a sense of place and added vibrancy. That means a lot.”
Those students “out and about” include almost 500 traditional students enrolled on the West Point campus. A majority of the 900 high school students taking dual enrollment classes also study in West Point or at off-site locations in Peachtree City and Savannah. All told, Point currently offers more than 40 programs of study and serves more than 2,300 students, including about 1,000 online.
From the college’s perspective, relocating from East Point to West Point was both practical and providential, President Collins explained. The original campus needed a lot of work, and the location was not conducive to growth.
“It made obvious financial and strategic sense to relocate,” Collins said.
The search for a new home spanned several years and numerous twists and turns. Many communities expressed interest and several responded to a Request for Proposal. The college’s board considered Peachtree City and Newnan, among others, but backed off during the economic downturn of 2008.
When the search resumed, donors and friends encouraged the college’s board to consider the West Point area, and the former Pepperell headquarters was suggested as a location.
The massive building was solid and had a bit of an academic look, Collins felt. He recalls asking architects with Credo, a well-known higher education design firm, if the structure’s 77,000 square feet were adequate for a college aiming to serve 1,000 students.
“They said yes, and they were almost right,” he said, laughing. Everything fit except music and a cafeteria.
“We went on a mad tear to find other buildings,” he said.
They didn’t have to look far. After years of decline following the loss of its textile industry, several buildings were available in West Point’s downtown.
Adapting the main building from offices into a full-fledged college was challenging, but ultimately very successful, Collins believes. Care was taken to preserve historical aspects of the building, like walnut paneling in multiple areas and custom Brazilian red cherry floors in a conference room. The only major structural change was to tear out a front wall, creating a light-filled two-story entrance. Academic areas, formerly filled with office cubicles, were revamped to promote openness. Faculty offices, with glass doors, surround classrooms and collaborative student study areas. A modern, open, largely digital library space was created along with student activity areas. There’s also a plant-filled courtyard with seating.
The overall goal, Collins said, was to “invite interaction.”
Naming the building for J. Smith Lanier II was a meaningful way to recognize and honor the nationally prominent businessman’s longtime support of the college. Lanier, who died in 2013, served on the college’s board for more than 25 years, dating back to its East Point days. “And he was a contributor longer than that,” noted Collins, describing the insurance industry giant as “a mentor and friend.”
Originally secured by long-term lease, the Lanier building was later donated to the college by a group of investors. Sale of the East Point location helped underwrite some of new facilities.
A short way from the Lanier building, the Point music department found its home in a former Ford dealership. The repurposed building, now known as the Scott Fine Arts Center, provides ample space for faculty offices, a piano lab, a music technology lab, soundproof practice rooms, a large classroom, and a 175-person performance hall.
In addition to upgrading a fading building, the music program enhances the cultural life of West Point and surrounding cities, said City Manager Moon.
“They put on excellent performances,” Moon said. “Sometimes I can’t believe it’s little downtown West Point.”
The band program found a spacious home in a former furniture store, and the cafeteria took over a former restaurant, both on nearby 3rd Avenue. Open to the community and including a bookstore and Starbucks, the cafeteria serves three meals and about 300 people per day, Collins said. Upstairs, a former loft residence has been adapted to house 40 students. Other nearby buildings have also been converted into student housing.
Collins likes the idea that the university blends in as a part of the town.
“We are not identifiable as a separate entity. We are a part of the community,” he said.
And the community has welcomed them big time, said Mary Susan Underwood, a West Point resident since 1985 and Point’s director of guest relations.
“The community is very excited,” Underwood said. “We are visible, we bring young people and energy downtown. Who would have thought people would be living in downtown West Point?”
Underwood’s multiple responsibilities include managing another repurposed facility, the 1910 William T. Parr house on West 10th Street. Gifted to the college, the stately home features original furnishings along with significant pieces brought from the East Point campus. It provides convenient, comfortable lodging for guests of the college, as well as a lovely setting for meetings, dinners, and college-related celebrations. A separate three-car garage, built in the 1970s in the style of the older home, has been transformed into modern offices and meeting space for the development department.
Refurbished buildings aren’t the only contribution Point has made to West Point and the surrounding Valley area. The college’s numerous sports programs share space with the City of West Point’s recreation facilities.
“It definitely brings life to our community,” said Moon, noting he “smiles big” when he sees packed parking lots outside athletic fields.
A Point-sponsored beautification program has also reached across the community.
“We have planted some 250-300 trees, so far, in West Point, Lanett, and Valley,” said Stacy Barnett, Chief of Staff at Point. “It’s good for the environment and promotes curb appeal.”
That fits, President Collins adds, with the college’s mission to educate students to influence the culture for Christ in all spheres of life. “Planting ourselves,” is part of that, he said. Point students give some 16,000 hours of community service annually.
“We are a part of many communities,” Collins said. “We are all dependent on each other. We try to be a part of the well-being of Troup and Chambers counties.”