Monday, January 21, 2013

Death and Loss on D'Antignac Street

One of the buildings I really wanted to visit on this last trip to Augusta, Georgia was Lam Brothers Food Store at 1024-1026 D’Antignac St. Jack Lam, whose family emigrated from China, opened the store with his father and brother shortly after their arrival in 1941. I believe the building was already there by then, having been constructed in what was once an Irish neighborhood prior to Jim Crow zoning laws really sinking in their teeth early in the 1900’s. Eventually, Jack’s father and brother moved on and he ran the store solo, sometimes working “twenty-four hours a day.” Jack Lam also helped other Chinese people come to the U.S. and become citizens, earning himself an award from the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1972 for his work. Lam thought a hand-painted sign in the front window of the store symbolized his journey and success. It read, “Old-Fashioned Butcher Shop.” I guess he liked the old ways. Some information would indicate that they even served dim sum at the store.

Lam ran the business for just over 50 years, meaning he probably left the building in the early 1990’s and, as far as I know, no one else ever moved in. I have to wonder if Lam drove past his old store every now and then, watching it slowly decay as vandals and drug addicts took it over. He is said to have loved driving through town in large automobiles. Or maybe he stayed away, knowing he’d only become saddened by what he saw.

Lam died on July 7, 2006 at the age of 85. It was certainly a blessing that he did not have to hear of the murder of 31-year-old Lawanda Person Tanksley nearly five years later in the place where he’d done his life’s work. It was May 15, 2011 when Ms. Tanksley’s body was found in Lam’s Store. As far as I know, her murderer has never been found.

Lest anyone think that my last post was overly dramatic or that roaming around vacant buildings—even historical vacant buildings—is without a very real risk, I would submit the example of Lam’s Store. Exploring old buildings is not something I have EVER recommended to anyone. It is often unwise and much better left to the pathologically compelled. To come upon a dead body would be bad enough. To come across the murderer might prove fatal.

That said, Lam’s was a unique and beautiful building with a long history. Having missed a chance to visit pre-murder, when I was back in Augusta in the spring of 2010, I was looking forward to finally checking it out. However, another drawback of documenting abandoned buildings is that they tend to unexpectedly disappear. Such was the case with Lam’s Store. Aside from its structural problems, after the murder the building’s reputation was so tarnished that there wasn’t much left to do but take it down. Now there’s just grass where Jack Lam spent over 50 years of his life. The only photos I've ever seen of the inside of Lam’s Store are HERE. Note that the photographer strongly dissuades anyone from visiting and was clearly unnerved by the murder and the drug paraphernalia scattered over the floor. But they also found the remains of an old piano and, hey, that’s pretty cool, right?

So, instead of stepping into Lam Brothers Food Store, you mostly get photos taken at 811 D’Antignac St., just a couple blocks away. Also vacant for years, 811 D’Antignac was built somewhere between 1850 and 1870 in the Greek Revival style. Its owner was Atlanta Gas Light Co. as late as 2006 and I suppose they might still own the place. Beyond that, I can find no record of who has lived in the house or what they might have done with their lives. Anyone?

I got some of the background for this post from this article on Augusta's African-American landmarks, but mostly I used Jack Lams' obituary and a crime report. The Lam’s Store photo is from the Chronicle and it physically pains me to put it here knowing I never got a shot of the building. Like I said, pathologically compelled.

We’ll make one more quick stop at an historic house I didn’t get into and thus walked away from with nothing but a few mediocre external shots. That will make three. Then, we’ll re-visit the remaining two of the original three upper Broad Street houses and, for our final Central Savannah River Area post, we’ll check out the empty field that was once a major concert destination in South Carolina to see if we can hear the ghosts of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway on the wind.


jmhouse said...

Here's a comment I got from Lee H. that I wanted to share:

"I used to love exploring in that store while Mom waited for her cuts of meat - it was fascinating as a child; they sold the best beef in Augusta back then. Sad to read what became of that building. Lam was truly a great American success story."

Thanks, Lee! If you've got recollections about visiting Lam Brothers Food Store, please send them in. We'd love to know as much as possible about the history of this neighborhood institution. JM

Anonymous said...

We to have many fond memories of living and growing up over the store in a neighborhood that looked out for our parent for so many year.

Thank you for remembering our father in such a kind way.

The Children of Jack Lam

jmhouse said...

I'm *very* pleased to get a message from the children of Jack Lam. Thank you so much for your comment. There are certainly others with fond memories of visiting the store and I've been told some recollections will be sent to me soon. I will post them here when they arrive.

If you ever want to share some of your own memories, please don't hesitate to post them here. We'd love to know more about Lam's Store and his family's history in the neighborhood.

Thanks again!

Best Regards,


jmhouse said...

Here's a little bit more from Lee H. to add to the recollections above:

"I vividly recall going there (Lam's Store) with my Mom when I was a child. She told me that Mr. Lam was very picky about his clientele and that it was the running joke that if you were one of his customers, you were considered one of the "chosen few"...I guess he was the original Soup Nazi. Mom remembers hearing the piano all the time when Lam's children were practicing classical music upstairs in their residence."

It's really great to have these reminiscences to expand on the history posted above. Thanks again, Lee! JM

Doug Sterling said...

That was a good read. It's sad to see that the store is now gone, but the comments you've received are interesting. It's nice to hear that some people won't ever forget the store and its owner. As of right now the murder of Lawanda Tanksley still seems to be unsolved.

It's a shame you never got to visit the building before it was demolished, but I understand your hesitance to visit such areas. I've had a few odd encounters myself, but nothing serious. I did, however, stumble across a makeshift sleeping area in an abandoned paper mill, and some of the mail and paperwork found in a grocery bag suggested that the man who was staying there had been released from prison within the past year for charges of aggravated assault and robbery. I stayed away from that area for awhile after that discovery, but months later when I attempted to return, I found the entire complex had been razed. Even looking back on it now, I still have a good level of disappointment that I never got to return one last time.

jmhouse said...

Doug, I know that feeling of disappointment that you mention and I try to avoid it! In the case of Lam Brothers Food Store, I do wish I had gone to have a look. I wasn't in Augusta during the structures final years, a period in which I was getting a little better at finding ways to avoid that feeling of disappointment. Ahem. I do know one person that got some photos before it came down and he said it was pretty scary being inside.

Actually, one of my big recent regrets is not taking a large painting of a Spanish woman that hung over the front desk of the Aztec Motel before the motel came down. I would've had to scale a chain link fence in front of a busy road and it might've just ended up with me getting a $300 trespassing fine, but...I wish I had that. it just got crushed in the demolition.