Atlanta’s turbulent relationship with historic preservation

If you’re from Atlanta, you’ve heard the jokes. Atlanta loves to tear down history and build new or just make everything parking.

In 1959, Atlanta literally razed a 80 year old, 7 story building to build a parking deck which still stands today, 61 years later. The Kimball House was built in 1885 to replace the hotel that was destroyed by fire, originally built in 1870. It sat across from Union Station, convenient for travelers, and included over 30 shops as well as 357 hotel rooms. If you care to pay respects to this fallen giant and spite the parking deck that replaced it, the Kimball House was located on the block bound by Decatur St, Pryor St, Whitehall (now Peachtree St) and Wall St, across from Underground Atlanta (RIP to that, too).

Kimball House in the 1890s

Kimball House in the 1950s

The parking deck which replaced Kimball House

I try to do my part to combat the tear down and build new effect. I live in a converted condo that was built as office buildings in 1927. The neighboring building, also part of our condo association, is a Neil Reid-designed apartment building from 1923. I have a historic preservation license plate. I am a member of the Atoanta History Center and Atlanta Preservation Center, and attend the Phoenix Flies tours every year.

Neil Reed designed apartment building, 1923

Every March, you can count me out on the weekends, and I may just call in sick some weekdays to do the Phoenix Flies tours hosted by the Atlanta Preservation Center. Tours “sell out” quickly because 1) they are free (hence the quote marks), and 2) the tour guides are well educated on the subjects of the tours they do, and 3) for some of the buildings, this may be the only time they are open to the public.

Saturday, I did a Walking Tour of Sweet Auburn, the historic black neighborhood in downtown Atlanta. Our stroll on Auburn Avenue started at the Apex Museum, and ended at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Stops included Atlanta Daily World, Atlanta Life Insurance Company, The Royal Peacock (once the Top Hat Club), Wheat Street Baptist Church, and Wheat Street Towers.

Atlanta Life Insurance Company’s original headquarters

Our tour guide, Victoria, knew her stuff, regaling us with stories about Alonzo Herndon, W.A. Scott (owner of Atlanta Daily World), John Wesley Dobbs, former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, Carrie B. Cunningham (owner of the Royal Peacock), Martin Luther King, Jr and Martin Luther King, Sr.

Wheat St Baptist Church. Auburn Avenue was originally named Wheat Street.

I knew a fair bit about most of these figures central to Atlanta’s progress, such as Herndon being Atlanta’s first black millionaire, W.A. Scott’s ownership of the Atlanta Daily World, and of course, Martin Luther King’s driving force in the civil rights movement in the United States. What I didn’t know is that the Mayor of Auburn Avenue, John Wesley Dobbs, was also the grandfather of Mayor Maynard Jackson. Dobbs coined the term “Sweet Auburn” and called it the “richest Negro street in the world.” When Dobbs was coming of age in Atlanta, and as he led Auburn Avenue to prominence, you would never find an African-American in an elected position in the South. Many rose to prominence as elders in the church, business owners, and leaders in community centers and the YMCA. I’m sure he looked down with pride when he saw his grandson elected mayor.

Sculpture of John Wesley Dobbs on Auburn Avenue

Sweet Auburn was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1976, A National Historic Landmark District was designated in 1976, covering 19 acres, for its history and development as a segregated area during the Jim Crow era. Victoria walked us through Sweet Auburn’s growth after Reconstruction, the race riot of 1904 and the Great Fire of 1917, and its decline after the interstates plowed through Atlanta.

Sweet Auburn was literally cut in half by the development and expansions of I-20, what former Mayor Ivan Allen once called “Atlanta’s Berlin Wall,” similar to what happened in Peoplestown, Mechanicsville, and Summerhill with the development of the Downtown Connector (I-85 and I-75). When I-485 was being planned, mostly white neighborhoods like Inman Park and Virginia-Highlands objected (leading to Freedom Parkway, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Carter Center’s eventual location), which results in the Downtown Connector being expanded, and more houses in the mostly black neighborhoods being torn down.

Auburn Avenue is experiencing a resurgence now thanks to concerted efforts by Invest Atlanta and the Sweet Auburn community, as are Summerhill, Peoplestown and Mechanicsville. 

Interstates weren’t the first method to segregate the city, but definitely the most permanent and expansive. Street names such as Moreland/Highland, Monroe/Boulevard, Charles Allen/Parkway,  Argonne/Central Park, andJuniper/Courtland,that change at Ponce de Leon Avenue were a subtle form of segregation. Many mill workers from Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills lived in Cabbagetown (white families) and Reynoldstown, which was originally settled by freed slaves who worked for the railroads, and found work at the nearby mills as well.

Like many major American cities, Atlanta’s downtown was the central retail and commercial hub for the city. Integration and the resulting white flight moved much of its retail establishments to the suburbs, as suburban malls and shopping complexes popped up beyond the perimeter. Downtown, as well as Midtown and South Buckhead, were also at one time where the elite lived in mansions, of which very few exist today.

As the families left their mansions to developers to be torn down along Peachtree Street, skyscrapers, mid-rise office complexes, condominium towers, apartment complexes, and of course, parking decks took their place. Rhodes Hall and Wimbish House exist in their original form, and the Rose House is a shell waiting to be restored.

I visited Goodrum House as part of the Phoenix Flies tours on Monday. Our tour guide, Barbara, oversees the restoration of the historic elements of the house, including furniture, decor, repairing water damage and damaged wood andplaster work. The Philip Trammell Shutze designed house was completed in 1930, with wood carvings and plaster work by H.J. Millard, and murals by Allyn Cox and Athos Menaboni.

Shutze, a Georgia Tech graduate who studied classical architecture in Rome for five years, also designed the Swan House, Whitehead Memorial Room at Crawford Long, and The Villa Condominiums, and many other homes in Atlanta and throughout the southeast. Millard’s work can also be found in the Swan House and Whitehead Memorial Room, as well as The White House and State Department in Washington D.C.

The Goodrum House parlor

Fireplace surround and mantel carved by H.J. Millard.

Detail of the fireplace surround and mantel carved by H.J. Millard.

The Goodrum House’s original owner, May Patterson Goodrum, passed away in the 1950s, and the house was purchased by the Rushton family, then served as the Southern Center for International Studies until it was used as a designer’s showcase in the 1980s. Unfortunately the showcase removed what remained of the original bathroom and kitchen fixtures. The Watson-Brown Foundation purchased the property in 2008, with the intention of restoring it to the original 1930s as much as possible.

The parlor includes more H.J. Millard carvings over each doorway.

Mrs. Goodrum never had children, but she did adopt her housekeeper’s son after her death. After the adopted son passed away in 2013, the Foundation purchased what furniture and decor he had from the Goodrum House. Barbara continues to search for pieces that were original to the home, which can be identified through photographs the family had from their time there. In addition, Shutze recognition for the house’s design from the Architectural League of New York, so photos from this also exist.

A section of silk embroidered wallpaper that is currently being reproduced in France.

I look forward to seeing the completed renovation on a Phoenix Flies tour in the coming years.

The oldest mansions in Atlanta include Lemuel P. Grant’s house (now home to Atlanta Preservation Center), Ivy Hall (owned by SCAD), and Alonzo Herndon’s home (which I hope to visit soon – only open Tuesdays and Thursdays during the day). Take, for instance, this 1895 view of Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta below, where only the Capital City Club still exists in 2020.

Capital City Club Harris Street, 1895
1895 view of (left to right) the Capital City Club, the residence of Mrs. Josephine A. Richards, and the former home of Austin Leyden, on Peachtree Street between Ellis Street and Cain Street (now Andrew Young International Boulevard) in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo and caption courtesy of Atlanta History Center, Kenan Research Center.

Cemeteries, thankfully, have escaped the demolition and destruction that have ravaged Atlanta, for the most part. Atlanta’s cemeteries that pre-date the 20th century include Oakland, Southview (the only African-American cemetery, established in 1887), and Westview, which I visited Sunday, as part of the Phoenix Flies tours. I have visited Oakland Cemetery many times before, and it will always be one of the many reasons I fell in love with Atlanta, but it was a treat to visit Westview for the first time. 

Westview Cemetery, founded in 1884, encompasses over 600 acres off I-20 on Ralph David Abernathy Freeway. As the crow flies, that’s just four miles from where I live, but I had never been there until Sunday. It is home to Asa Candler, William Hartsfield, Joel Chandler Harris, Henry Grady, Robert Shaw, Robert Woodruff and Lemuel P. Grant, who donated the land for Grant Park, and whose house serves as the headquarters for the Atlanta Preservation Center.

Westview Abbey, the mausoleum and chapel at Westview Cemetery, were built by Asa Griggs Candler, Jr. in 1943. While marble from Georgia and Alabama were used throughout the structure, much of the structure is actually formed concrete made to look like carved stone. The abbey houses over 11,000, and has room for 2,000 more, including a new wing of the mausoleum that recently opened. 

The Florence Candler Chapel is Gothic in style, with stained glass windows and a fan-vaulted ceiling. Candler originally planned for three chapels, but this was the only one completed before he was forced to sell the cemetery. 

Candler took control of the cemetery in the 1930s, and made several changes to its operations, most of which were not well received. The original parts of the cemetery (before the 1940s) contained monuments, vaults, and family plots with statues, while the sites from the 1940s to the 1960s are bronze markers laid in the ground. The thought process here was that grounds maintenance of the 600 acre property was time-consuming and costly given that the crew had to work around the monuments. With the in-ground plaques, lawn mowers could go across an entire section of the cemetery in a much shorter time. Needless to say, the older parts of the cemetery, and the ones after the 1960s when monuments were allowed again, are much prettier to look at. Enough people took issue with decisions that Candler was making about Westview that lawsuits were filed against him, and he was forced to sell to the Bowen family.

Let’s hope we can preserve more, and destroy less, of the beauty and history of Atlanta’s past. It shouldn’t have to be a power struggle between preservationists and developers. Progress doesn’t equal destruction and construction. With the aid of organizations like Atlanta Preservation Center, The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, and Historic Atlanta, I hope we will see more efforts to save what we have left, because there’s not much left. We need more historic preservation, and less parking lots.
%d bloggers like this: