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Terminal Station, depicted in this historic postcard, is one of several historic train stations that the city has lost

Courtesy of Jody Cook

Atlanta has long been glibly characterized as a city without historic architecture--"Sherman burned it all, you know." Besides ignoring the "brave and beautiful city" that Henry Grady and his New South compatriots championed after the Civil War, that comment also forgets that some of the city's most distinguished antebellum architecture was destroyed long after the war, including the original county courthouse and the city's downtown churches, all of which had been torn down and rebuilt by the 1890s. Numerous examples of antebellum residential architecture also survived into the 20th century around the fringes of downtown, although none survived past mid-century. The Leyden House, one of the few high style Greek Revival houses built in the city, was demolished by real estate speculators in 1913. The Italianate Neal Mansion, which Sherman used as his headquarters during the Federal occupation in 1864, was demolished in 1927 for construction of a new city hall. And the city's first two-story house, which dated to the earliest days of the city in the 1840s, was torn down in the late 1930s for a warehouse.

Wren's Nest, home of author Joel Chandler Harris, was Atlanta's first house museum
Courtesy of Jody Cook

Still, Atlanta was not without a regard for its history; and following a pattern that was fairly typical, if somewhat slow to develop, a historic preservation movement evolved in the city. In 1913, the Uncle Remus Ladies Memorial Association acquired the Wren's Nest, Joel Chandler Harris' home in West End, and shortly thereafter opened the city's first house museum, which included the carefully preserved bedroom where the famous author had died in 1908. The house has been restored in recent years, except for the bedroom which remains one of the best examples of an unrestored historic interior to be found anywhere.

Popular interest in the Civil War escalated in the early 20th century, and in 1921, the city opened the Cyclorama in Grant Park to exhibit the massive 1886 painting that depicts the Battle of Atlanta. Five years later, as Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone With the Wind, her father and others organized the Atlanta Historical Society, and in the 1930s they carefully documented the antebellum city and the war that destroyed it. The United Daughters of the Confederacy and other organizations began erecting battlefield monuments around the city during the same period, but local landmarks of those battles continued to be lost to neglect and new development.

Popular interest in the city's Civil War history lead to the construction of the Cyclorama Building--built to exhibit the massive 1886 painting, Battle of Atlanta

National Register photograph by Yen Tang
The pace of destruction quickened dramatically after World War II as dozens of downtown buildings were demolished for parking lots and garages, including the legendary Kimball House hotel, whose demolition in 1959 signaled the beginning of a wave of demolitions that destroyed many of the city's most famous landmarks in the 1960s and 1970s. "Urban renewal" laid waste to hundreds of acres in the city, much of which would lie undeveloped as "white flight" and general disinvestment sapped the city's vitality and diminished its tax base. Freeway construction, too, which began in the late 1940s, brought three major highways through the heart of the city and destroyed hundreds of businesses and residences in the process.

The success of the Historic Savannah Foundation, which was organized in 1955 to successfully oppose demolition of that city's landmarks, had already attracted widespread attention in the State, and encouraged by passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, similar organizations sprang up in Augusta, Macon, Columbus, and Thomasville in the mid-1960s. Although Atlanta had no similar voice for preservation until 1980, interest in preserving the city's past was slowly emerging in the 1960s. In 1966, the city established a 15-member Civic Design Commission, consisting of appointed experts in architecture, painting, sculpture, engineering, and planning along with three lay representatives. By the end of the year, the Commission had begun a campaign "to clean up . . . and restore" what would soon be christened "Underground Atlanta." Created by the series of viaducts that the city built to bridge the downtown railroad "gulch" between 1890 and 1930, the area contained some of the city's oldest surviving commercial buildings, and by 1969 it was a thriving entertainment district.

Inman Park Restoration was the first of several neighborhood organizations to promote preservation and revitalization of its historic residential district

NPS photograph by Jody Cook

Another facet of the growing interest in the city's heritage was the Atlanta Historical Society's acquisition of the Swan House in Buckhead as its new headquarters, and two years later its relocation of the antebellum Tullie Smith house to the property as the centerpiece of a recreated vernacular homestead. In addition, a handful of "urban pioneers" who had rediscovered Inman Park, the city's first suburban development in 1889, organized Inman Park Restoration (IPR) in 1970 and, the following spring, held their first annual spring festival and tour of homes. While Druid Hills has benefited from a civic association since 1938, IPR was the first of several such organizations that emerged in neighborhoods around downtown to promote preservation and revitalization of some of the city's most threatened historic residential districts.

As the city began to lose population and crime rates soared, Underground Atlanta struggled to survive in the mid-1970s, and when construction of the city's new heavy-rail transit system demolished some of downtown's most important buildings in 1975, Underground Atlanta withered away. By then, the city's major passenger depots had both been torn down as had most of its old hotels and theaters and many of its early skyscrapers. Parts of the landmark Equitable Building, designed by Burnham and Root in 1890, were salvaged and repurposed as outdoor sculpture, and the entire facade of the Paramount Theater, designed by Hentz, Reid, and Adler in 1922, was re-erected as part of a private residence in south Georgia. Otherwise, Atlanta's historic architecture was consigned to the landfills.

The Fox Theatre was preserved by a grass-roots campaign to "Save the Fox"
Courtesy of Jody Cook
In 1974, the "fabulous Fox" became an endangered property, and it was soon reported that Atlanta's largest and grandest theater would be razed for a new high-rise corporate headquarters. Uncharacteristically for Atlanta, a grass-roots campaign to "Save the Fox" quickly emerged, championed by a group of local high school students who picketed in front of the Fox and attracted critical media attention. Aided by the mayor, the city's Urban Design Commission, and a new non-profit organization, Atlanta Landmarks, Inc., the campaign succeeded. In 1975, the Urban Design Commission, with grants from the State Historic Preservation Office, conducted the city's first survey of historic resources and began administration of the city's first historic preservation ordinances. The Atlanta Preservation Center, a private, non-profit organization founded in 1980, assisted the Commission with an expanded survey in 1981, but not until passage of a new, comprehensive historic preservation ordinance in 1989 did the city have the tools it needed to preserve what remained of the city's architectural heritage. In addition to more than 130 National Register properties, the city now has more than 50 landmark buildings and a dozen historic districts which are protected by local ordinance.

Essay by Tommy Jones, Architectural Historian with the National Park Service's Southeast Regional Office.

  [image] E. Van Winkle Gin and Machine Works and link to Industrial Atlanta essay
  [image] Tullie Smith House and link to Antebellum Atlanta essay   [image] African American baseball players of Morris Brown College - Atlanta and link to African American Experience essay   [image] Historic postcard of Fox Theatre Historic District and link to Growth and Preservation essay

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