Too may people love to say,”Atlanta tore down all of it’s history”. Well, it has lost some greats, but let’s get to the truth and focus on the positive side— the outstanding buildings and historic districts which have been preserved in downtown Atlanta.
In 1836, merely 35 families lived in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains which was to become the great metropolis of Atlanta. Becoming a crossroads for the railroads, it had over 2500 residents in 1850. But by the beginning of the Civil War, Atlanta was popping with nearly 10,000 residents, a 272% increase in 10 years. After General Sherman left Atlanta in 1864, the population was back to zero.
After the War. new and old Atlantans, always forward-looking, confident and productive, had reached more than 21,000 people by 1870– less than six years later! During most of the next five decades, Atlanta would grow by more than 70% each decade, making it around 200,000 residents in 1920.
Only 50 years later, Atlanta became the 20th largest metropolitan area in the United States with nearly 1.2 million people in 1970.
Today, only 149 years after General Sherman left, the Atlanta–Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA Metropolitan area is the
7th largest in the U.S. with over 5.6 million residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Although most of the Atlanta was damaged or destroyed during the War, a rapidly growing city was rebuilt– replacing almost any trace of the antebellum past. The influx of northern Americans with old and new Atlantans making money to survive left only 2 modest farmhouses and one warehouse, that I know of, that still remain from before the civil war– and they are not very noteworthy. Remember, early Atlanta was never the place of plantations and fancy buildings, but a bustling new city rebuilding itself from a frontier town. People lived off the railroads, liquor and hard work. And, some of that work, was rebuilding the quickly thrown-up wooden structures built for economy– and the hope of future wealth. Later, Atlantans desired no memory of past difficulties, only wanting to move forward, to the newest, most modern, and the most outstanding.
Due to it’s frontier, war and reconstruction past, most historic Atlanta structures and historic districts are from the 1880’s to the 1930’s.
First on our list, is the elaborate neoclassical Georgia State Capitol, designed by Edbrooke & Burnham of Chicago, which was built in 1889 on the site of a previous Atlanta City Hall. In 1958, the dome was gilded with gold from America’s first gold rush in Dahlonega, GA, 1830’s. The building’s architecture, stone and bronze sculpture, and Georgia State Museum inside are well worth a visit. Today, the City of Atlanta is building a beautiful new park and plaza over the I-75/85 Connector, to allow better vistas of the historic Capitol.
From the Capitol, cross Washington and Mitchell Streets to arrive at the Atlanta City Hall. Built in 1930 as the fourth official city hall since 1853, it was designed as a Gothic Revival Art Deco 17-story tower by G. Lloyd Preacher. An impressive annex, completed in 1989, was constructed to the rear of the original structure.
In downtown Atlanta, there are six historic districts: Underground Atlanta, Hotel Row, Castleberry Hill, the Fairlie-Poplar, Sweet Auburn, and MLK historic districts.
Back across Mitchell St and Martin Luther King Drive is Underground Atlanta Historic District. A century ago, as the city of Atlanta built up around the busy railroad tracks, they became a nuisance for local pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and by 1920, the cast iron bridges were replaced with concrete viaducts to completely cover the tracks. This left the original first and second stories of buildings below the level of the new streets.
During prohibition, this area was conveniently used for speakeasys, jazz clubs, and juke joints. The area was largely forgotten about until the 1970’s when the area was made into a nightclub and restaurant district. Unfortunately, some areas were lost during subway construction. In the late 80’s it was rebuilt into a family shopping and entertainment district, which has morphed now into a late-night club district, once again. For this story, the importance is that the buildings which comprise Underground Atlanta were built from 1861 to 1877, so even though they may be somewhat hidden by the improvements of the 70’s and 80’s, they remain the oldest structures left in Atlanta.
From Underground Atlanta, drive south on Peachtree Street to see a rundown, but architecturally interesting shopping district that was thriving in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Nearby is the once elegant Rich’s Department Store with it’s elaborate limestone facade by famous Atlanta architects Neil Reid & Phillip Schutze. Rich’s was established in 1867, beginning a torrid love affair with Atlantans that would not end until Macy’s bought the 23 store chain in 2005. The Downtown store is closed, but Rich’s will always be in the hearts of Atlantans who lived there during that 138 years.
On Mitchell St, west of Forsyth St is the infamous Hotel Row Historic District. This block of 3-4 story commercial buildings were built between 1892 and 1908 and served as the primary location for travelers to stay after departing from the Mediterranean revival Union Train Terminal, now demolished. Prior and subsequent to that “golden” period are local stories of decadent drinking establishments and lively prostitution houses.
One block south, take Trinity to Peters St and cross the train viaduct to the Castleberry Hill Historic District, Atlanta’s version of early SoHo. This area was once part of the renegade Snake Nation, but during the industrial revolution became busy with many mills, warehouses and commercial buildings. In the 1990’s it began revitalization into an area of cool lofts, art galleries, musicians, and coffee houses.
The Fairlie-Poplar Historic District is 28 tiny blocks between Centennial Olympic Park and Woodruff Park, just north west of Five Points, the famous commercial center of the city. It contains Atlanta’s largest collection of turn of the century buildings which marked the change between Chicago-style skyscrapers and earlier Victorian buildings. Broad St has a nice continuity of old buildings with shops and cafes. Combined, the district’s pedestrian scale, unique architecture, tree-lined streets and historic atmosphere create an old city feel found nowhere else in Atlanta.
The most well-known and striking building in this area, at 84 Peachtree St, is the English-American Building, commonly known as the Flatiron Building. It was completed in 1897, six years prior to New York’s architecturally superior Flatiron Building. Ours is 11 stories, the second-oldest standing skyscraper in Atlanta and was designed in the Chicago style by Bradford Gilbert.
Other individual buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places that lie within the Fairlie-Poplar Historic District include the Rhodes-Haverty Building, the Empire/C&S Bank Building (now part of GA State University), the Healey Building, the Prudential/W.D. Grant Building, the Retail Credit Company Home Office Building, the Elbert P. Tuttle United States Court of Appeals Building.
The 21 story Rhodes-Haverty Building at 134 Peachtree St is now the Residence Inn Downtown Atlanta. It was the tallest building in Atlanta from 1929 to 1954, and was designed by Atlanta architects Pringle & Smith.
The 14 story 1901 Chicago-style Empire Building was the first steel-framed structure in the city and the tallest until 1906. In 1929, the three lower floors and the stunning Banking Hall were remodeled by Hentz, Adler and Shutze, Architects in high neoclassical style for Citizens & Southern Bank. It is now the J. Mack Robinson School of Business of GSU. If you ever get the chance, the old Banking Hall is an absolute must-see.
The Healey Building, at 57 Forsyth St, was the last major skyscraper built in the city during the pre-World War I construction boom. Designed by the firm of Morgan & Dillon, with assistance from Walter T. Downing, in the Gothic Revival style, the 16-story structure was built between 1913-1914.
The W.D. Grant Building is the second oldest standing in Atlanta, built in 1898. At 40-48 Broad St, it was designed in the Chicago skyscraper style by Atlanta architects Bruce & Morgan.
Completed in 1910, the U.S. Post Office & Courthouse on Forsyth St is now known as the Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Court of Appeals Building. It was designed in the Second Renaissance Revival style by James Knox Taylor and is a building with an imposing magnificence.
The William Oliver Building stands at the corner of Peachtree and Marietta St at Five Points. Built in 1930, the 16-story building was one of the first fully Art Deco style buildings in Atlanta. The architects, Pringle and Smith, had worked in Atlanta throughout the 1920s, but primarily in the Beaux Arts style.
Also at Five Points is the small, but beautiful, Olympia Building, located at 23 Peachtree Street. It was completed in 1936 by architects Ivey & Crook.
The 2003 sign is the only “retro-style” sign Coca-Cola has designed anywhere in the world. The sign has much of the same design as the neon spectacular that was in place from 1932 to 1981, with a circular, 33-foot diameter face covered in neon lights, featuring nine-foot tall, 28-feet wide Coca-Cola lettering. The sign contains more than a mile of red neon, and more than 10,280 bulbs.
The Candler Building is a 17-story highrise at 127 Peachtree St. When completed in 1906 by Coca-cola magnate Asa Griggs Candler, it was the tallest building in the city. Mr. Candler wanted it to be the most elegant office building in Atlanta– he succeeded!
The Tabernacle building at 152 Luckie St has a rich & storied history. Opened in 1910 as The Third Baptist Tabernacle by Dr. Leonard Gaston Broughton, a pastor and physician. Dr. Broughton started the Georgia Baptist Medical Center and nursingschool, which began as the Tabernacle infirmary with three beds. The building held up to 4000 churchgoers in the 1950’s, but the congregation dwindled and was relocated during the mid eighties. The building lay vacant until just before the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, when it was converted temporarily into a House of Blues club. The Tabernacle has been named one of the best concert venues in the nation by Rolling Stone and Paste magazines. For more of this interesting story, click this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tabernacle#cite_note-1
The Ellis and the Glenn Hotels are luxurious boutique hotels near the Fairlie-Poplar District. Formerly the Winecoff Hotel, today is has reopened as the Ellis Hotel is located at 176 Peachtree St. Designed by William Lee Stoddart, the 15-story building opened in 1913 and was made infamous by the fire in 1946, when 119 people died. This fire radically changed all Fire / Building Codes to this day.
The Glenn Hotel building at 110 Marietta Street, was built in 1923, and named after John Thomas Glenn, a prominent attorney and the 31st mayor of Atlanta from 1889-1891. The building was designed by the Washington, D. C. architect, Waddy B. Wood. Today, they are both preserved, safe, chic and architecturally interesting. They deserve a stay, a dinner, or at least a tour with a drink in the exciting interiors or beautiful outdoor spaces that have been created.
Next door to the Ellis Hotel is the 1927 Davisons Department store, the flagship of the Atlanta institution which lasted 93 years. Davisons was established in 1901, but was purchased by R.H.Macy in 1925. It continued as Atlanta’s Davisons chain in Georgia and South Carolina until 1986. The massive and beautiful building was based upon Macy’s Herald Square store with marble floors, elegant columns, crystal chandeliers, and a mezzanine.
The store was closed in 2003, but may be rented for lavish events today. The soon to open Atlanta Streetcar will run right between The old Macy’s and the new Ellis Hotels.
On the other side of Peachtree, on Peachtree Center Avenue, is the art deco Southern Bell Building completed in 1929 at six stories. Additions in 1947, 1948 and 1963 brought it to its present 14 stories. Unfortunately, some severely aesthetic-deficient executive decided to build that monstrous communications tower on its roof. Maybe one day, well, no… probably not.
Two historically important downtown areas are the Sweet Auburn Historic District and the Martin Luther King, Jr National Historic Site. Sweet Auburn is an important African-American commercial district running alond Auburn and Edgewood Avenues from the early 20th century. Civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs coined the phrase “sweet auburn” and, in 1956, Fortune magazine called it “the richest Negro street in the world”. The street featured at least two important churches, famous jazz clubs, the first black office building, The Atlanta World newspaper, the first Atlanta Life Insurance Company, and several important social organizations. The adjacent MLK National Historic Site is a traditionally black neighborhood with MLK’s birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached, and his memorial gravesite.
Today, the area is expected to experience a great renaissance due to the Atlanta Streetcar which is being constructed through the district.
Atlanta’s Hurt Building is located at 50 Hurt Plaza and built between 1913 and 1926. It was built by Joel Hurt, an Atlanta developer and designed by the New York architectural firm of J.E.R.Carpenter. With restrained ornamentation, it occupies a middle ground between Beaux Arts classicism and the emerging modernist aesthetic. The Hurt Building is said to be one of the nation’s earliest skyscrapers and the 17th largest office building in the world at the time of its construction.
East of the Hurt Building, at 36 Butler St, is the original building for Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta’s second hospital, opening in 1892. The city-owned and operated hospital was named for Henry W. Grady, a prominent Atlanta newspaper editor and proponent of the “New South.” He and other leaders of Atlanta wanted a facility that would be free from all sectarian and denominational influences– one that welcomed the rich, poor, black and white. It was designed in the Romanesque style.
The Fulton County Courthouse is a historic courthouse building located at 160 Pryor St. In 1911, the old courthouse was torn down, and on the same site work began on Fulton County’s third (and present) courthouse. It was designed by noted Atlanta-based architect A. Ten Eyck Brown in a robust, neoclassical style. When completed in 1914 at a cost of $1,250,000, it was Georgia’s first million-dollar courthouse. It was also the largest, surpassing in square footage even the Georgia state capitol.
The Atlanta First United Methodist Church has existed for more than 160 years and is one of the oldest churches in Atlanta– the only church mentioned in Gone With the Wind. The current building, constructed in 1903, has the same bell used in three buildings since 1850. It is the only church bell in Atlanta that is known to have survived the Civil War. In 1845, Samuel Mitchell donated a plot of land for constructing a log cabin school which was used on alternating Sundays by different denominations for church services. In 1847, the Methodists were the first to raise $700 to build their own chapel on new land– using granite from Stone Mountain. It still stands gracefully on Peachtree St, near the new W Hotel Downtown.
Truth be told, there are many other old and historic buildings in Downtown Atlanta.
Later, I will blog again on the other historic districts and buildings of Midtown and other parts of Atlanta, they are nearly countless…
Here’s a map of Downtown’s Historic Districts and Buildings:
- Atlanta Site Considered For State History Museum (atlanta.cbslocal.com)