Come with me on a wonderful journey back to 1996, and the years leading up to the time–
when Atlanta had its most extravagant global coming out party.
Two months from now, Atlanta will celebrate the Twentieth Anniversary of the great Centennial Olympic Games.
As a retrospective, and because there are so many new Atlantans, it’s important to understand the setting. Atlanta, in the late 1980’s, was a very different place.
Coming-of-age Atlanta was in the middle of the biggest building boom of its history, thus far.
This particular development boom is the one that brought many landmark towers, museums, as well as scores of other buildings. In 1985, the Atlanta Marriott Marquis was completed with it’s sculptural atrium– the tallest in the world. In 1987, Midtown proudly welcomed Phillip Johnson’s One Atlantic Center, the Campanile, 999 Peachtree, and in Buckhead, the Atlanta Financial Center was built over a tunnel for the future GA-4oo highway extension.
Also, in 1987, the talk around town had begun–
“should Atlanta bid for the Olympics?!”
In 1988: One Buckhead Plaza, the J.W.Marriott at Lenox, Resurgens Plaza, and, finally, the ATL Airport was connected to MARTA. In 1989, the Fuqua Conservatory at Atlanta Botanical Garden, Michael Graves’ Ten Peachtree Place, The Peachtree, Promenade II, One Capital City Plaza, and the grand re-opening of Underground Atlanta.
Most of these skyscrapers from 1985-1990 were between 18 and 50 story towers. Can you imagine Atlanta without these structures, and the newer ones since? Now you are getting the idea of Atlanta before the Olympics.
Of course, with the boom, came destruction of old Atlanta landmarks like the three Pershing Point apartment buildings, including Atlanta’s unique version of the artsy, irreplaceable Chelsea Hotel in New York.
the 191 Peachtree Tower, by Phillip Johnson, had just been completed in Downtown Atlanta. The Braves had not yet experienced their golden decade of Division Titles and World Series games. CNN was a decade old; the Turner empire was flourishing.
Two years prior, in 1988, while Atlanta hosted the Democratic National Convention,
Rob Lowe made the very first, infamous, sex tape, in the nearby Atlanta Hilton, after partying at the latest hot nightspot downtown, Club Rio.
And, in 1990, the city of Atlanta’s population was less than 400,000– with the metro area just below 3 million. But, even then, Atlanta was a fast-moving, cosmopolitan city which fully believed it could rival any other.
It was an explosively exciting period of life in ever-changing Atlanta,
as it grew to be a big city with great new restaurants, many clubs– including after-hours clubs (Backstreet was pouring 24 hours)– and cool art openings. I lived at Colony Square and took the MARTA subway to Peachtree Center where I worked. We were living the dream, and loved our superbly enjoyable and chic city. At the time Atlanta was continually winning America’s Best lists, for business, lifestyle, and the arts.
Of course, one of the times I was travelling to Manhattan, one sarcastic queen had to ask “if we actually had restaurants there?” We “actually” did have many great “nouvelle cuisine”, “new southern”, and other lively urban restaurants with great food. We were lucky to have experienced the best new restaurant openings, continually.
It was different, however, than today’s foodie-haven Atlanta.
Even with all of the newly beautiful buildings, Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead Atlanta were still nearly covered with bare parking lots. Way worse than it is today. Virtually none of the condominiums that line Peachtree Street and the other streets of Midtown had been built. Yet many of the fine old buildings, along with most of the gay bars, had already been demolished from Midtown, with the promise of new developments.
With the announcement coming, much of the talk, in 1990, was whether Atlanta could possibly get the Olympics.
We all knew it was a total longshot because it was the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympic Games, so Athens would be the obvious choice. Also bidding were lovely Belgrade and Manchester, and the gorgeous, built-up cities of Melbourne, and Toronto.
Nevertheless, Atlanta was very excited about the prospect of the Olympiad; the highly savvy, hospitable committee had worked hard for three years to make it happen.
After all, in aspirational Atlanta, anything is possible. For well over a century, we have recognized it as the Atlanta Spirit.
On the morning of September 18, 1990, a huge crowd awaited at Underground Plaza– every television set and radio was tuned in to hear the much-anticipated announcement!
Moments passed slowly, as IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch announced from Tokyo:
the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games
will be held in
A-a-a-a… (we waited to hear …thens! )
But, as he slowly enunciated, he said
Words are unworthy to express the emotions; we actually stopped on the I-75/I-85 Connector and ran around our cars, honking and yelling! It was an amazing moment. (In truth, we were already stopped in the morning traffic, but, still…running around on the Connector? Crazy, but it was ok, we were so happy!)
Where were you, when the announcement was made?
The Atlanta Journal headline said it all…
There were ticker-tape parades…
Then, six long years of anticipation.
In those years, the Georgia Dome, SunTrust Plaza, Bank of America (topping out at a whopping 1023 ft– the tallest outside of New York and Chicago), the GLG Grand/Four Seasons, Westin Buckhead, Georgian Terrace Hotel Tower, Fernbank Museum of Natural History (the first Natural History Museum in the 20th century), and Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University, and many other buildings and urban design projects were completed in the six years before the Olympics.
Oh yes, and all of the Olympic venues which were renovated or built specifically for the Games.
Some think that Atlanta should have built more outstanding architectural icons– structures which had become de rigueur for the Games.
There is a reason for that. The Atlanta Games and Venues were paid for only by corporate sponsorships and ticket sales. The U.S. Government funded all security. About $500 Million of taxpayer bonds upgraded streetscaping, roads, built Centennial Olympic Park, an expansion of the airport, public transportation improvements, and public housing projects– all of which were sorely needed regardless of the Games.
This was a feat of genius. Too many cities and governments have overspent and are left with Olympic white elephants.
Of course, I would have loved some architectural marvels, but most Atlantans were happy enough with the highly functional venues, along with all of the beautiful buildings which had been built in the decade prior.
The City of Atlanta had been rebuilding city sidewalks and replacing the old warped creosote pine tree light and electric poles with the new “Atlanta-style” street lamps. Trees Atlanta had planted thousands of oak trees along the city streets.
The last major venue to be conceived, and undoubtedly the most successful, was Centennial Olympic Park.
Almost an afterthought, a group of Atlanta’s young involved businessmen, and, as luck would have it– I was present too, as a young Atlanta architect working for John Portman– were having lunch at the 7oth floor revolving restaurant of the Westin Peachtree Plaza to enjoy overlooking the improvements underway. But while looking over the abandoned warehouses between the Peachtree Center hotel district and the Georgia World Congress Center, it was realized– that the area needed to be replaced with a central meeting area… a great park and plaza.
Thus, Centennial Park was born.
Many other cultural urban design projects were completed including:
The Look of the Games was complete and the Cauldron was ready for its lighting.
The Torch was carried from Olympia, Greece, traveled through across The States, then many towns all over Georgia, finally arriving in Atlanta.
Atlanta was ready for the Olympics.
The spectacular Opening Ceremony of the XXVI Olympiad
Famed composer John Williams created the official overture for the 1996 Olympics, “Summon the Heroes”, featuring the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The Parade of Nations featured more than 10,000 athletes from 197 nations.
Celine Dion belted out “The Power of the Dream”, accompanied on the piano by David Foster, the composer of the song– with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Morehouse/ Spellman/ ASO Centennial Choir.
Seven-time Grammy Award winner and Atlantan Gladys Knight’s performance of Georgia’s Ray Charles’ “Georgia on my Mind” was a show-stopper.
But the most surprising and emotional event was greatest heavyweight boxer of the 20th century, Mohammed Ali, lighting the flame of the Olympic Cauldron, while his body shook with Parkinsons’ Disease.
Meanwhile, at Centennial Olympic Park, crowds were gathering to get a taste of the Olympic Days to come. Swatch had built a modernist pavilion, and AT&T had constructed an elaborate stage for live performances, day and night.
- From July 19 to August 4, 1996, a record 197 nations took part in the Games, comprising 10,318 athletes.
- Atlanta became the 5th American city to host the Olympic Games; only the 3rd to hold a Summer Olympic Games.
- It will remain the last time the United States has hosted the Summer Olympics until at least 2024.
- 24 countries made their Olympic debut, including 11 ex-Soviet countries that competed as part of the Unified Team in 1992. Russia competed independently for the first time since 1912.
- 271 total events in 26 sports. 5 events were new for the Atlanta Games: Softball, beach volleyball, mountain biking, women’s soccer/football and lightweight rowing.
- Provided a world stage for a far more diverse collection of athletes than any in history.
Men’s gymnastics at the Georgia Dome
Some of the Outstanding Athletic Results
- The USA took home the most medals. 44 Gold, 32 Silver, 25 Bronze, for a total of 101 medals. Followed by: Russia, Germany, China, France, Italy, Australia, Cuba, Ukraine, and South Korea in 10th place by number of medals won.
- Kerri Strug vaulted with an injured ankle, landing on one foot, winning the United States women’s gymnastics team its first gold medal. Shannon Miller won the gold medal on the balance beam, the first time an American gymnast had won an individual gold medal.
- Amy Van Dyken won four gold medals in the Olympic swimming pool, the first American woman to win four titles in a single Olympiad.
- Carl Lewis won his 4th long jump gold medal at the age of 35.
- Andre Agassi won a gold medal in tennis, which would eventually make him the first man and second singles player overall (after his wife, Steffi Graf) to win the career Golden Slam, which consists of an Olympic gold medal and victories in the singles tournaments held at professional tennis’ four major events (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open).
- The US men’s and women’s swimming teams were among the top in numbers of medals won: Amy Van Dyken won 4 gold medals. Gary Hall, Jr. won 2 gold and 2 silver. Angel Martino won 2 gold and 2 bronze. Jenny Thompson won 3 gold medals. Josh Davis won 3 gold medals. Amanda Beard won 1 gold, 2 silver. And Whitney Hedgepeth won 1 gold and 2 silver.
- In Diving, Mark Lenzi and Mary Ellen Clark won a bronze medal each.
- The US Synchronized swimming team won the gold medal.
- The US Baseball team won a bronze medal.
- Both Men’s and Women’s American Basketball teams won gold medals
- US Women’s Football team won the gold.
- US Women’s Softball team won the gold.
- A record 79 nations won medals (13 more than in Barcelona), with a record 53 taking at least one gold.
World Records Set:
- Donovan Bailey of Canada won the Track & Field men’s 100 m, setting a new world record of 9.84 seconds at that time.
- Michael Johnson won gold in both the 200 m and 400 m, setting a new world record of 19.32 seconds in the 200 m.
- In Cycling, Andres Collinelli (Italy) set a new world record in the Men’s individual pursuit.
- Deon Hemmings became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal for Jamaica and the West Indies.
- Lee Lai Shan won a gold medal in sailing, the only Olympic medal that Hong Kong ever won as a British colony (1852–1997).
- The US women’s soccer team won the gold medal in the first ever women’s soccer event.
- For the first time, Olympic medals were won by athletes from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burundi, Ecuador, Georgia, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mozambique, Slovakia, Tonga, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
- Atlanta was the first Olympics ever that not a single nation swept all three medals in a single event.
- Josia Thugwane, marathon runner, was the first black South African in Olympic history to win a gold medal.
- Boxer Paea Wolfgramm won a silver medal for Tonga, the first medal for the country– ever.
- Burundi managed to send its first delegation to the Games despite the terrible conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis raging back home
- Nigeria beat Argentina, becoming the first African nation to win any international soccer competition.
I had, just a half hour ago, enjoyably walked through Olympic Park as, sadly, along with the great events, came a terrifying and sad one.
Eight days after the Opening of the Games, the Olympic Park bombing killed spectator Alice Hawthorne, wounded 111 others, and caused the death of Melih Uzunyol by heart attack. Atlanta, the nation, and the world, mourned.
Respectfully, however, the Games must go on…
The Games of the XXVI Olympiad Closing Ceremony
After the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra opened the show, Boyz II Men sang an R&B version of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Then the Morehouse College Glee Club performed “Faster, Higher, Stronger”.
Then, Gloria Estefan, and the Morehouse Glee Club livened the crowd up with a great performance of the song “Reach”, one of the official songs of the Atlanta Olympic Games.
Before Samaranch declared the games as officially closed, 25 Grammy Award winner and iconic performance artist Stevie Wonder memorialized the victims of the Cenntennial Olympic Park bombing by singing John Lennon’s “Imagine”, which brought the “house” down.
Another highlight was 10-year-old Rachel McMullin singing Celine Dion’s “The Power of a Dream”, while 600 Atlanta children ranging from ages six though twelve joined in.
After Georgia native and country singer Trisha Yearwood sang “the Flame”, a capella, the Olympic flame was slowly extinguished.
But, Atlanta’s greatest party couldn’t end without more partying!
After a flamboyant New Orleans-style funeral with jazz music,
all of the athletes danced while Gloria Estefan, Sheila E., Faith Hill, B.B. King, Wynton Marsalis, Georgia’s Little Richard, the Pointer Sisters, Tito Puente, Buckwheat Zydeco, Trisha Yearwood and Stevie Wonder all sang a tribute to American Pop Music.
Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC president said farewell,
“Today, the dream has come true for Atlanta, which will be forever an Olympic city. It has come true for an absolute record number of athletes and spectators, who have enjoyed the fabulous competitions.”
The Atlanta Games were over and the years-long hangover made everything seem quite boring after our Olympics.
Some of the media gave Atlanta less-than-fabulous reviews. Some complained about transportation, but thousands of us had no problems whatsoever. In fact, the highways and streets were free-flowing as so many people took off work to stay home, or went out-of-town.
Perhaps we used too many temporary structures, but we didn’t have the government money to waste, that Barcelona, Beijing, London, and Sochi did.
That was OK. We had already proved ourselves.
Atlanta had hosted the Centennial Games of the XXVI Olympiad.
It was spectacular. Thousands of people loved their experiences. I know I did.
And the whole world got to know some things about Atlanta. It would never be unknown again.
After the Games: Olympic Venues
As planned, the Olympic Stadium was transformed into Turner Field for the Braves and was given as a gift to the City of Atlanta by Ted Turner. Within two years from now, construction will begin transforming Olympic Stadium/Turner Field into a college football stadium for Georgia State University with a huge redevelopment of the entire area surrounding.
The Velodrome at Stone Mountain was dismantled and sold to another city.
The Georgia Dome has been used effectively for twenty years, but it will be razed in 2018. We are now building that iconic stadium, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which will be used by the Falcons and Atlanta United FC, and for many other local, national, and global events. The new Stadium probably would not have been built without the overwhelming success of the Atlanta Olympics. Most importantly, today, sponsors have the money to strengthen the previously crime-ridden low-income neighborhoods of Vine City and English Avenue, adjacent to the new stadium.
Centennial Olympic Park has turned out to be Atlanta’s jewel and city center, used by locals and tourists alike, with year-round events.
It was expanded just after the Olympics, as planned. And will be expanded again and updated starting next year. It has become a landmark and is now home to the Georgia Aquarium, one of the world’s largest and most successful. Also, the park is home to Atlanta Sky Ferris Wheel, the interactive World of Coca-Cola and College Football Hall of Fame museums, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which is not only a beautiful, thought-provoking museum, but works to educate and create greater human rights globally.
The Swimming and Diving Pavilion at Georgia Tech was enclosed and expanded to become one of the premier collegiate swimming natatoriums and recreational centers in the country, and just hosted the Atlanta Classic Swim Meet with over 20 Olympic swimmers from colleges all over the US, preparing for the Rio Olympics this summer.
The Olympic Village residential towers were converted to college dorms serving Georgia State and Georgia Tech students well. The development has been fitted with a striking modernist addition for campus dining.
After the Games: the City’s Built Environment
Developers and investors in the US and from all over the world took note of Atlanta’s phenomenal potential, as viewed during the Games. Hong Kong investors have a sweet spot, specifically for Downtown Atlanta. Germany, China and Japan are well-invested in Atlanta.
Many Americans, from all over the country have moved to Atlanta in the years after the Games. Thanks, Olympus!
Atlanta experienced another major building boom in the years from 2000-2009, despite the World Trade Center disaster.
Aerial Views of Atlanta from 1985-2016
1990, City of Atlanta’s population less than 400,000– with the metro area just below 3 million
2016, City of Atlanta’s population less than 500,000– with the metro area just below 6 million
The 2008 real estate bust hit Atlanta very hard, but Atlanta has diversified more than ever.
Starting in 2014, Atlanta is “major boom city” yet again…
You can read my other blog posts for the latest Atlanta building boom, and, it is exciting!
You’ve heard and read about them– the Atlanta BeltLine, the Atlanta Streetcar, Ponce City Market and Food Hall, Krog Street Market, Shops at Buckhead Atlanta, the Porsche Experience Center at Atlanta Aerotropolis, bursting film studios, Atlanta tech, Historic Building reuse…