By Maria Saporta
Forty years ago, Atlanta faced its biggest preservation battle in its history.
The telephone company — Southern Bell — wanted to build a new headquarters building on the site of the Fox Theatre. They claimed the neglected theatre had outlived its usefulness and needed to be demolished to make way for a fancy new skyscraper.
And so Atlanta’s preservation movement was born with the passionate “Save the Fox” movement that began at the grassroots with students from Georgia Tech and other young activists to progressive business leaders who worked behind the scenes to come up with a solution that saved the Fox and permitted Southern Bell to build its tower next door.
One of those activists was Beauchamp Carr, a young banker who quit his job to volunteer full-time for the Save the Fox campaign by raising funds for the effort. Carr went on to become campaign coordinator for the annual Woodruff Arts Center campaign, a role he had for about 35 years – raising $177 million for the organization.
But throughout the decades, Carr has always had a passion for preserving Atlanta’s history.
This past Friday night, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation honored Carr at its annual gala, holding the event at the elegant Patterson-Carr home in west Buckhead, where Beauchamp Carr lived while growing up.
Friends of the Fox Theatre were present to honor Carr for being part of the movement that created the nonprofit group — Atlanta Landmarks Inc. — that was instrumental in saving the Fabulous Fox.
In many ways, the Save the Fox movement was the pinnacle of Atlanta’s preservation movement — never before or since has the city rallied around its physical history in the way that it did for the Fox Theatre.
Other buildings deserved to capture the city’s passion — Terminal Station, Union Station, the Carnegie Library, the Loew’s Grand, the Farlinger, Pershing Point….I could go on and on. And yet we’re a city that turns our buildings to dust.
The Atlanta Preservation Center, which has been organizing the Phoenix Files Celebration this month, held a program at its L.P. Grant home in Grant Park on Sunday titled: “Atlanta: 150 Years of History in our Architecture.”
The bottom line of the discussion was simply this. Our city may be more than 150 years old, but there is little physical evidence of our history that dates back more than a few decades.
“Atlanta’s history has been remade every 40 years or so,” said Randy Gue, curator of Modern Political and Historical Collections – Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory University.
And what history Atlanta does have can be misleading. For example, Gue asked the audience whether the 1996 Olympic cauldron is in its original location. The answer is no. But there is no sign or plaque that tells someone that the cauldron has been moved.
“That is a metaphor of how the city plays fast and loose with its history,” Gue said. “People have no idea that’s not its original location.”
Much of Atlanta’s history is ignored or hidden. Gue mentioned that the unofficial mayor of Auburn Avenue, John Wesley Dobbs, lived nearby. His house is still standing, but the only remnant letting people know it was his home is that the Dobbs name is engraved on the stone step in front of the house.
“Atlanta is a boom town,” explained David Yoakley Mitchell, founder and president of the M.H. Mitchell Inc., a nonprofit that supports the preservation of Southern history. “We have an uncomfortable relationship with our history here. We do like to move forward. You can constantly reinvent yourself.”
Jeremy Katz, the archivist for Atlanta’s Breman Museum, said that is partly an American phenomenon of coming to a new land and staring anew. “You’re trying to shed the past,” Katz said. “Out with the old; in with the new.”
Atlanta’s Jewish community was no different,” Katz said about the thriving Jewish community that lived south of downtown. “Jews have been like the rest of Atlanta and town down their past. That’s why we are today – to save our past.”
Back in the early 1900s, Atlanta had fewer than 100,000 residents. Today, the Atlanta region has about six million residents.
“It’s a transient city,” Katz said. “People don’t have connections.”
And the city has played into those anchorless feelings. Instead of preserving the historic Equitable Building, Atlanta saved some of its columns — keeping three of them on its original site where the Trust Company Tower was built next to what is now Woodruff Park.
The audience on Sunday then got into an animated discussion about the different places where the other Equitable columns could be found in Atlanta.
Instead of saving the beautiful Carnegie library next to Margaret Mitchell Square, the building was torn down and bits and pieces of its were recreated into a little enclave at Baker Street and Peachtree Street — blocks away from the original location of the library. Other parts of library are lying around the old prison farm in DeKalb County, someone said.
Atlanta also likes to just keep facades of buildings — a veneer of our past, or maybe just the front third of a building — teasing people of what may have been there but no longer exists.
And then there are the famous bricks or stones that have been kept of buildings that are long gone — as though keeping a brick or a stone satisfies our sense of history.
A level of discontent and anger began to build during the discussion Sunday.
Mitchell said that many people were upset when during the last snowstorm, the roof of the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) across from the Piedmont Driving Club fell in. He felt like asking those people: “What did you ever do to change that?” In his mind, apathy has taken over, and our culture has to change. We have to care about our history.
The speakers mentioned several other buildings that they believed are at risk, including the Herndon Home mansion on the westside as well as the Morris Brown campus. The big danger for so many buildings is demolition by neglect.
“We are a city that remakes itself all the time,” said Gue, quoting another historian who observed that “office buildings are to Atlanta what steel mills are to Birmingham.”
Then Gue paused. “The Fox — it raised people’s awareness.”
Today the Fox is one of the most successful theatres in the United States. It stands as a great model for Atlanta — preserving the past does pay.