By Maggie Lee
On New Year’s Day in 1848, the perhaps 2,000 people of the little settlement of Atlanta celebrated as an official city for the first time. Just three days before, the governor’s signature on a charter created a tiny city centered Downtown.
Few buildings the first Atlantans may have known still survive. But a map and building tour with architects and historians of Atlanta can show where we’ve been — from the first university halls to suburban growth to building upward Downtown.
We can get a visual idea of when and where Atlantans have built and rebuilt, on this map, which matches a construction year to about 118,000 homes, offices, shops and other buildings.
Take the data with a little grain of salt, however. It comes from records created, and sometimes lost or damaged over more than 100 years: tax records, maps, even aerial photography, gathered by humans and computers in two counties for generations. Especially where buildings are very old or close together, there are some shortcomings. Read the data FAQ here.
We also asked some Atlanta architects, historians and preservationists to pick out some of the buildings they think are most worth seeing, for beauty, for history, for any reason. Those follow the map.
In some parts of Atlanta, newer construction has replaced old, especially closer to Downtown.
(On a small screen? Here’s a bigger view.)
Examples of early Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman buildings
Vine City and AUC
Gaines Hall (1869, AU) and Fountain Hall (1882, AU)
North and south sides of 643 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. SW
Knowles Hall (1884, AU)
Beckwith St. SW
Graves Hall (1889, Morehouse)
Near the corner of Lowery Boulevard and Atlanta Student Movement Boulevard
Spelman’s Rockefeller, Packard, Giles, Morehouse-James, MacVicar halls and Reynolds Cottage (1886 – 1901)
Along The Oval, near Spelman Lane
Dating as far back as 1869, some of Atlanta’s oldest buildings also sit in an unusually large collection, on the adjacent campuses of Atlanta (now Clark Atlanta) University, and Morehouse and Spelman colleges.
“I think the architecture is outstanding for this period of time,” said architect Arthur Clement of Silverman Construction. He’s worked across the state on college builds and renovations and is now working on a book about the architecture and campus development of Georgia’s historically black colleges and universities.
Architecture, like fashion, goes in phases, he said.
The fashion then for folks building multipurpose educational buildings, was red brick with a range of influences: Italianate, Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival.
John D. “Rockefeller used his personal architect … to design some of the [Spelman] buildings, Morehouse-James Hall, Reynolds Cottage which is where the president resides; you’ve got the first African-American hospital, MacVicar,” said Clement.
“When you look at the plight of African-Americans in Atlanta, you can’t not look at these places, campuses, that tended to be the largest areas that were built for them, that they had control and use of in a segregated society,” he said.
But Gaines Hall has been damaged for years. It’s roofless after a 2015 fire and has been part of a custody battle between the city and Clark Atlanta University.
Many more buildings are discussed in the Atlanta University Center Historic District documentation on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Wren’s Nest
The West End museum known as The Wren’s Nest started life in 1870 as a farm house. But the Queen Anne style Victorian home seen today dates from 1884 renovations during the time it was owned by Joel Chandler Harris, writer of the Uncle Remus folk tales.
It’s a beautiful building that evolved from something much simpler, said Derek Anderson, a historian by day, who with his wife and a friend run the Architectural Splendor Instagram account.
“It’s located in … one of my favorite parts of town. West End in general I would say is a neighborhood that has some really incredible architecture,” he said.
A horse-drawn trolley line reached West End from Downtown by 1871, helping make it a popular white middle- and upper-class residential suburb. Many fine old homes are still standing and are open sometimes on a tour of homes. Check West End Neighborhood Development to read more about the neighborhood, tour dates; or just have a walk around.
Cabbagetown homes and mill
The area just east of Oakland Cemetery began its life as a mill village in the 1880s and 1890s. The buildings of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills complex were put up between 1895 and 1922, according to the city’s application to put Cabbagetown on the National Register of Historic Places. The homes broadly get newer from the west (about 1885) to the east (the 1920s.)
“You can kind of see the progression of the different houses of different sizes and different styles in the neighborhood, depending on when they were built, but then also … depending on whether you were a mill foreman or a maybe a worker just a little lower on the totem pole,” said Derek Anderson, the historian.
Rhodes Memorial Hall
In 1904, Rhodes Hall joined the mansions of Peachtree Street as the home of furniture magnate A.G. Rhodes and his family. From electric light bulbs to stained glass to the huge estate on which it sat, it exuded opulence. Very few Georgia residences were ever built in such a style.
It also happens to be in the hands of an excellent steward, The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit. Their office is there, but is also available for event rental.
Consider yourself invited in by Trust President and CEO Mark McDonald. “If you haven’t been there, you need to see it because we just finished an interior restoration and new landscape,” he said. It’s open Saturdays, but you can tour at other times by appointment. Check the website for details.
Complete by 1910, the Herndon Home would never house the woman who designed it, Adrienne Herndon. One-half of an Atlanta power couple, she died just before construction was done on the opulent home she was to share with her husband, Alonzo Herndon.
He was a man born into slavery who made himself into a magnate, first in the barbering business, later in insurance. She was an actress and a professor at Atlanta University.
The home-turned-museum has a great neoclassical revival style, said Derek Anderson, the historian. And it’s notable for another reason, he pointed out: Adrienne having been the designer. “Women didn’t often get the credit back then for that sort of thing,” he said.
Planning a visit? It’s on the same block as Gaines Hall and Fountain Hall is one block south.
Odd Fellows Building and Auditorium
Finished in 1912 and 1913 respectively, the Odd Fellows Building and Auditorium rose at a time when Jim Crow was at full strength in the South, legalizing the distant second-class status of black Americans relative to whites. The buildings and their histories evidence some African-American coping strategies in a hostile world: self-help, entrepreneurship, accumulating wealth, spending wealth at black-owned businesses and even elevating skilled labor to a literal work of art.
“Through Jim Crow, it was a space for blacks to go to the theater, they didn’t have to sit in a segregated place,” said Nedra Deadwyler, founder of Civil Bikes, a tour company that focuses on history, art, culture and Civil Rights sites. “There were businesses; entrepreneurs could have storefronts, offices, from banks to the pharmacy, an optometrist, a haberdashery. It was a center of entrepreneurship, a commercial and social space.”
The Odd Fellows, one of several fraternal organizations with Auburn Avenue offices, raised the money for the buildings and used the proceeds for the Odd Fellows Endowment Fund. That fund paid benefits to seriously ill members and death benefits to their widows, according to the city’s application to the National Register of Historic Places. (Atlanta Independent newspaper editor Benjamin Jefferson Davis Sr. spearheaded building project. Check out scans of the paper from September and October 1913 for his coverage.)
Deadwyler pointed out that sculptures outside Odd Fellows show people who have recognizably African features.
“Their hands are at work … they’re holding mallets and hammers. It really goes to speak to the ethos of the builders, the Order of the Odd Fellows,” she said.
Philip Shutze works: Spring Hill Chapel and The Temple
Spring Hill Chapel (1928)
1020 Spring St. NW
The Temple (1931)
1589 Peachtree St. NW
Philip Trammell Shutze, born in 1890, was already renowned in his lifetime for his elegant work. In Atlanta alone, his existing buildings include the Swan House at the Atlanta History Center and the Goodrum House at 320 West Paces Ferry Road.
His H.M. Patterson & Son Spring Hill Chapel opened in 1928. The Midtown mortuary is endangered now because it’s on such a large piece of property, said Mark McDonald, from the Georgia Trust.
“I would say people need to see that one because it may not be with us much longer,” he said.
Shutze also designed The Temple, which opened in 1931 as a new home for Atlanta’s oldest Jewish congregation, a force in pushing for a more educated and fair city.
The Temple itself was bombed in 1958, because of some combination of anti-Semitism and Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s vocal support for black civil rights, racial integration and his friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
History is one, but only one, reason why it’s among the buildings to see for architect Bill Clark, incoming president of the Atlanta chapter of the American Institute of Architects and Atlanta office president of Stevens & Wilkinson.
“Not only was it designed by Philip Shutze, but it’s timeless. And there’s just so much incredible history there,” said Clark, who has worked on renovations to the classical-inspired red brick edifice.
“I think some cities can be judged in some respects by their public architecture, their religious architecture and their museums. And this is just a wonderful example of architecture in the religious realm,” he said.
Georgia Tech: early examples of Modern Architecture
Hinman Research Building (1939)
723 Cherry St. NW
East Architecture Building (1952)
245 4th St. NW
Sterling Price Gilbert Sr. Library (1953)
266 4th St. NW
One of the first places in Georgia to see the influence of a key modern design school from Europe was another school: Georgia Tech.
P.M. Heffernan taught at Georgia Tech starting in 1938, and he was made director of the school of architecture in 1956.
Heffernan’s time as director of the school of architecture saw a shift from Beaux Arts, classical style education to a more modern approach influenced by the Bauhaus, said architect Nathan Koskovich, principal of Koskovich Architecture and board chair of Atlanta’s Architecture and Design Center, a nonprofit that aims to promote high quality design and connect Atlanta’s design culture to the world.
Due to the purchasing rules of the time, Heffernan and other professors at Georgia Tech were able to design buildings on campus. “This lead to Georgia Tech having many of Georgia’s earliest examples of Modern Architecture,” he said.
Rollins Inc. corporate office
It’s easy to speed by the long, low Rollins office building on Piedmont Road by the MARTA rail yard. But if you don’t slow down or you’re not on foot, you’ll miss a fantastic example of the midcentury modern aesthetic, said Scott Morris, a historian who works for New South Associates.
The Orkin pest control corporation moved into their newly constructed headquarters in 1963. The sign out front now says “Rollins” as well, for the company that took over Orkin. The building still looks like the future that The Jetsons promised us.
Morris admits to having peeked in the windows and reports period touches like wood paneling and red carpet.
“It’s this cool, interesting, modern for the period, Modernist architecture, corporate campus that really is representative of that era, of the 1960s, of commercial and economic development for the company and for the time period,” he said.
Going to visit? Pair it with Henri Jova’s nearby ’round bank’ at 2160 Monroe Dr. NE.
The Hyatt Regency opened Downtown in 1967. A few years later, a high school boy from Tennessee visited.
“It just totally blew me away, coming from a small town, I had never seen anything like that before,” said Bill Clark. It cemented his plan to become an architect.
It was an early building from one of the world’s best-known architect-developers: John Portman. Born in South Carolina, his distinctive buildings tower blocks and blocks of the city where he grew up and made his career: Peachtree Center, AmericasMart, Westin Peachtree Plaza and the Marriott Marquis.
Portman’s Hyatt took a modern approach to the age-old concept of an atrium: an open space inside a building. But in the Hyatt’s case, it’s a stunning open space 22 stories high, ringed by halls, pierced by elevators and covered with a skylight.
“At the time it was cutting-edge, and pretty risky,” said Clark. “What an important building in our city too.”
Atlanta Central Library
Opened in 1980, the Central Library and headquarters of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System has its fans and those who aren’t so much.
It looks like a jail, said Robb Pitts in 2016, who was then out office but is about to be sworn in as the Fulton County Commission chair. That was amid talk of downsizing or closing the library and replacing it with a new structure.
But the folks of the Architecture and Design Center are among its fans. They started a petition urging the library board to protect it from any demolition or damaging renovation.
It’s by architect Marcel Breuer. The Central Library wasn’t only his last work, but his greatest, said Nathan Koskovich, the architect who chairs ADC.
“While the monumental style of the building is foreign to a lot of people, I think the lack of proper maintenance, and some unfortunate renovations have really muted the qualities of the building,” he said.
The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change
Today’s Sweet Auburn is vibrant, many of its landmarks are preserved, and there are monuments to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in several parts of the city. But it wasn’t always like that. The road to all that goes right through a 1981 building.
What’s now the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change started in 1968, when an assassin made Coretta Scott King a widow and she began efforts to memorialize her husband and his work.
“To Coretta Scott King’s credit, she used the King Center as a way to revitalize that neighborhood,” said Arthur Clement, the architect.
He said the ensemble of buildings is important in one way for the design by J. Max Bond. The Center houses archives, an auditorium, exhibits and offices under its barrel-shaped roofs and within its brick walls, which wrap around the outdoor fountain and crypt. But the Center is also important for all its preservation and memorial efforts.
When Coretta King got started, there was no national historic site, King’s birth home wasn’t open to visitors and there was no King holiday.
“Coretta Scott King had an uphill battle to build the Center, to get the holiday established. We come along now and accept that as a fait accompli but it was not,” said Clement.
Architect Richard Meier’s High Museum opened in 1983; in 2005, an addition by architect Renzo Piano opened.
They move the city further along a journey, in Bill Clark’s judgment.
“It goes back to, you judge cities on their public architecture, their nonprofits, and their art and culture,” he said. Atlanta is somewhere in the middle of a journey, he said, and doesn’t compare to places like New York and Chicago. But the formation of a museum and the construction of such a home for it is important.
“We had two of the basically the worlds most significant architects … just creating a culturally rich, wonderful building. It continues just to get better and better,” he said.
Clement adds the adjacent Woodruff Arts Center and the outdoor space created among the buildings into his reasons for visiting the complex.
“You go up there and it’s an active area, they have artwork, I think that’s a very successful example of buildings working together to enhance the life of the city, where people can come and congregate, do different things,” he said.
Krog Street tunnel
Cabbagetown and Inman Park
It’s true, the Krog Street tunnel isn’t a building, but it is a landmark.
Folks have been probably been tagging the tunnel for decades. But a look through the AJC stacks suggests a turn from hasty vandalism to painters of a more expressive frame of mind came in the last years of the 20th century. The tunnel itself dates from 1913, according to a carving along the Wylie Street side.
The art and messages in the tunnel change every time someone shows up with a paintbrush or a new stencil: a shrimp with the head of Donald Trump, a grinning gold-toothed rat, blue Frankenstein with headphones, an announcement about a holiday market. And if you’re not driving, you’re probably taking pictures.
Marc Johnson admits the first time he saw the Krog Street tunnel, he, well, thought it was an “eyesore.” But now, the architect at Fitzgerald Collaborative Group said he’s grown to appreciate it.
“It just strikes me, I love the energy,” Johnson said.
National Center for Civil and Human Rights
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights opened in 2014, houses exhibits not about the distant, unknown past, but about things that are well within living memory: mugshots of Freedom Riders, a lunch counter sit-in simulation.
Many visitors probably feel a personal connection. Architect Marc Johnson does.
For him, the Center came with a feeling of personal responsibility too. He worked on it, tackling problems like how to make sure papers of Martin Luther King Jr. are protected from any threat of damage.
“Working on that was protecting my bedtime stories,” said Johnson. “Just, as an African-American kid growing up in Los Angeles, I’d hear a lot of stories from my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, some of those stories manifested visually in the gallery of the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I took that personally, ‘I need to protect this.'”
Want to read about more buildings? Check out a longer version of this story.