Two architects contributing to Atlanta's art
Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam stand next to a model of the new home for MOCA that will be built at the Goat Farm. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Two world-renowned architects — husband and wife team Merrill Elam and Mack Scogin — are giving back to the city where they learned their craft.

Elam and Scogin have designed the new home of MOCA GA that will be built at the Goat Farm Arts Center off Howell Mill Road, moving from MOCA’s current home on Bennett Street. A fundraising campaign is currently underway to build the new headquarters.

It makes sense. Elam is a longtime MOCA board member, and the firm helped design the current space of the contemporary art museum.

But the story goes much deeper. It goes back to when they both studied architecture at Georgia Tech, where they became exposed to the world of art and design.

Scogin grew up in Avondale with parents who decided to design their own home. Neither of them were architects, but they did like to build, create and collect items for their surroundings. It was an idyllic childhood, and upon graduating from high school in 1961, Scogin enrolled at Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture (a word he pronounced as “arCHitecture.”)

Merrill Elam pointing to a model of the proposed MOCA home hanging on a wall at the current home on Bennett Street. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Elam, who grew up in Tennessee first in Nashville and later on a farm about 30 miles away, also was exposed to crafts and wood furniture through her parents. She also graduated from high school in 1961. At first, she thought she might be a fashion designer, but she wanted a college degree. So, she decided to study architecture at Georgia Tech.

On one of the first days at school, she was sitting on the bleachers at Tech’s Naval Armory, filling out admission forms in longhand to declare her major.

“I was trying to figure out how to spell architect, and it was this person kind of sitting down from me and behind me,” Elam said. “I turned around and asked him: ‘How do you spell out architecture?’ It was Mack.”

Elam was only one of 30 women to enroll at Georgia Tech that year — there were about 100 women in the whole student body. But the architecture students, including Scogin, made her feel welcome. 

“The fact is, it was obvious that Merrill, right from day-one, had talent,” Scogin said. “I think we all befriended her because we could copy stuff her stuff.”

Later, Scogin described Elam as “the only person in the class that had any talent.”

“That’s not true,” Elam protested.

“But no matter what she did, it was a mess,” Scogin said. “That’s all I remember. Damn, she can’t even draw within the lines. I mean, how stupid is that?”

Spending time with Scogin and Elam is a bit like going to a comedy show. The two comfortably play off each other in a familiar way that comes from decades of working together and being married to each other.

For me, our time was especially meaningful because both of them had been at Georgia Tech when my father, I.E. Saporta, was teaching at the School of Architecture. We were able to wander down memory lane. Elam actually remembered that my sister and I wore pigtails and Mary Jane shoes while hanging around campus.

“Your father was the most exotic person I had ever met by far,” Scogin said. “I mean, he spoke foreign languages, for God’s sake. He knew about places like Europe. He was an exotic individual. He wasn’t the only one there, but he was particularly exotic in so many ways — the way he dressed, the way he talked…”

For both Elam and Scogin, Georgia Tech helped open their eyes to the world — helping them appreciate the way art and architecture are intertwined in life.

Elam remembered one of the professors who taught the history of art holding a package under his arm wrapped in brown paper. He unwrapped the package to show the students an original Dali painting.

“It was the first time that I had ever seen that kind of painting on the canvas – a painting of that caliber,” Elam said. “There was so much learning. It was totally fascinating. I was trying to take it all in. Everything was about learning.”

Scogin also became fascinated with architecture. “You didn’t have to memorize it,” he said. “You could make stuff up. Wow, that’s right down my alley.”

Annette Cone-Skelton with Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam at the current MOCA location. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

All the architecture students studied closely together, including Scogin and Elam. But it took years and years for the two to become a couple because, at the time, Scogin was married to his highschool sweetheart.

Eventually, Scogin joined the architectural firm of Heery & Heery, founded by George Heery, who was a tremendous influence on Scogin. Eventually, Elam also joined the firm, where she spent 12 years. It was then that Scogin and Elam got married.

“The whole Heery experience was eccentric — way off the charts,” Scogin said. “George Heery was a genius. He had the kind of business sense that most architects didn’t have. He promised to absolutely guarantee time and cost control of projects. He had the wisdom to bring the architect’s role to another level of responsibility.”

One of the more interesting projects they worked on was the Georgia Power headquarters, which opened in 1981 and was one of the most energy-efficient buildings at the time.

George Heery also volunteered Scogin and Elam to donate their skills to the High Museum of Art by designing a series of exhibits for children — building a relationship with director Gudmund Vigtel, which lasted for more than a decade. 

“It completely opened up another whole realm to us. We had been doing factories, and all of a sudden, we were faced with very conceptual conditions,” Scogin said. “We learned how to. Use color. We learned how to use light. We learned how to make spaces.”

When Scogin, Elam and a couple of other Heery associates decided to establish their own firm in 1984, Vigtel hired them to do the interior design of the High Museum at the Georgia Pacific Center.

The intersection of arts and architecture followed Elam and Scogin throughout their careers. Scogin ended up becoming a professor of architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where Elam also was a visiting professor.

The two became highly-sought after architects for projects across the United States and the world, earning countless awards and recognitions.

Oddly enough, little of their work has been in Atlanta.

Atlanta still is not our base. We’ve done some work here, but very little compared to most people,” said Scogin, who described Atlanta as a city where there was a sense of opportunity in the air. “It is probably the most connected city in the world physically by plane. It always was a place of opportunity.”

Elam said they were fortunate to have been part of Georgia Tech and Atlanta when an incredible generation of architects were making their mark — John Portman, Joe Amisano, Henri Jova and George Heery, among others. Although those architects had national and international reputations, Atlanta has not been recognized as an architectural city.

“One thing Atlanta has done is produce some really important individuals,” Scogin said. “They’ve made a difference in the world.” 

Mack Scoggin with an uncharacteristic serious look. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Scogin and Elam said it’s the leaders that have set Atlanta apart — Martin Luther King Jr., Ted Turner, Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank, the Historically Black Colleges & Universities, and major companies like Coca-Cola and Delta.

Their contribution to MOCA has been rooted in wanting to elevate Atlanta’s profile in the arts. Elam just celebrated her 80th birthday, and Scogin will turn 80 in November.

For them, the new building is symbolic. A key architectural feature will be a signature lantern that will serve as a beacon for the arts. The building is their gift to the city.

“It’s the generosity of the community where things are accessible,” Scogin said. “You can go there and experience art the way you want. It’s a serious museum. The idea is to capture something here that’s generous to the public but casual where it’s not a stuck-up building.”

For Elam, it’s about promoting the work of artists in a special place.

“Everything is creative,” she said. “The idea is that the building will participate in a contemporary way with the past of the site.”

MOCA already has raised $10.4 million towards the development of the new headquarters, but it still needs to raise $4 million by Feb. 1. The MOCA board has contributed significantly to the project with the same spirit shared by Elam and Scogin.

“It’s such a gift to the city – to have a building designed by internationally famous architects,” said Annette Cone-Skelton, MOCA’s president and CEO. “People will be able to see us, and that lantern will serve like signage.”

Model of the new MOCA museum that will save a large tree on the site. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

Join the Conversation


  1. Two of the finest and most talented people around. Not only amazing world renowned architects but also sneaky good tennis players. MOCA will be a special place for sure.

  2. Atlanta has definitely produced some wonderful people who have made a difference in the city and beyond Mack … most certainly, you and Merrell are among the members of that group. Thank you both for your commitment to this MOCA project. The design is a significant contribution to the arts. Loved this article by Maria Saporta. We architecture (spelling?) students at Georgia Tech all enjoyed her father – Ike was unique. We were indeed fortunate to be introduced to the world beyond our own Atlanta backyard by talented and passionate instructors at Tech. Best wishes to you both from KC and me here in Tampa. VR/ Buddy

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.