Atlanta History Center looks to future with capital campaign, new look and new CEO

By Maria Saporta
Friday, November 18, 2011

A major transformation is under way at the Atlanta History Center.

First, the center has initiated an international design competition to create a whole new look for its building on West Paces Ferry Road while improving several of its physical offerings. It has picked five design finalists, and the Atlanta History Center plans to select the winning architect and design by Dec. 1.

The center also is in the midst of a $27.4 million capital campaign to implement the new design. The campaign also will refresh and modernize the center’s Atlanta History Museum. The campaign includes $5 million to go toward the center’s endowment.

So far, the campaign has raised nearly $10.6 million toward its goal, and it has just received a $5 million challenge grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.

And third, the center recently launched a search for a new president and CEO to succeed Sal Cilella, who will be stepping down in March.

In short, this is a pivotal moment for the center, which can trace its origins back to 1926 when 14 Atlantans chartered the Atlanta Historical Society to help preserve the city’s history.

“This is a strategic plan for the 21st century,” said Lillian Giornelli, chair and CEO of the Cousins Foundation, who is co-chairing the center’s fundraising campaign with Sheffield Hale, chief counsel of the American Cancer Society. “This campaign is laying the foundation, not just for the next five years but for the next 20 years.”

Since the West Paces Ferry building was constructed in 1993 with 84,000 square feet, there have been several additions over the years. Currently the center is 144,000 square feet. Instead of just adding another wing, the center’s board decided about two years ago to do a feasibility study for a comprehensive redesign of the center.

“We wanted to get a fresh design for the façade of the building,” said Jackson McQuigg, vice president of properties for the Atlanta History Center. “Our Atlanta History exhibit was outdated, our street entrance was never what we wanted it to be. We thought an architectural design competition would be the way to go.”

The Cousins Foundation provided a $100,000 grant so the center could conduct a competitive architectural design competition.

“One thing we are about as a family is great architecture,” Giornelli said. “The Atlanta History Center sits between the commercial center of Buckhead and the residential area of Buckhead. We need something that is iconic, respectful and inviting.”

The center received 180 registrations from architects and more than 35 firms submitted designs from across the globe including Mexico, China, Portugal, Ireland, Poland, Spain and Austria, as well as 11 from the United States.

The Atlanta History Center then hired ai3 Inc., an Atlanta-based multidisciplinary design studio, to help pick the five finalists for the center’s “An Opportunity to Reshape History — Transforming the Museum” design competition.

The scope included re-creating the visitor experience, reshaping the museum, redesigning the permanent Atlanta history exhibit and reconstructing the entrance and grounds of the 33-acre site.

The five designs that made the short list were: patterhndesign of St. Louis; a team from MSTSD Inc. of Atlanta and Kallman McKinnell & Wood Architects of Boston; Stanley Beaman & Sears of Atlanta; Pfeiffer Partners Architects of New York City; and a team from Victor Vines Architecture and Kenneth Hobgood Architects of Raleigh.

On Nov. 17, the center invited its “stakeholders” to hear from the various architects who would share their visions for the center’s future. A winner will be announced Dec. 1.

The $27.4 million fundraising campaign also is moving forward with the help of the Coxe, Curry & Associates. The Woodruff Foundation’s $5 million grant is an anchor gift, which will become available to close out the $22 million capital campaign.

“We have raised about $5 million on our own including $1 million from The Coca-Cola Co.,” said Cheri Snyder, the center’s vice president of development. “We need to raise $12 million by the end of 2012 as a condition of the Woodruff grant.”

Snyder said it has a prospect list of more than $32 million for that portion of the campaign.

A complimentary $5 million endowment campaign also is under way, an effort that’s being chaired by Tommy Hills, former treasurer for the state of Georgia. Snyder said there is a prospect list of $10 million for the endowment portion of the campaign.

Russ Hardin, president of the Woodruff Foundation, said it was time to reinvest in the center and its anchor Atlanta exhibit.

“The current exhibit is dated,” Hardin said. “The technology has been revolutionized since the exhibit was installed. We can do much better. Atlanta has a remarkable history, and the exhibit ought to tell our story in a fitting manner.”

Michael Rose, the center’s executive vice president, said the Atlanta exhibit “will be totally redone.”

The plan is to keep the center open during construction, which would start when 80 percent of the funds have been raised. McQuigg said the goal will be to open the revived facility in the first quarter of 2014.

Meanwhile, the center has hired BoardWalk Consulting LLC to help in its search for a new president and CEO to succeed Cilella. BoardWalk’s Margaret Reiser said the firm currently is casting a wide net for a new leader of the center.

“We think a great city needs a great history center. You need to not only know where you’ve been, but you need to know where you are going,” Giornelli said about the transformation of the center. “This is an important institution. And this is a wonderful opportunity for Atlanta.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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