By Maria Saporta
It’s just plain wrong.
Atlanta’s zero milepost has been moved seven miles away from its foundation near Underground Atlanta where it has been since the 1850s identifying the origins of our city.
The relocation of our zero milepost to the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead feels as though Atlanta’s history has been uprooted. It adds to that all-too-familiar feeling in Atlanta – that our history is transient and that we keep disconnecting history from its physical past.
On Oct. 25 and 26, the Atlanta History Center got a fork lift that moved the seven-foot long zero milepost (most of it anchored underground) from a small building underneath Central Avenue next to the railroad lines that created Atlanta and shipped it to West Paces Ferry Road – far away from any of our historic rail lines.
As soon as I heard the news, I emailed my displeasure to Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center.
To his credit, Hale called me right away. We had a heated discussion about how the Center, charged with treasuring Atlanta’s history, had moved the city’s zero milepost far away from its origins – a place where a town once called “Terminus” was born because of the junction of three different rail lines.
Hale tried to explain that the zero milepost would be protected in its new home and that the Atlanta History Center had given the State of Georgia a replica of the zero mile marker to be placed in Atlanta’s heart.
His arguments failed to convince me. But he did give me hope when he said the State of Georgia retains ownership of the zero milepost. The Atlanta History Center has a five-year renewable license agreement to display the marker in Buckhead.
Steve Stancil, the state properties officer who also is executive director of the Georgia Building Authority, insisted on retaining ownership.
In a phone interview Saturday morning, Stancil admitted he had reservations about moving the zero milepost.
“The Georgia Building Authority still owns the marker,” Stancil said. “We gave them a license agreement. It can be revoked or canceled at any time, and we can move it back to its original position.”
Stancil said he complained “heavily” to his staff about having to move the marker, hoping to keep it in downtown Atlanta. But he couldn’t come up with another good option that would make the zero milepost available to the public.
The eminent rebuilding of Central Avenue meant the state needed to build a new underground exit for its parking garage. And the best spot for that exit was through the small building that housed the marker. The demolition of the building would have left the zero milepost unprotected.
The building dates back several decades to when the state ran the New Georgia Railroad, a tourist train that had a couple of options, including one from downtown to Stone Mountain. When the New Georgia Railroad went out of business, the building that housed the marker “sort of got locked up down there and forgotten,” Stancil said. “Nobody could see it.”
Stancil said he studied the various options, including moving it to a warehouse until it could get a new home. But it would not have been open to the public. The Authority considered moving it to the Georgia Freight Depot, but Stancil said there would have been few opportunities for public viewing.
Then the Georgia Building Authority was approached by Tommy Hills, a former state treasurer, who presented the option of moving the zero mile post to the History Center. There it would be displayed with the historic Texas locomotive in front of the renovated Cyclorama exhibit.
“It was not a knee-jerk decision,” Stancil said. “Our best option was the History Center option More people will see it there than any other place. And it will be very well preserved.”
But if Stancil has his way, the move would be temporary.
“Personally, I didn’t want to move it,” Stancil said. “I would love for it to come back.”
Ideally, Stancil said the marker would be relocated to the city’s actual zero mile mark, where it could be displayed in an interpretive center with a small theater and historic memorabilia – a place where Atlanta’s history could come to life.
Stancil estimated that such a facility might cost between $500,000 to $750,000. “One day when the funds are there, hopefully we can move it back to where it was,” he said.
Ironically, after being ignored for decades, that part of downtown is now a hot spot for redevelopment. Underground Atlanta is being redeveloped by South Carolina-based WRS, and Los Angeles-based CIM is proposing to redevelop the Gulch next to State Farm Arena.
“We have not closed any options with this,” Stancil said. “We retained ownership, and we can bring it back. I would not agree to sell it to the History Center or give it to them.”
Instead, Stancil would like to see the zero milepost included as a destination in either the Underground or Gulch project.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Atlanta History Center actually participated in the effort to reunite the zero mile marker with its historic foundation? After all, the Center could create a lot of good will if it were to have a base in downtown Atlanta. Most city museums around the world are located in the historic centers of their cities.
Meanwhile, Stancil said he was aware by the grassroots efforts by people who fought to keep the zero milepost where it belongs.
“I hate people being upset because I think it will brought back and done right,” Stancil said. “I did the best I could to preserve it, and to keep our options open.”
Let’s hope the Atlanta History Center – working with the city, the state and downtown developers – will right this wrong.