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Columns John Ruch

How landmarking a Midtown park could prevent a repeat of a historical mistake

Midtown's Pershing Point Park, which dates to 1918. (Photo by Atlanta Preservation Center.)

By John Ruch

Some developer grabbing up a City park and knocking down its World War I memorial sounds unthinkable.

And no one currently is proposing such a fate for Midtown’s Pershing Point Park. But the triangular green space at Peachtree and West Peachtree streets has witnessed such devastation of history before, and today its neighborhood is under development pressure for more. Meanwhile, the unthinkable has become the marketable everywhere in a city racing into another era of developer-king misrule like the 80s and 90s before it.

Hence a recent call from the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC) for Pershing Point to join the very short list of City parks protected from destruction by official landmark status.

“There’s a natural assumption that because it exists, therefore it’s safe, which is not the condition at all,” said APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell. Even City-owned properties, he said, are “always eligible for some sort of subversion. And people say it will never happen, and it happens all the time.”

Something of a human Red Bull can, Mitchell tirelessly prods City officials for a landmarking here and there several times a week. And well he should, even on not-immediately-threatened parks. Speculative landmarking makes perfect sense in a town full of speculative development – or worse, speculative demolition, a form of madness that has afflicted the Pershing Point neighborhood before. Back in 1985, the late developer John Williams and partners infamously tore down historic, thriving, mixed-use buildings on the entire block in the hopes of luring a new IBM headquarters to a supposedly attractive vacant lot. The HQ tower, now known as One Atlantic Center, got built a few blocks south instead.

The Pershing Point neighborhood demolition underway circa 1985. (Photo Courtesy Atlanta Preservation Center.)

That was the era of Atlanta bidding on and “winning” (i.e., paying for) the 1988 Democratic National Convention and the 1996 Summer Olympics. Such mega-events’ artificial deadlines, waiving of regular public process and herd mentalities are beloved by developers and guaranteed to displace the poor and working class, minority neighborhoods and countercultural communities, and nearly anything historic that might stand in the way of land-grabbing or posturing as bleeding-edge.

With the BeltLine already serving as a kinder, gentler form of this frenzy, Atlanta is at it again. The co-hosting of the 2026 World Cup has already become a magic wand to wave away citizen input and deliberate process on such notions as the Atlanta Botanical Garden foisting a self-storage facility onto Virginia-Highland. And leaders are stumping hard to get the 2024 DNC, which, like all political conventions and most other mega-events, entails a security-industrial-complex takeover that would make the public safety training center project and “Cop City” protests policing look like a walk in the (bulldozed) park. It was just last year that Westside communities finally regained access to Hemphill waterworks parkland that was fenced off for ’96 Olympics “security.”

In this atmosphere, Pershing Point redevelopment is booming once again, and threatening history once again. Across the street from the park, a giant apartment building is rising at 1441 Peachtree, partly replacing the housing lost to the 1980s IBM pandering.

A stone’s throw north, the historic Winnwood Apartments are being rehabilitated – in tension with a proposal for a towering mixed-use building that would wrap around it. On the 17th Street side of the Pershing Point block, a surviving old hotel where Margaret Mitchell may have worked on “Gone With the Wind” is yet another preservation concern.

With all those pressures, “I’m just concerned that things are changing wildly out of our control,” said Alexander Heideman, who in January called on the APC to advocate the park’s landmarking. “I think it’s incumbent on the City to step up historical preservation efforts.”

Heideman is an attorney and APC member whose hobbies include local history research. He became interested in Pershing Point last year when he aided APC in researching the Buckhead mansion Whispering Pines before it was lost in a demolition. It turns out that the mother of the mansion’s original resident, Harrison Jones, was among the funders of the WWI memorial.

Heideman put together a research brief on the park’s history – which happens to start with citizen activism against commercial development. Back in 1918, the site was a vacant lot when along came a proposal to erect a store to attract soldiers from Camp Gordon, located in Chamblee at what is now DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. A group of residents bought the land and gave it to the City on the condition that it remain open space.

The notion of a memorial to the war dead was in the air. Originally named Goldsboro Park, the space was renamed later in 1918 for Gen. John J. Pershing, the famed commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in the war. Shortly thereafter, the City approved a plan by a group of “War Mothers” to raise funds and erect a memorial in the park, which was dedicated in 1920.

The World War I memorial in Pershing Point Park. (Photo by Atlanta Preservation Center.)

The centerpiece is a bronze plaque with the names of Fulton County residents who died in service – combat and otherwise – and numbering 140 by SaportaReport’s count. It includes both Black and white service members, albeit on segregated lists, and one woman, American Red Cross nurse Camille O’Brien, who died of illness while caring for troops in France months after the armistice.

“It’s to the Fulton County war dead, so it’s not just the City of Atlanta – it’s our entire county,” said Heideman, adding of its inclusive list: “I think it’s just something that touches on all of our history.”

In 1997, the park became an attraction for mourners of the U.K.’s Princess Diana, whose name went on a plaza on the opposite point to the north, where an Olympics-era statue of athletes was also erected on Georgia Department of Transportation land.

Around the same time as the memorial’s construction, apartment and commercial buildings rose around the park – including the ones that would be demolished in the 1980s. My colleague Maria Saporta was among its 1980s residents. As she has recounted, Williams later told her, “I personally regret that more than anything else. If we knew then what we know today, we would have kept those apartments and remodeled and rehabilitated them. It had everything we are trying to create today.”

Preservationists, of course, knew it back then and were shocked. “We failed,” said Mitchell on behalf of the preservationist community. “That’s why we don’t have the buildings and that’s all we have left.”

Landmarking would make future teardowns much harder, guaranteeing review by the Atlanta Urban Design Commission and Historic Preservation Studio staff at the least. Only two Atlanta parks have such strong protections right now: Oakland Cemetery, which obviously has other unique historic and sacred elements, and Washington Park at the center of that historic, planned Black neighborhood. Procedurally, a self-landmarking by the City of its own parkland would be pretty easy, but it’s unclear what may happen with the APC’s call. The Department of City Planning, which includes the Preservation Studio, did not respond to a comment request.

At Pershing Point, extra-strength preservation has a kind of double historical meaning. As we stand frighteningly close to the precipice of a third edition of world-warring, it’s instructive to ponder the causes and costs of the first one, via a memorial in a pocket park that serves a growing community rather than in a museum or website. It’s also a place to ponder the anti-preservation mistakes of a recent past – and the big difference that today, preservationist groups and events like APC, Historic Atlanta and Save Your Spaces are around to plant their own flags early and often against paternalistic and displacing forces. Or as Mitchell said, pushing us to be “driven by a sense of inclusion and community and not trying to find a mistake in zoning to capitalize upon.”

“We want to have the Democratic National Convention. We want to host the FIFA [World Cup] thing in two years,” Mitchell said. “All these things we’re doing constantly to justify our importance, but there’s always the awkward sense we may look weird by keeping [certain historic sites]. But they’re coming here because of this. That’s what Atlanta is – fascinating, significant. So why would you not embrace that?”



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  1. BPJ February 28, 2023 9:48 am

    Good article. One thing is missing: a deep dive into campaign contributions made by developers in the area. It should be a standing practice at any journalistic enterprise (the Saporta Report, the AJC, Business Chronicle, etc.) that any story on development, rezoning, demolition, loss of tree canopy, etc., must include a thorough look into the amounts given by relevant developers to city and county officials.Report

  2. ICU March 1, 2023 8:25 am

    I still mourn Cafe Des Artistes which was in those apartments.Report

  3. Doug Monroe March 1, 2023 7:48 pm

    My grandmother lived in an apartment at 1410 Peachtree. I was horrified when the whole block was torn down. I’m a fifth-generation Atlanta and I am grateful not to live there anymore. It’s disgusting. Gret article, Maria. Sad.Report


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