These standout spots have a story to tell
By H.M. Cauley | Photos By Sara Hanna
By historic standards, Atlanta is considered a young city. It has long been a location where the spirit of the newest and latest is embraced, creating a vibrancy and energy that few metropolitan areas can claim. And while it is true that some of that vitality has erased parts of the past that should have been treasured, there is still plenty worth preserving and cherishing across the Buckhead landscape. A list of local landmarks can range from locations as different as the classically elegant Swan House at the Atlanta History Center to the contemporary shopping mecca of Phipps Plaza. While there are many sites worthy of the “landmark” title, here are just a few favorites that will entertain and maybe even amaze in- and out-of-towners with their fascinating back stories.
In 1930, it cost $250,000 to build the Spanish-Baroque Buckhead Theatre. Its opulent design was reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the Fabulous Fox, with an iconic red velvet curtain and detailed moldings throughout. It was home to the Buckhead Symphony Orchestra and various musical acts through the years, even drawing attention by showing the racy Mae West film She Done Him Wrong in 1933. For most of its life, the venue was known as the Buckhead Roxy, an intimate location for concerts and dramatic performances. It holds particularly fond memories for area businessman Charlie Loudermilk.
“I was raised on Howell Mill Road and had an uncle who ran a dry cleaning plant across from the theater,” he recalls. “Every Saturday, my cousin and I would go there and sell Coca-Colas for a nickel, then spend the afternoon at the theater. It showed all the old cowboy movies in between lots of advertisements for the local Buckhead shops. I think a lot of women saw it as a playpen for their children; they’d drop them off at noon and pick them up when it was dark. That was in the late ’30s when it was a real small-town theater.”
The theater closed in 2008, and Loudermilk took it over, determined to restore the site to its original splendor. “It was really run down, but nostalgia was my motivation,” he says. “We tore out the walls and flooring and redid it all so now we can seat 900 people. It turned out extremely well and has been well-received by the community. I’m very proud of it.” Since reopening five years ago, the theater has reclaimed its place as a popular destination for plays, revues, private events, conferences and concerts by A-list performers such as the Indigo Girls and Travis Tritt—performances the Theatre’s benefactor attended.
Georgia Governor’s Mansion
391 West Paces Ferry Road 30305
Designed by Georgia architect Thomas Bradbury, the Georgia Governor’s Mansion has been the official residence of the state’s top leaders and their families since 1968. The first occupant was Lester Maddox, followed by Jimmy Carter, George Busbee, Joe Frank Harris, Zell Miller, Roy Barnes and Sonny Perdue. Nathan Deal, the current governor, and his wife, Sandra, have lived there for three years.
“It’s sort of like living in a really nice hotel,” Sandra Deal says. “It’s a treasure that you take good care of because you know it doesn’t belong to you.”
The white-columned and red-brick home anchors 18 acres along a busy stretch of West Paces Ferry Road in the heart of Buckhead. Thirty Doric columns line the exterior porches. Inside, it has three stories, a total of 30 rooms and 24,000 square feet. The first floor is used exclusively for entertaining; the private living quarters for the family are on the second floor. A ballroom takes up most of the lower level.
Even when governorships change hands, all of the tables, chairs, chests and artworks on the first floor remain in place. The collection was acquired by a fine arts commission established while the mansion was being built, and the Federal Period pieces it assembled to furnish the rooms are considered museum quality. In addition, the mansion boasts an extensive library of more than 3,600 books that represents the state’s literary lineage. Among the items are works signed by Margaret Mitchell, Joel Chandler Harris, Ferrol Sams and Celestine Sibley.
“I have loved learning the history of all the different items in the house,” says Deal, whose favorite antique is a library table with carved salamander legs. “We have some outstanding pieces, many from around 1800 to 1830, even some paintings that date back before the Revolution. I always try to share that with people who come to visit.”
Upkeep of the valuable collections and the mansion itself is supported by the Friends of the Mansion, a nonprofit formed in 2004 to accept donations for restoration and preservation. The public is welcome to view the collection at no charge every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday between 10 and 11:30 a.m. Schedule permitting, the current first lady is often on hand to welcome guests. Last year, more than 16,000 people toured the house. It’s a particular favorite around the holidays, when a tree-lighting ceremony on the front lawn kicks off the season, and the house is decked out in seasonal finery.
It’s impossible to drive down Pharr Road and miss what is considered the largest free-standing fish sculpture in the world. The Atlanta Fish Market is defined by what’s known simply as “The Big Fish,” a piscine goliath soaring nine stories and spreading across 16 feet. The copper-coated steel sculpture, weighing in at 50 tons, is anchored 90 feet below the ground and is capable of sustaining winds up to 200 miles per hour. When it was designed in 1995, the cost was $500,000; to replace it today would cost as much as $2 million.
The design was the brainchild of Georgia artist Martin Dawe and Pano Karatassos, founder of Buckhead Life Restaurant Group that owns the Fish Market. Karatassos, who has a background in sculpture but never worked in the medium professionally, wanted something spectacular to grace the entrance and went through 20 designs before settling on the final creation, a cross between a salmon and a trout.
“I had a vision of what it would look like in my mind, but it wasn’t until it started going up that I realized how big it was,” Karatassos says. “Where would I be without the Big Fish? When it originally went up, it was one of the tallest objects on the Buckhead skyline. Now there are so many tall buildings, I don’t think people would be able to find the Fish Market without it.”
Some of those higher structures are apartments and condos along Pharr Road. “I wonder if they pay a premium for a ‘fish view,'” Karatassos jokes.
The triangle formed where Peachtree, Roswell and Paces Ferry roads conjoin is a pocket park of greenery in the heart of Buckhead. At its center is The Storyteller, a bronze sculpture depicting a man with a buck’s head seated on a log and surrounded by several small creatures. Designed by Alabama artist Frank Fleming, the artwork was commissioned by the Buckhead Coalition, headed by former Mayor Sam Massell. It was moved into the park in 1998.
“The Coalition invested more than $200,000 getting the sculpture done,” Massell recalls. “And it’s been tremendously well-received. We see people photographing it all the time.”
The statue represents a storyteller relating the origins of Buckhead to a small gathering of woodland animals. “That park is in the area where it all began,” Massell says. “It’s where the Irby family had a general store and tavern where someone hung a buck’s head as a landmark.”
The history of the area goes back to the late 1830s, when Henry Irby bought the land that is now Buckhead. He erected a general store and tavern near the present triangle park, and the gathering place was identified by the head of a large buck that Irby mounted over the door. At one time, the area was known as Irbyville in honor of the family. By the 1890s, it was called Atlanta Heights; it wasn’t until the 1920s that the name “Buckhead” caught on. Today, visitors to the area can point to The Storyteller as a reminder of that original buck head.
Coalition member Julian LeCraw remembers more than 25 years ago, when the triangle was not a park but a collection of shops and restaurants. “There were several of them there,” he says, “but Mr. Robert Woodruff of Coca-Cola bought them and gave the land to the city, and the city looks to the Coalition to take care of it.”
The park is about to undergo a major renovation, according to Jim Durrett, director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District. The entire area will be refurbished with new landscaping, a piece of outdoor artwork, a clock tower and a statue of Charlie Loudermilk, the park’s namesake. The Buck statue will be repositioned under an old sugar maple. “It’s still a healthy, attractive tree, so that’s the only one that will remain,” Durrett says. “And the statue will fit nicely under it.”
Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church
2715 Peachtree Road 30305
Cathedral of Christ the King
2699 Peachtree Road 30305
Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip
2744 Peachtree Road 30305
Long called “Jesus Junction” by Buckhead insiders, the convergence of Peachtree, East/West Wesley roads and Andrews Drive is anchored by three of the city’s prominent religious congregations.
The merger of two Baptist churches created Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist. During the Depression, both Second Baptist downtown and Ponce de Leon Avenue Baptist in Midtown were struggling. The decision to join forces was made in 1932. The Ponce de Leon congregation had already purchased the property at the corner of East Wesley and Peachtree in 1929, and the first two floors of the sanctuary building were in place by 1930. The completed church was dedicated seven years later.
Members of Catholic Christ the King parish purchased four acres of the land at its current location for $35,000 and built a French Gothic church with seating for 700 that opened in 1936. The building’s cornerstone was laid and the school building completed a year later. Also in 1937, the Diocese of Savannah became the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta, and the church was named a co-cathedral with another in Savannah. In 1956 the Diocese of Atlanta was formed and the church became its official seat, earning the name cathedral.
The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip started as a church near the state capitol in 1846. Within 30 years, it was the largest Episcopal church in the state. But by 1933, most of the members had left the downtown district, and the decision was made to move to a modest structure dubbed “the little gray church” on its present location on a rise overlooking Peachtree Road. The church’s Mikell Chapel was completed in 1947. Offices for the church and the Episcopal diocese were built in 1951, and the parish hall followed four years later. The current edifice, replacing the gray church, was opened in 1962. Samuel Candler, the cathedral’s current dean, has been at the helm of the congregation for 15 years and is known for turning the stretch of Peachtree Road in front of the church into “holy hill” every Fourth of July, when runners in the Peachtree Road Race hurtle past the front door. A runner who has never done the Peachtree, Candler got the idea to sprinkle the runners with holy water when the race fell on a Sunday. “Instead of cursing the runners and the commotion, we gave them a sprinkle of holy water and a blessing,” says Candler with a laugh. “We decided to embrace the day. We’ve done it every year since, whether the race is on a Sunday or not. ”
Chastain Park Amphitheater
4469 Stella Drive 30342
Officially dubbed the Delta Classic Chastain Amphitheater, this outdoor musical venue has long been a favorite spot for star-gazing and picnicking in high style. It was built in 1944 in the 268-acre Chastain Park, one of the city’s biggest green spaces. Originally, the park was dubbed North Fulton Park, but in 1945, it was officially named the Chastain Memorial Park with the Chastain Amphitheater in honor of the park’s supervisor of buildings, Troy Chastain, who died that year. For years, it was the Atlanta home stage of the Theater Under the Stars, the company that brought Broadway shows and major acts to town. (When that group moved to the Civic Center, it changed its name to Theater of the Stars, which ceased operations last year.)
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra made its Chastain debut in 1973 and has been in residence ever since. From April through October, the orchestra shares the stage with the local promotions firm Live Nation that books headliners such as Stevie Wonder, Harry Connick Jr., Etta James and Lyle Lovett. But the stars aren’t the only attraction: Dining in style at one of the reserved tables is an Atlanta tradition. Guests have been known to bring white tablecloths, candelabras, crystal, elegant dishes and fine wine to enjoy while the music plays. The amphitheater also has the reputation as a sometimes rowdy venue, where the chatter of patrons can often be louder than the performance on stage. But more often than not, it’s a unique experience, says Jere Flint, ASO cellist and staff conductor.
“The concert experience at Chastain Park Amphitheater is one of Atlanta’s most unique and memorable summer traditions,” he says. “It’s the perfect setting for romantic date nights, relaxed family gatherings or simply good times with friends. And the sight from the stage of all the beautifully lit candles in the night is the one thing all the artists comment on.”
Founded in 1835 near the then-state capital of Milledgeville, Oglethorpe University began as a seminary to train Presbyterian ministers, making it one of the first religiously affiliated schools in the South. The Civil War put an end to operations, but the school re-opened in 1870, this time in downtown Atlanta near the present-day City Hall. The college was rechartered in 1913, and the cornerstone laid on its present Brookhaven site two years later. By the 1920s, the religious connection had been dropped. Today, Oglethorpe is a liberal arts and sciences school with 1,100 students.
The campus’s distinctive Gothic Revival stone buildings were designed to replicate the Oxford University alma mater of the college’s namesake, James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia. (The school’s mascot, a seabird called a Stormy Petrel, is also believed to have been inspired by Oglethorpe’s shipboard time while en route to Georgia from England.) The entire campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The original 600 acres, once owned by famed publisher William Randolph Hearst, were subdivided through the years and now tally close to 100. Among its most notable features are a 42-bell carillon—the only cast bronze bell carillon in Georgia—and the “Crypt of Civilization,” a room-sized time capsule sealed in the basement of Hearst Hall that won’t be opened until 8113. When the crypt was sealed in 1940, it included 200 books of fiction, photos that trace U.S. history from 1840 to 1940, recordings of important radio speeches and newsreels, and models of flowers, plants, fruits and trees.
Oglethorpe’s architecture and bells were among the reasons Lawrence Schall took the job as the university’s 16th president in 2005. “On my first visit nine years ago, I was struck by the beauty of the campus—collegiate, Gothic buildings surrounding a classical academic quadrangle,” he says. “But what hooked me were the bells, the same Westminster chimes that graced my undergraduate institution, Swarthmore College. When I heard those bells, I knew I was home.”