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COVER STORY Q&A: Sam Massell

COVER STORY Q&A: Sam Massell

Sam Massell |Buckhead Coalition President & Former Atlanta Mayor

By H.M. Cauley | Photo by Sara Hanna

No one is more of a Buckhead encyclopedia than Sam Massell. At 86 years old, the Buckhead Coalition president and former Atlanta mayor has seen our community through good and bad. Today, he remains at her side at the cusp of her coming-out ceremony—the anticipated opening of the Buckhead Atlanta project. Here, the man often referred to as the “honorary mayor of Buckhead” talks about his favorite landmarks and the future of his beloved neighborhood.

When did you move to Buckhead?

I’ve only been in Buckhead 61 years, but I’ve been in Atlanta all my life. I moved here when I got married in 1952.


Where in Buckhead do you live?

I live on Peachtree and my office is on Peachtree and if I could find a burial plot I’d stay here forever, on Peachtree.  It’s the address of choice.

What’s your favorite place to take out-of-towners in Buckhead?

It depends on the profile of the visitor. If they like the outdoors and parks, we have the largest park in the city in Chastain and we have the second largest in Memorial Park. The Atlanta History Center is probably the jewel as far as a brick and mortar establishment and taking people there you can spend a full day very easily. If the person is from the academic world, I wouldn’t think twice before wanting to show them the Atlanta International School because it’s so unusual. I picked a few places just to show the diversification, but if it’s the younger set they are going to want to see LEGOLAND because that is a big operation with a full day of entertainment for children.

What is something about Buckhead that most people don’t know?

The Buckhead Coalition publishes an annual guidebook in which we list a number of parts of Buckhead’s history that they wouldn’t necessarily know. For instance, the historical cemeteries we have that date back to slave days and are hidden away in various pockets, from two graves in one [cemetery] to almost 1,000 graves in another. There are a number of interesting places. There is a building on Roswell Road called the Cotton Exchange, a little office building of three or four stories. In its beginning it was the home where the Ku Klux Klan made hoods for their members to hide behind, so it’s taken quite a change now, being right in the heart of Buckhead.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in Buckhead?

I think you have to mention the skyline of Buckhead, for which I give developer Charlie Ackerman the most credit because he built Tower Place 100, the 29-story glass building that has the green neon on it at night. It happened that I was mayor at the time he broke ground on it and he asked me then, did I think anybody would be able to top this. The anecdote is that I now have my office in this building. I look out my window and of course everyone has topped it in all directions. The Sovereign building, which is right in front of us, is 50 stories tall, so it gives you an idea of how Buckhead has grown.

Talking about growth, the big project on the horizon is Buckhead Atlanta. What impact do you think it will have on the community?

We are very proud to see that come out of the ground and replace the problem area that had evolved from too many nightclubs operating in an uncontrolled manner that had brought fear and filth to our community, which fortunately is behind us. Equally important, of course, is what it has brought in its place, which is a major destination of mixed-use, commercial and residential occupancy … It’ll be a destination where people will come for the day. It won’t be impulse buying. It will be where you come to eat and shop and have lunch and be entertained and stay for the evening, in fact. That adds to what we already have with Phipps Plaza and Lenox Square owned by Simon Properties, which in the case of Lenox has undertaken a major facelift … So we really have three retail destinations and it’s very clear that Buckhead today is the shopping mecca of the Southeast. We’ll never go back to the days of yore, when shopping was done in the central downtown. Downtown has government, downtown has the sports facilities, but Buckhead has the retailing. My wife doesn’t have to go to New York anymore to find the labels she likes; they are right here in Buckhead.

With Buckhead Atlanta beginning to open in July, how will it feel for you to see that project finally come to fruition?

That is going to be a very happy day. The interesting part is the way the community has wrapped their arms around it in ownership. They took great interest in Ben Carter’s original plan, in the demolition of the deteriorated clubs that had occupied the site and the unique innovation that he was proposing of a fancy retail center. Then it became a hole in the ground that stayed there for longer than we want to count. The public got really upset. They would say, “Why aren’t we doing something with this?” They would fuss at me, “Why is it sitting there?” Of course the developer, OliverMcMillan, bought it and wanted to build. But they had to get money and they can’t get money until they get the tenants, and they can’t get the tenants until they overcome the history of the place that had failed, so it was a long effort on their part. They did it diligently and professionally and now they have it going full speed ahead, with as many as 800 employees there on a given day building and planning and pushing forward this new destination. It will be a happy day indeed when it opens.

What do you enjoy most about being the honorary mayor of Buckhead?

I enjoy Kasim Reed letting me carry that label. When I spoke at his inauguration just a couple of months ago and named him the deputy mayor of Buckhead, he joked and thanked me for giving him that title. It’s give-and-take, I guess.

With this being our Buckhead Landmarks issue, tell us, what is your favorite local landmark?

I favor the Triangle Park at Peachtree, Roswell, Sardis Way and Paces Ferry for several reasons. It’s a five points of Buckhead. Atlanta has a five points downtown, where the city started, and it has another five points in the neighborhood east of downtown, and there is one in Buckhead that is very prominent. I have another reason that it’s the focal point of
interest to me. When I was mayor of Atlanta, Mr. Woodruff of Coca-Cola fame anonymously gave me $3 million with which to acquire that triangle and demolish the buildings that were there for this postage-stamp park. Another reason for my interest is that it’s the mythical center of Buckhead’s foundation, where a hunter killed a deer and hung its head as a trophy at about that location in front of what was called Irby’s Tavern. The Irby family owned all the land around the area and it was in fact called Irbyville on the map. People started saying, “I’ll meet you at the buck’s head,” and that is how our community became known as Buckhead. It’s the most popular place, in my opinion, in this community.

Where is that iconic buck’s head that was hung on Irby’s Tavern? I heard a rumor that it’s buried under your house. Is that true?

[Chuckle] I don’t know if I can admit or deny that.

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