History, for a City that Doesn’t Like Any

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May 9th 2011
Published: February 11th 2012
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Civil War seige cannonCivil War seige cannonCivil War seige cannon

A cannon from the civil war Seige of Atlanta
Today was my first day in Atlanta Georgia.

Atlanta is famous in the popular imagination as the city that General Sherman burned to the ground near the end of the Civil War.

Local businessmen would rather that people view Atlanta as the city that quickly came back from that experience, and is now the premier city in the entire South.

Arch-rival Charlotte (see The New South) will have something to say about that, of course, but Atlanta does have a reasonable claim.

Atlanta History Center

The place to explore Atlanta’s history is the Atlanta History Center.

It’s located in Buckhead, the city’s wealthiest neighborhood.

Significantly, Buckhead is the furthest neighborhood north of downtown.

Getting here requires driving past an endless parade of mansions, not all of them the McMansion variety either.

The center itself consists of a museum building, a set of historic houses, and some formal gardens.

One of the historic houses gives the reason the complex is in Buckhead in the first place.

The last owner donated it as land for the museum.

The first set of displays I saw in the museum
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Some of the only evidence that the Battle of Atlanta ever took place
building cover the history of Atlanta.

For reasons that will soon be described, much of this history is only available in the museum instead of on the streets of the city.

Atlanta was founded by local railroads in 1837.

They needed a convenient place to join their lines.

A settlement grew up around the junction with the name Terminus.

The name changed to Atlanta twenty years later.

It was your typical Southern railroad town, with lots of merchants and cotton dealers.

Atlanta’s first big impetus, ironically, came from the Civil War.

With Union armies threatening, Confederate leaders decided to move their manufacturing and distribution operations somewhere far from the borders.

Atlanta, with its railroad infrastructure, became that spot.

Jefferson Davis called Atlanta one of the two linchpins of the Confederacy, the other being Richmond.

Atlanta remained safe throughout the war, until Sherman showed up in 1864.

The army protecting Atlanta was only one fifth the size of the Union attackers.

Sherman outflanked their defensive positions repeatedly until he finally conquered the city.

Sherman’s burning of Atlanta is one of the great Southern myths.

The reality is that
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Artifacts from Atlanta boosters of the late 1800s.
the retreating Confederates burned the warehouse district before evacuating to prevent Sherman from seizing the material it contained.

Sherman had his army burn the commercial and industrial districts to prevent the Confederates making use of them after he left.

If the fire spread to residential districts, it was simply collateral damage.

In the end, 150 buildings survived intact.

Atlanta was also not the first city given this treatment; Sherman burned Jackson Mississippi during the campaign to take Vicksburg, and large parts of Columbia South Carolina.

After the war was over, the city recovered remarkably quickly.

Unlike older Southern cities, Atlanta businessmen gladly accepted Northern investment.

This fast recovery is the ironic reason the city has no historic sites more than a century old.

Older buildings that survived the fires were in the way, so developers simply tore them down.

Battlefields were redeveloped into factories and homes.

Atlanta, one of the icons of Civil War destruction, now has little physical evidence that the war ever happened.

During this era of rapid development, the modern Atlanta took shape.

Like Charlotte, much of
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Just as primitive as it looks
the development was led by boosters, businessmen whose promotion of Atlanta as the perfect place to settle was relentless.

Everything that happens here is positive, regardless of the actual consequences.

The museum displays themselves, it must be noted, show this attitude quite a bit.

One particular booster, Henry W. Grady, who ran the local newspaper, coined the famous phrase “The New South”, one of industry and growth rather than slavery, secession, and stagnation.

Atlanta began to expand its boundaries.

The landscape is one of rolling hills, with no real obstacles in any direction.

The city expanded accordingly.

The first expansion was along street car lines.

In general, the wealthier people were, the further they moved from the city core.

This is the reason Buckhead, the wealthiest part of all, is the furthest out.

The old city core became a business district of early office towers.

The oldest buildings in town, Victorians in the neighborhoods and towers downtown, date from this period.

Atlanta during this period was strictly segregated by race.

Zoning moved white families to the north, and black families to
Life in campLife in campLife in camp

Ways soldiers passed the time between battles
the east and west.

Each developed separate businesses, churches, and social organizations.

The museum has examples of each.

It glosses over much of the negative effects of segregation, such as the separate and unequal schools.

Atlanta growth stepped up a notch after World War II.

People moved even further out into the suburbs, and nearly everyone now owned a car.

This created congestion.

The city’s response was to build a series of monster roads and freeways which gave the city its modern layout.

The museum shows all this as a positive; I’m not so sure, personally.

Atlanta residents spend more time sitting in traffic jams than all but two other American cities.

The boosterism reached a fever pitch during the 1996 Olympics, which the museum describes as Atlanta’s coming out party.

The section closes with a call to the future, where Atlanta will be as glorious as ever.

Atlanta Civil War artifacts

The actual sites of Atlanta’s Civil War history may be gone, but the museum tries to make up for it with one of the largest displays of Civil War artifacts in the US.

It has an entire
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The front of the Swan House at the Atlanta Civil War Center
wall just for cannon shot.

The displays concentrate on the lives of ordinary soldiers.

Many joined thinking the war would be short, and they would return home covered with romantic glory.

Reality quickly proved otherwise.

One fact worth remembering is that more soldiers died from disease than on the battlefield, since modern sanitation did not exist.

For sheer numbers of items, the museum does a pretty good job.

It is filled with swords, pistols and uniforms; along with more ordinary items like backpacks and dice.

For significant items from officers and other notables, though, it can’t compare to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.

Its weakest part is describing the war strategy and the motivation of the two sides.

A Southern slant definitely shows through in this part (it describes the main Southern motivation as economic self-determination, for example).

The National Civil War Center in Richmond (see War and Remembrance) does a much better job explaining this part of the conflict.

Swan House

During my visit, I explored two of the three historic houses on the property.

They are shown by guided tour.

The first of these was
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A close look at the Swan House's famous waterfall fountains.
a 1926 mansion, the Swan House.

It was built by cotton broker Richard Hamilton Inman in the beaux arts style.

The tour focused on the now familiar architecture and decorative arts.

The house has some quirky features.

Mrs. Inman had a fondness for swans, and they appear everywhere in the wall moldings and furniture.

The walls of the dining room are covered in paintings of birds (not all swans).

The tour guides have no information on the paintings in the house, because the Inmans had none.

They bought what they thought looked good.

The only phones in the house are located in isolated closets.

The family believed that talking on the phone was a private activity, and this arrangement would guarantee privacy.

(It didn’t work; both rooms have air vents, and people figured out where the sound would echo.)

The bathroom off the women’s bedroom needs to be seen to be believed.

It was painted by an Austrian artist, Athos Menaboni.

Mrs Inman disliked the black and white marble in her shower, so she had the black parts painted green!
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The main house at the Smith Farm, on the grounds of the Atlanta History Center. The door on the left leads to the traveller's rest.

The same artist added stars on the ceiling, multiple swans on the ceiling molding, and painted drapes on the mirrors.

Tullie Smith Farm

The other historic site is a frontier farm, the Tullie Smith Farm, which was moved from elsewhere.

This type of farm existed in the area before Atlanta was founded.

Unusually for a museum, every item in this farm is functional.

Guides grow corn and vegetables around the house and most can cook them with the original kitchen pots.

The farm consists of three buildings.

The first is the actual farmhouse.

It is made out of wood and has four rooms.

The main room is a combination dining room, entertainment room, and work room.

Frontier families had to make everything they needed; men were expert leatherworkers and carpenters, and women spun yarn and wove.

The room has several children’s toys that the kids themselves made.

Two of the other rooms are bedrooms.

The adults used one and children got the other.

The final room is something I have never seen before, an isolated room off the
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Demonstation of colonial cooking in Georgia
porch called a “traveler’s rest”.

On the southern frontier, farm houses were the only form of civilization.

This room was for passing travelers who needed a place to stay for the night.

It’s isolated from the main house to provide security.

Some farmers provided a breakfast the next morning in return for some cash, making this the first bed and breakfast.

Travelers were also one of the main sources of news for isolated farms, which is one of the reason people here wanted to attract them.

The second building holds the kitchen.

The kitchen was kept separate from the main house for three reasons: fire hazard, avoiding excess heat in summer, and odors.

The kitchen is a single room filled with cast iron pots and containers of all sorts.

Every one of these tools is actively used for demonstrations.

Dried meat and corn hangs from the ceiling.

This particular family ate mostly pork products because they raised hogs.

They occasionally supplemented their diet by hunting.

Dishes were washed using soap made from pork fat.

The third building was
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The quarry garden, shot from the bridge over the middle of the quarry
the blacksmith’s shop.

As noted above, frontier families needed to make everything they needed.

This shop was a combination of woodworking and ironworking shop.

The park gives regular demonstrations of both.

Quarry Garden

The final item I saw at the History Center was the Quarry Garden.

Before the initial mansion was built, this land was used as a rock quarry.

The quarry was rather small.

For over a decade, the Center had this gaping hole between their museum and the historic houses.

The local garden club, the Mimosa Club, then got the idea of turning the quarry into a demonstration garden for native plants.

The garden opened in 1979.

The garden is lush and rustic.

It has a lily pond at the center with frogs.

It contains a huge variety of ferns, shaded by the quarry walls.

It has a wide variety of flowering plants.

Like the other native gardens I’ve seen (see The Art of Gardens) most of the flowers are pretty small.

It does have native azaleas.

It has a wide variety of native trees.

One of these tree species is native to Georgia but is now extinct in the wild.

The garden has a number of sign boards that attempt to explain each of the plants and how early settlers used them.


While in Buckhead, I wanted to experience some of its culture.

Since Buckhead is considered the Beverly Hills of Atlanta, the most obvious culture is window shopping (very few people can afford actual shopping here).

The place to do so is in a pair of malls located across the street from each other, Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza.

They collectively form the third largest shopping center in the US.

The malls very much reminded me of the Mall At Short Hills in New Jersey (see March 15th): large, gaudy, and very expensive.

These malls had a Lamborghini dealership.

It says something about Atlanta that these malls are across the street from each other, but the only way to safely get from one to the other is to take a free shuttle or drive.

After leaving the malls, I got to experience Atlanta’s highways in full.

Driving here is a scary experience.

The city resembles Los
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Typical Atlanta interstate, with atypical levels of traffic. I took this picture while waiting for a light.
Angeles stuck in the Southeast.

There are plenty of skyscrapers, but like LA they are spread out over a wide area.

Like LA, the highways are huge, often twelve lanes or more wide.

During rush hour, they can turn into parking lots.

The local roads often have three or more lanes in every direction.

Park in the wrong spot for more than five minutes, and a car will likely be towed.

Atlanta is a city in the Le Corbusier sense, one designed for the auto.

Since this is a real city rather than a planning exercise, the design leaves a lot to be desired.

If that wasn’t enough, there are seventy one streets with the name “Peachtree” in them.

I would have gotten lost without my map.

One other thing worth noting: all those cars mean that the difference between gas prices in Atlanta and prices further out is one of the highest in the country.

I filled my tank before reaching the city, and I hope it lasts until I leave.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


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Evacuation of Atlanta

Rare artifacts from the evacuation of Atlanta as Sherman approached
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Atlanta sprawl

Exhibit on the growth of Atlanta highways after World War II
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Civil war soldiers

Artifacts from life on the front lines
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Camp life

Cooking in a Civil War camp
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Camp Life

Music and other entertainment
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Cannon shot

A sample of the cannon balls recovered from around Atlanta after the war
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Swan house lawn

Front lawn from the main mansion. The top of the famous fountain steps is in the middle distance.
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Swan House entrace

Entrance gate to the grounds
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Smith blacksmith shop

Rural farmers had to be completely self sufficient
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Smith garden

The modern garden at the recreated Smith farm. The plants planted are accurate to the time period.
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Water garden

Garden of native water plants in the quarry garden
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Deer sculptures

Sculptures of deer hunted by Native Americans, in the quarry garden
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Flower garden

Behind the historic center

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