“We really are a tear down city. It is not difficult for people to knock down a historic building in Atlanta. In fact, it is quite easy.”
— Boyd Coons, Executive Director of the Atlanta Preservation Center
Atlanta, as we see it today, is a smorgasbord of various innumerable social, cultural and political ghettos. The architecture of this space has been highly defined and re-defined over the decades, to meet the needs of the aftermath of a war, supreme catastrophes, expansion of the rail hubs, the Civil Rights Movement, and launching of now-world famous brands like Coca Cola.
In 1836, the state of Georgia decided to expand railways towards the Midwestern states of the United States; Atlanta was chosen as the line’s terminus. Eventually, stores and settlements built and grew, which led to the addition of three more railway lines in Atlanta, making it the ‘rail hub’ for the entire Southern United States.
Atlanta’s architecture features a mélange of classical, modernist, post-modernist, and contemporary architectural styles. One observes the co-existence of buildings from as early as the mid-19th century and buildings from the postmodern era, in the same locality. The city is not petrified to the ever-changing architectural styles, their implications and the reverberations they leave behind. It all began in 1864, when the city of Atlanta was burned down to ashes under the command of William Sherman during the American Civil War. The city, which was believed to be populated with antebellum architecture, a neoclassical form of architecture from the 19th century, now had no traces of its existence left.
Soon after the war, the inhabitants didn’t lose hope and started rebuilding the city. In less than six years, in 1870, Atlanta reached a population of 21,000 inhabitants, post which the population grew by about 70% each year till 1920. The population of Atlanta was 200,000 by 1920 and 50 years later, in 1970, Atlanta became the 20th largest metropolitan city of the United States with nearly 1.2 million inhabitants. Today, Atlanta stands as the 7th largest city in the United States, with over 5.6 million inhabitants.
The rebuilding of the city post-war, in the 1870s, rapidly progressed, replacing what was left of the antebellum relic. What is left today, from that era, are two modest farmhouses and one warehouse, none of which are very prominent in the modern day. Atlanta, before the war, was not a spot for plantations and fancy buildings, but now, it was starting to become a prosperous new city rebuilt from a frontier town. The inhabitants made their living off the railroad, liquor, and hard work.
A part of rebuilding the city was to restore the thrown-up wooden structures for the economy—a hope for the future wealth boom. After the primary goal was set and the new normal was starting to settle, the inhabitants no longer wanted to remember the hardships of the past. They just wanted to move forward boldly, towards the modern and the outstanding future.
What exists of antebellum architecture today, is four houses, in poor conditions, which were believed to be out of city limits, back in the 19th century. Tullie Smith House, believed to be a small plantation or a farmhouse, was built in 1840 by Robert and Elizabeth Smith. It is seemingly the oldest known structure in Atlanta. Soon after, it was moved to the Atlanta History Center, to an adjoining suburb. The Georgia Railroad Freight Depot, built in 1869, is the oldest known structure in Downtown Atlanta.
Post-bellum architecture: Equitable building and Hotel architecture in Atlanta
Post-bellum architecture refers to architecture post the civil war. Atlanta suffered a major setback after it was burned down to cinders. A large part of the city’s history, culture, and civilization was depleted and diminished to a trifle. Atlanta was a railroad city and its architecture never emerged as the one that was discerned in southern cities like Savannah and Charleston, where architecture was governed by an aristocracy.
Throughout the American Renaissance, from 1879 to 1917, one did not just observe the rise of Atlanta, but also the rise of many conceptions and impressions put forward by its citizens. The notion of going higher and gaining more power vaulted in Atlanta with the construction of the Equitable Building in 1892. It was 8 stories high (35.91 meters), and one of the tallest known buildings of those times.
The old Equitable Building was Atlanta’s first skyscraper, designed and built by a Chicago-based firm, Burnham and Root, sticking to the Beaux Art style, which was very prevalent in those times. With its ornate decoration and massive presence, the structure represented Atlanta’s rising prosperity. When the Equitable Building was inaugurated in 1892, it failed to find tenants; but soon in 1893, its circumstances improved when the Trust Company of Georgia stepped in.
Soon after, The Equitable Building was overshadowed by larger, sleek, and modernist buildings like the Sun Trust Building. The Equitable Building’s classical-inspired architectural design was evaluated as obsolete by critics, which led to its highly controversial demolition in 1971. The remains of The Equitable building were relocated outside the existing contemporary building, providing scant solace to historic preservations both then and now.
Hotel architecture was yet another of Atlanta’s numerous ideas, which sprung in the early 20th century, leading to the construction of one of the most contentious buildings in Atlanta, the Piedmont Hotel. With hotels, civic and industrial architecture too flourished with the growing industrialization of the city. More and more people migrated to the city to experience the diverse and fast-moving city life, its resources, its governance, and its ever-changing architecture. Atlanta was at its high point both in terms of urbanized explorations and technical and structural innovations.
Growth of architecture from the Cold War era to the contemporary era
Atlanta was rapidly adapting to changing times, even during the wars. It followed the international modernist style of architecture and design to define its ever-shifting skyline. The Westin Peachtree Plaza is one of the many examples of modernist architecture in Atlanta. The enormous skyscraper was built on a site that was earlier dominated by a Victorian-style home from the 1870s and then Henry Grady Hotel and Roxy Theatre, both of which were demolished for the construction of the Westin Peachtree Plaza.
The Contemporary era was established with the introduction of post-modernism in Atlanta in the early 1980s. Atlanta was one of the first cities to adapt to post-modernist architectural styles. This era not only led to the addition of the long-lost classical elements of design and architecture but also produced a mélange of tech and traditional. Skyscrapers built from the 1980s to 1990s now dominated the skyline. These skyscrapers were not vertical blocks that comprehended the skyscrapers from the postbellum era. In fact, nowadays, slender spires and ornamentations ruled the enormous figures of Atlanta.
One Atlantic Center (1987), Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta (1992), and Bank of America Plaza (1992) are a few of the many examples of ornamentation in post-modernist architecture.
Today, Atlanta is a home and a necropolis to numerous eras of culture, civilization, growth, design adaptations, and architectural fiestas. The city has experienced its downfalls and benefits in ceaseless manners. It still stands out as an extraordinary city that strives to overcome its past and step forward—be it in terms of rapid urbanization or highly ornamented super-structures. The historic preservation movement in Atlanta began to gain popularity in the 1970s.
Perhaps, more of today’s cutting-edge buildings will be treasured decades from now, owing to a stronger historical preservation community and more public understanding of the relevance of diverse architecture to the vibrancy of Atlanta.
- Author: Nick Van Mead, The Lost City of Atlanta, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/oct/23/lost-city-of-atlanta-historic-building-parking-lot [Accessed: 30th June 2021]
- Author: History.com Editors, The destruction of Atlanta begins, Available at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-destruction-of-atlanta-begins [Accessed: 30th June 2021]
- Author: Unknown, All Not Lost: Great Old Buildings & Historic Districts of Downtown Atlanta, Available at: https://wdanielanderson.wordpress.com/2013/08/31/all-not-lost-great-old-buildings-historic-districts-of-downtown-atlanta/ [Accessed: 30th June 2021]
- Author: Eric Baldwin, MODA Launches Architecture and Urbanism for Justice, Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/948111/moda-launches-architecture-and-urbanism-for-justice [Accessed: 30th June 2021]
- Author: Collin Kelley, Perspectives in Architecture: Celebrating Skyscrapers past and present, Available at: https://atlantaintownpaper.com/2016/06/perspectives-in-architecture-2/ [Accessed: 1st July 2021]
- Author: Robert M. Craig, Tullie Smith House, Available at: https://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/GA-01-121-0011 [Accessed: 1st July 2021]
- James C. Bonner (1945), Plantation Architecture of Lower South on the Eve of Civil War, The Journal of Southern History, 11(3), 370-388, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2197813 [Accessed 2nd July 2021]