Atlanta, Georgia in 1962
Hello once again everyone, Don Milne here, your ROADTRIP-'62 ™ traveler. We are still traveling southbound on US-23, now within a few days of the end of the journey. We’re fifteen days out from our northern beginning point of Mackinaw City, Michigan, leaving from Gainesville, Georgia today. We’re still heading south on the roads of 1962 and today we will arrive at the biggest city of this trip: Atlanta, Georgia. I'll be driving on this virtual roadtrip, but if you passengers see things you like, I encourage you to get out on the road and enjoy them for yourselves. A virtual roadtrip like this may be fun, but there's nothing like the real thing! Of course, at any time, click on an underlined word below to learn more about the places on the trip. Let’s buckle up and head into Atlanta!
One place to stop before we leave Gainesville is the Northeast Georgia History Center. Although the museum did not open in its present site at Brenau University until 2004, one of its galleries houses an exhibit showcasing a newspaper comic strip that was around in 1962 and still runs today, though in far fewer newspapers than it once did. The Adventures of Mark Trail gallery has objects relating to the creation of the Mark Trail strip, as well as personal items belonging to its creator Ed Dodd. The current author, Jack Elrod, a native of Gainesville, is also represented. Ed Dodd is a Georgia native who spent a number of summers helping to run a camp in Pennsylvania. He came back to the City of Gainesville as the Youth and Physical Education Director; hence his connection to this city. Dodd later worked in the National Parks Service and that helped inspire him to begin the Mark Trail adventure strip in 1946. Another local connection: the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest includes the 16,000-acre Mark Trail Wilderness Area. If you’ve never seen it, the strip is an adventure serial, set in the fictional Lost Forest National Park. One change since the 1960s is that Mark was nearly always seen smoking a pipe but he gave it up in 1983 as most media began phasing out images of smoking.
As we approach Atlanta, Georgia, there is no mistaking that we’ve arrived in one of the country’s major metropolitan areas. Today the area holds over 5,600,000 people, and even in 1962 the population was 1,300,000. As befits any city of this size, we’ll be spending nearly two days here. US-23 now heads south around the east edge of town on Clairmont Road, but in 1962 it continued right into the city on Buford Highway, so that’s where we’ll go. One of the first sights we pass is Piedmont Park, which contains the Atlanta Botanical Garden. This park had been used for various fairs and expositions by a private company for several years before 1895, when the World's Fair was held here. The Tropical Gardens was the part of the fair grounds that later became the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The Atlanta Botanical Garden in its present form was proposed in 1973 and opened in the late 1970s: too new for us. I last saw the gardens in 2003 and it still looked new then! Public gardens in Atlanta appear to be a recent phenomenon, as the State Botanical Gardens of Georgia are also too new for us. Those gardens of the University of Georgia were founded in 1968. Too bad we’ll miss it: it holds more than five miles of nature trails on 300 acres, some of which border the Middle Oconee River.
Atlanta is the second state capitol we’ve visited on our roadtrip. Just like we did in Columbus, Ohio, I’m going to visit the State Capitol building here. We could continue into downtown on Piedmont Avenue from the park, except that it’s one-way going the wrong way. It was still a two-way street in 1955, but it was common practice in large cities to create one-way street systems in the 1950s and 1960s, to handle the heavy traffic before freeways were constructed.
Like many state capitols, Georgia's State Capitol resembles the United States Capitol. Completed in 1889, it was one of the earliest buildings to have elevators, central steam heat, and combination gas and steam lights. In a rare feat for any government building, it was completed under budget and money was actually returned to the state treasury in 1889 when it was completed! On every floor there are displays of statuary, marble busts, portraits, flags and banners. In fact, one of the best displays is the Georgia Capitol Flag Collection. It started with twenty-six Civil War flags that the U.S. War Department returned to Georgia in 1905 and grew from there. It now includes flags from every major military conflict of the 20th and now the 21st centuries, as well as many non-military flags. In 1962 we would have see the collection on the first floor, but by the 1990s many flags had deteriorated from constant display and poor repairs. They are now properly conserved by encapsulation and are stored in a climate-controlled facility. At any time only a limited number of flags are temporarily on view in the "Hall of Valor." I’m going to spend awhile here because I love flags. We’ll complete our visit with a stop to the Georgia Hall of Fame under the rotunda. Marble busts of the Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence are here, as well as other notable citizens from Georgia’s history. If you want to wander the hallways of the fourth floor offices, there are displays of the Georgia State Museum of Science and Industry.
Since we’re downtown, let’s have lunch at one of Atlanta’s landmarks, The Varsity, serving customers since 1928, is only 6 blocks west of US-23 from the bend at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and Ponce DeLeon Avenue. This is not your average drive-in; it’s the "World's Largest Drive-in Restaurant" and has been known as such since 1950 when it had 100 car hops. They even had to build a parking ramp, known as the Launching Pad, in 1962, to provide 500 parking spaces! The Varsity can accommodate over 800 people inside and it needs all that space because when the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets play a home game, over 30,000 people visit The Varsity in a day. When you drive in, you’re greeted by numbered, red-jacketed car hops with their famous, "What’ll ya’ have?" These car hops, mostly men, sometimes become a show by themselves, singing and dancing. The most famous was a man named Flossy Mae, who actually sang the menu for over 50 years. Others have gone on to fame beyond the Varsity, including TV and movie star Nipsy Russell. The restaurant, which was featured on the Food Channel, serves over a ton of onions and 2,500 pounds of potatoes daily.
The size is the first thrill, the busy atmosphere and cries of, "What’ll ya’ have?" is next, and then the food! I’m sticking with the classic menu items, to see what made it famous. A chili dog, made with their fresh and never frozen hot dogs; an order of onion rings; one of their over 5,000 daily made-from-scratch fried peach pies; and a frosted orange drink, known in Varsity lingo as an "FO" and reminding one of a Creamsicle-in-a-cup. None of this could be classified as health food: this is an overgrown, mega hot dog stand serving classic junk food at its best, including the grease. Lucky me, because that's what I’m in the mood for. Let’s dig in to the thrills!
I guess I’ll start the afternoon with a museum and make it a big one. The High Museum of Art has a sad and unusual connection to 1962. On June 3, 1962, a group of 122 members of the Atlanta Art Association were killed on their return flight home in a crash at Paris’s Orly Ariport. They had gone to Europe on the trip of a lifetime to visit the great museums. At the time, it was the worst recorded air disaster involving a single aircraft. The plane’s right wing dipped and hit the ground and the plane exploded about 50 yards from the end of the runway, leaving only the tail section of the aircraft intact. There were only two survivors, both air stewardesses who had been sitting at the rear of the plane.
The High Museum we would have seen in 1962 was only a fraction of the size the complex has grown to since. The museum was begun in 1905 and 21 years later was finally housed in its own building, the donated residence of Mrs. Joseph M. High. In 1955, the museum moved to a new brick building near the house, which is what we would have visited. The 1968, the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center (later the Woodruff Arts Center) was constructed around this, using millions of dollars of donations that came from all over the world after plane the crash. Today, we see the results of another move to a completely new building build in 1983 that tripled the museum space, and yet another addition of 2005, that increased the total size of the High Museum to 312,000 square feet. The current porcelain-enameled and aluminum-clad group of buildings by architects Richard Meier and Renzo Piano includes a towering four-story atrium and is a work of art itself. It now houses over 11,000 works in the permanent collections and is the premier art museum in the southeast. We can see an extensive collection of 19th-century and 20th-century American art, European paintings and decorative art, African American art and even modern and contemporary art.
Grant Park is also near downtown, and on our way back to US-23, so let’s stop in to the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum, in the park. This attraction was here in 1962, and in fact has been running since 1893! The Cyclorama is what we might call an 1880s form of virtual reality. Cycloramas began as paintings that went all around the outer wall of a circular room, with the patrons in the center. They would generally be scenes that the average person would never see, such as biblical scenes, famous battle scenes, a 3-mile long painting of the Mississippi River, and in their later years famous disasters and even trips to the moon. As time passed, many of these had music added. Later, three-dimensional dioramas were sometimes added to the top and bottom of the canvas, incorporating wax figures. The art form reached its peak in the early 20th century when, in order to compete with movies, pyrotechnic effects were added. Unfortunately, the combination of these effects and wax figures created serious fire hazards and several buildings burned. The Atlanta Cyclorama is one of a few remaining examples in the world because once a painting was no longer making money for the exhibitor, it would be thrown out, sold as scrap canvas, or cut up and sold as many small pictures.
Atlanta's Cyclorama relates the 1864 Battle of Atlanta. This battle was fought in a remote area east of downtown Atlanta, between Union forces under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman and Confederate forces commanded by General John Bell Hood. Grant Park lies just west of the site of the battle, in which the Confederate Army lost over 8,000 men. This painting is the second created by William Wehler's American Panorama Company studio in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It originally measured 60 feet by 360 feet, but changes and damage over the years have reduced it to only 42 feet high and 358 feet long. This was originally a touring display, but was purchased in 1890 by a Georgia businessman. The new owner first displayed it in a building near Piedmont Road in 1893. In 1921 it moved to this marble and granite fireproof building owned by the City of Atlanta parks system, designed by noted Atlanta architect John Francis Downing. The diorama constructed in the 1930s was renovated in 1979 to replace some materials that were damaging the painting. The painting itself is now involved in an ongoing restoration project.
The Civil War Museum includes a film of the history of Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign that culminated in the battle. The film is narrated by James Earl Jones, so we would not have seen that in 1962. Also in the museum is The Texas, the Civil War era steam locomotive that took part in the movie "The Great Locomotive Chase" that I referred to back in Cornelia, Georgia yesterday. This engine was neglected for many years but moved into the basement of the Cyclorama Building in 1927. It has been on display since 1936, so we could have seen it in 1962. In the southeast corner of Grant Park there is also a small piece of the Civil War, where some of the earthen breastworks and a battery known as Fort Walker remain. After we leave the museum, you may wish to take a walk through the nearby Grant Park Historic District. Today, the Atlanta Preservation Center offers guided walking tours of the district, though we would have had to wing it ourselves in 1962.
Sure, I could have dinner at The Varsity too, but that’s a little excessive even for a landmark. Instead, I’ll hunt around for some other older place; should be several in a city the size of Atlanta. After dinner it’s time to work off a few of these calories. Georgia is a golf state, with Augusta, Georgia just 140 miles east down US-278. Augusta, of course, is the home of the annual Masters Tournament. Some of the famous names of that and other tournaments come from the Atlanta area, including Bobby Jones and Charlie Yates. To close out the evening, let’s grab a late tee time at an older course. Locally, the Druid Hills Golf Club and East Lake Golf Club are the historical foundations of golf. Both are private clubs dating to the early part of the 20th century. They were frequented by the business leaders of Atlanta and they produced some of the national champions in the game. We won’t be able to play at either of these, but you may want to try North Fulton Golf Course, which was designed by Chandler Egan, Walter Hagen, and Atlanta's greatest golfer, Bobby Jones. Open since 1937, it’s consistently rated as Atlanta’s top public course and is classified as a championship course. It’s located in Atlanta's largest park, Chastain Park, north of US-23 and GA-237. I, however, am not much of a golfer, so there’s no point in wasting such a good course on me. I’ve played a grand total of three times, with my brothers who are also not golfers, so I’m going somewhere more suited to just hacking around. Candler Park Golf Course, just east of US-23 on McClendon Avenue, is probably more my style. It’s been here since 1927, so that works for this trip. Another municipal course, I’ve read that its short layout is great for the beginner. It’s a short, nine-hole, walking only facility with pull carts and clubs available to rent, which I’ll need. And even here, I may see a good golfer: it’s said that Tiger Woods once shot a 30 here.
If you want to stay up late tonight, you could try another drive-in! The Starlight Six Drive-in Theatre is still open and it’s right on US-23. Looks like it has six screens today, but it likely had less back in 1962 because multiple screens were rare then. The Starlight was built in 1950 and is the last drive-in theater in Atlanta. You need a working radio to hear the movies here: there are no speaker boxes to hang on the door. But the upside of that is that the movie sounds as good as your car stereo and you control of the volume. A popular thing to do here is to bring your own food, grills, lawn chairs, and tables and have a tailgate party.
Being in a major metropolitan area, I’d like to stay at an older downtown hotel like we did in Columbus: we don’t have many chances to do that. However, as in many cities, those hotels have been demolished, changed to apartments, stand vacant, or are rather seedy. For example in Atlanta, the eight-story Imperial Hotel had fallen into extreme disrepair by the 1960's, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, and by 1996 was reconstructed into 120 apartments for people with low incomes and special needs. Other similar Atlanta hotels, the Piedmont, the Ansley and the Henry Grady, have been demolished. One that still stands and still offers rooms is the Clermont Motor Hotel. In 1962 it housed the nightclub / strip club called The Anchorage, which became an unauthorized Playboy Club the next year. The inevitable lawsuit forced a change and the club, Atlanta's oldest strip club, has been known as the Clermont Lounge since. The Clermont Lounge has been featured on Comedy Central, hosted visits by modern celebrities, and is well known for its unusual atmosphere. Some people claim it’s one of the places you must visit before you die, or that no place could be more fun and tasteless! But the hotel itself has not fared so well. Some of the rooms are used as accommodations for "hard-to-place" public agency clients, including the homeless. I’ll take a peak, but maybe just have to give in and stay at one of the new downtown hotels; and there are plenty of them built in the past 20 years as Atlanta has boomed. See you tomorrow on Roadtrip-62 ™ for more of Atlanta!
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2012 - Milne Enterprises, Inc., except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2012 - Milne Enterprises, Inc.