Telling stories

Everything Old is New Again

Posted by southwrite on June 21, 2014

Atlanta's Margaret Mitchell House

Atlanta’s Margaret Mitchell House

Living in the South you soon realize that history isn’t found in buildings. In fact, in many communities there aren’t many, if any old historic structures from earlier times –not like New England and certainly not like Europe where history is measured in centuries and sometimes millenniums.

One reason is the Civil War which devastated the Southern states and particularly Georgia thanks to Sherman and his well-kept promise during the infamous march to the sea to “make Georgia howl.”

Much was laid waste in the war, but much would be destroyed afterwards – and not by the Yankees. Following Reconstruction and the dawning of The New South, Georgia, and Atlanta in particular, acquired a particular distaste for the old and historic. Perhaps it was a way of forgetting the past and proving that the city wasn’t just some backwater. Beginning in the 1960s and moving forward, Atlanta began thinking of itself in much grander and less regional terms. By the 1980s were proclaiming it an “international city.”

It was modern and forward facing and no longer had time for either the old building that were spared Union torches or even those built soon afterwards.

While working for a small private college in North Georgia, I found myself traveling down Atlanta’s Peachtree Street. At the wheel was a trustee I was interviewing for a laudatory profile in the alumni magazine. He was rich, a successful developer and very much committed to raising new buildings up out of the dust of old Atlanta.

“When I see one of these old buildings I don’t see a waste and an opportunity,” he said.

And, he certainly helped contribute to the loss of what little remained of Atlanta history. For a while it seemed that the city was determined to erase everything that remained of the old to usher in the new and profitable.

The developers  largely succeeded, but not entirely.

One remarkable survivor of that era is the now preserved Margaret Mitchell House. This three-story, Tudor Revival built in 1899 was where the author  lived and wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning Gone With the Wind. Truth be told, the famous author never much cared for the building she referred to as “The Dump.”

It had been a grand home on this fashionable residential section of Peachtree. By 1919 it was subdivided into ten tiny apartments. Mitchell and her new husband, fellow writer John Marsh, moved into Apartment No.1. In those days it was known as the Crescent Apartments and later renamed the Windsor House. Mitchell moved on to better accommodations – particularly after the success of her bestselling novel and the classic motion picture. It remained apartments until 1978 when it was abandoned.

During those years, this section of Midtown became something of a desolate stretch populated by the poor, the runaways, the addicts and the occasional hippie. The house was sometimes a temporary home for the homeless and slipped further into disrepair.

Beginning in the 1980s, local preservationists tried to pull together enough funds to save and restore it. That was rough going in a city that didn’t much care for history or all that much for the arts. Atlanta designated it a landmark in 1989.

It’s something of a miracle that the house survived It was torched more than once. Perhaps the fires were started by the homeless trying to keep warm. I imagined it was a developer outraged that such a valuable piece of property was being kept off the market. With help from German automaker Daimler-Benz, the property was finally purchased and restored. It opened as a museum in 1997.

The house looks very much like it did when Mitchell was living there.

The first time I walked through Mitchell’s restored apartment my imagination was swept back to Atlanta between the world wars and teetering on Depression. It’s filled with period furniture and an old typewriter. I saw her sitting there typing; creating a grand portrait of a South that no longer existed. She was still there looking out the leaded glass window. I also thought about all those who had wanted to destroy this treasure and was happy, profoundly happy they had not succeeded.

That feeling of being in the past leaves when you step out and look up Peachtree to the towering white façade of the Federal Reserve building and the many other modern skyscrapers that line Peachtree Street now. It’s a different world.

It’s a shock.

These days Atlanta and small towns and cities through the state are friendlier to the past. There’s been a growing realization that historical sties mean tourist dollars and economic development. It’s not universal by any means. Big players in Atlanta such as Georgia Tech have moved to tear down historic buildings when it suited their expansion plans. Elected officials in small towns around the state can still be found pushing for demolition rather than preservation.

Yet, we still have the Mitchell house and other historic structures. We still have pieces of the past that we can treasure. I’m glad for all that have been saved.


One Response to “Everything Old is New Again”

  1. […] Everything Old is New Again […]

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