How the Atlanta History Center is changing the future

Andrew Tavani, of Buckhead, helps 5 year old Max Tavani get a closer look at the  John Portman portion of the 50 Objects exhibit is on display at the Atlanta History Center.  On display are 50 city-defining pieces that range from a 1915 Coke bottle mold to Native American artifacts to an 11-foot-long Chick-fil-A billboard cow.

Credit: Jenni Girtman/Atlanta Event Photography

caption arrowCaption
Andrew Tavani, of Buckhead, helps 5 year old Max Tavani get a closer look at the  John Portman portion of the 50 Objects exhibit is on display at the Atlanta History Center.  On display are 50 city-defining pieces that range from a 1915 Coke bottle mold to Native American artifacts to an 11-foot-long Chick-fil-A billboard cow.

Credit: Jenni Girtman/Atlanta Event Photography

Credit: Jenni Girtman/Atlanta Event Photography

Michael Rose smiles as he enters the cavernous space filled with electrical wiring, cardboard boxes and metal beams, seemingly oblivious to the dust and din as workers reshape Atlanta’s past. Rose walks to the accessible spots amid the construction clutter in the 7,700-square-foot room as he describes what will become the Atlanta History Center’s newest showcase exhibit, tentatively called “Atlanta Stories.”

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2016 edition of Living Intown Magazine. 

He points out where its features will reside. Immersive spaces here. Actors and stages against that wall. Recording booths over there.

“We want people to tell us their own stories,” says Rose, the center’s executive vice president. “We’re very interested in what the public thinks and what people have to say.”

Forget those staid and sleep-inducing history lessons of your youth. The Atlanta History Center is sending the city’s past into the future with new exhibits, an inviting attitude and a revamped look that has transformed the building’s once foreboding entrance to a stylish, light-filled atrium.

The center’s renewal coincides with a series of physical changes to the 33-acre campus on West Paces Ferry Road, where Buckhead’s massive mansions give way to shopping centers and high rises.

“The Atlanta History Center really is the jewel of Buckhead,” says Sam Massell, the president of the Buckhead Coalition and the mayor of Atlanta from 1970-74. “It’s our heart and soul. There’s not another entity in Buckhead that commands as much respect and provides as much, in the way of an amenity, to the people who live here and visit here.”

The center’s ambitious renovations for the 21st century include a new circular building to contain the iconic Cyclorama, the huge painting of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta that has been housed at Grant Park since 1893.

“[The Cyclorama] is going to be a unique destination that will draw people to us as an institution and make them feel comfortable about coming here and knowing that we exist,” says Sheffield Hale, Atlanta History Center CEO. “Part of our issue is people don’t know we’re here. The Cyclorama is going to be like a huge laser beam in the sky saying that we’re here. But that’s just one piece of it.”

Ear to the past

Hale is a real Atlantan.

He was born at Piedmont Hospital, grew up in Brookwood Hills and graduated from Westminster. His appreciation of Atlanta history goes back decades, and he used to lead informal city tours for summer associates at the law firm where he once worked.

Hale, 55, would show them Druid Hills, the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills, and Tuxedo Road; have them picnic on the graves of Confederate soldiers at Oakland Cemetery; and lead them to where Margaret Mitchell and Bobby Jones are buried.

“They loved it,” he says.

Later named to the Atlanta History Center’s board of directors, Hale then chaired the Georgia Trust before coming back to serve on the center’s board, and then become its chairman.

He saw the need for change, which was sometimes made in increments but never at the rate he desired. So when Hale was hired as CEO in 2012, the pace accelerated.

“I had a lot of years of trying, which felt like pushing a string as a board member,“ he says. “When I got here as somebody who could execute stuff that I’ve always wanted to do, I could do it.”

This included the elimination of a rule that forbid guests attending functions from taking drinks into the exhibits. Hale said they would linger in the halls with their wine and never enter.

“Well, our mission is to get people into the exhibits to see what we have, not to have them stand out in the hallway,” he says.

So Hale asked if there were any reasons to keep drinks out. “The answer was no,” he says. “I said, ‘Well, good. Let’s change it.’ There’s nothing that you could hurt. You could throw [wine] on the cabinet. We’ll get somebody to clean it up the next day if there’s a spill. That’s part of the cost of doing business.”

That relaxed attitude has led to changes across a campus that includes 22 acres of gardens, forests, a research center, and period homes and their grounds.

“Sheffield is creative in constantly pushing it forward,” Massell says. “He’s not satisfied with the status quo.”

Velvet ropes and heavy stanchions were removed from the entrance of rooms at the Swan House, a 1928 mansion built for prominent Atlanta businessman Edward H. Inman. Guests now have more freedom to wander through them instead of only peeking in doorways.

Younger visitors and film buffs can check out the setting for scenes of “The Hunger Games” movies, which used Swan House rooms and the rear façade as President Snow’s palace. The center even offers the Swan House Capitol Tours six days a week.

Children of visitors to the Smith Family Farm’s plantation-style home can color and complete crafts at the kitchen table.

Guides in historical dress and actors in character and costumes became more prevalent throughout the grounds. A playwright was even hired to provide scripts.

“Who would’ve thought we would’ve had an on-staff playwright 10 years ago?” Hale asks. “We never would’ve thought about that.”

Eye on the future

Those small changes preceded the facelift and additions to the Atlanta History Center’s main building and its grounds.

A campaign raised $21.2 million to help fund the renovations, which will affect 37,000 square feet of space in the main building by the time of the scheduled completion this summer.

The two newest exhibits are “Atlanta in 50 Objects,” which opened in January and will be on display through July 10, and “Atlanta Stories,” scheduled to open in April.

The center raised another $34 million to construct the building on the east side of the property to house the 130-year-old Cyclorama, its accompanying diorama and a lighted walkway for the Texas, an 1856 locomotive that will be visible from West Paces Ferry Road.

The painting, which is 42 feet tall with a circumference of 358 feet, will be moved from its building at Grant Park and hung for restoration. Sometime in 2017, hours will be established for visitors to watch restoration work.

The exhibit is tentatively scheduled to open in 2018, although the Texas — currently being restored in Spencer, N.C. — could be returned and made available before then.

The center plans to apply its new mantra, “Go ahead and touch,” to the vintage locomotive. “We’re going to let children get up on it,” Hale says. “Grownups can, too.”

In addition, Buckhead restaurant Souper Jenny has a new home in a two-story space near the main entrance, where customers can access a gift shop and book store.

For those who want to dig deeper into history, the James G. Kenan Research center includes a 42,000-square-foot library, 33,000 published volumes, and extensive manuscript and photo collections.

Not all of the changes have taken place on its property. Increasingly the center goes into communities with its “Party with the Past” evening events, which Hale says are “being driven by the millennials on our staff.”

With the slogan of “Free History/Cold Beer,” the events take place at venues around the city — including Zoo Atlanta, Piedmont Park, Rhodes Hall, the Tabernacle and Westview Cemetery — that have liquor licenses.

“So that’s really our strategy, getting ourselves more in the community,” Hale says. “Given the traffic in Atlanta that we have now and that people are so busy, we’ve got to go to them, and we’ve got to make them feel like they’re part of this institution. You can’t just assume that people are going to always get here.”

Even the center’s Twitter account bio has an attitude, stating: “Yeah, we tweet. Just because we like old things doesn’t mean we can’t be trendy.”

Other museums have sprung up around Centennial Olympic Park as the city focuses on luring visitors downtown, but Hale is happy with the Atlanta History Center’s location.

“We’re not going after a tourist audience per se,” Hale says. “That’s not our goal. We definitely want them to come, but what’s going to sustain us is local support as they buy in to what we do.

“You know, history’s gossip just dressed up, if you think about it. I mean, it’s just what happens to people and it’s inherently interesting. It’s unexpected because people do the darnedest things, right? You can’t make it up. It’s there. Let’s just go find it.”

The Atlanta History Center. 130 W. Paces Ferry Road. 404-814-4000.

Insider tip

Plan your itinerary ahead of time on the Atlanta History Center’s interactive website at A map of the grounds allows you to add exhibits, gardens and period houses to a list you can email or print.

Insider tip

Save your Atlanta History Center ticket because it includes admission to the Margaret Mitchell House within nine days of your visit.