When longtime CNN sign comes down, Atlanta will lose potent symbol

What other landmarks will represent city in national consciousness?

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Certain monuments and landmarks distinguish the great cities: the Arch in St. Louis, the Duomo in Florence, Randy’s Donuts in Los Angeles.

Atlanta has a few such iconic institutions, though the most visible, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Coca-Cola, seem to belong to the rest of the planet as much as they belong to us.

The exception would be CNN. Founded in 1980 by enterprising entrepreneur Ted Turner (Ohio-born, but Georgia-raised), the cable news network was a home-grown institution that scooped the media landscape in 1991, when John Holliman, Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw reported live from Baghdad as bombs exploded around them.

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The world’s first 24-hour cable news team put Atlanta in the world’s living rooms. For that reason, CNN has often been top of mind for tourists in downtown Atlanta, who were eager to visit the CNN studios and pose next to the 12-foot, red-and-white sans-serif letters outside the CNN Center on Centennial Olympic Park Drive. In addition to those oversized letters on the sidewalk, the CNN sign on top of the 14-story building became part of the Atlanta skyline.

Sometime this year those letters are coming down. CNN announced it will move from the downtown facility to smaller offices in the Techwood campus (next door to Georgia Tech) where the network got its start. CNN has been reducing its Atlanta workforce for years and moving most of its operations to New York and Washington, D.C., so the move is more than symbolic.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

But the mind craves symbols. What will symbolize Atlanta now?

Usually a notable building, or a bridge, or a sculpture or a folly comes to define a town, but Atlanta has never had a Transamerica Pyramid or a Statue of Liberty.

CNN was christened in 1980 at a boom time for the city. Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, was capping his second term with enormous public works accomplishments. Hartsfield airport opened the largest terminal complex in the world that year and MARTA’s rapid rail began operating the year before.

Architect John Portman, who had made a splash with the Hyatt Regency in 1967 (topped by the spaceship-shaped Polaris Lounge) and the Westin Peachtree Plaza in 1976, continued remaking downtown throughout the 1980s with the Peachtree Center projects, just north of Five Points.

Portman’s modern style, CNN’s worldwide reach, Hartsfield-Jackson’s air superiority, signaled a new era. The South of moonlight and magnolias was over. Atlanta was about business and global connections.

CNN reflected that new status and, repeating it to the rest of the world, gained iconic status. When protestors spray-painted graffiti on the CNN sign in 2020, they were chided by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. “Ted Turner started CNN in Atlanta 40 years ago because he believed in who we are as a city,” she scolded. “You are disgracing their building.”

But somehow Portman’s beige concrete boxes didn’t become identifiable, unless you looked inside, at their vertiginous atriums. Other new buildings, including the Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist Central Library, the Gothic One Atlantic Center (originally the IBM Tower) and Richard Meier’s post-modern High Museum, haven’t made themselves instantly recognizable on the national stage.

It’s not that Atlanta lacked buildings that were architecturally significant, said Spencer Tunnell, a landscape architect and architecture historian. The reason, said Tunnell, is that the city has never slowed down. “Never in my lifetime have there been no cranes on the skyline,” he said.



There is also the local habit of tearing down old buildings. The exquisite Carnegie Library was razed to make way for the aforementioned Breuer. The monumental Terminal Station on Spring Street was torn down in 1972 and replaced with the unexceptional Richard B. Russell Federal Building.

In Atlanta, a structure is worth what it’s standing on. “Atlanta’s love of real estate is on a par with oxycontin,” said David Y. Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center.

Even when one of our notable buildings survives, we often don’t seem to notice. “Our Flatiron (at 84 Peachtree) is older than New York’s Flatiron, by two years,” said Mitchell, “but New York’s Flatiron is one of its iconic images. We didn’t flip out about ours.” (Mitchell blames “our awkward relationship with downtown.”)

So what are the totemic images that outsiders instantly associate with Atlanta?

Credit: David Y. Mitchell

Credit: David Y. Mitchell

African Americans around the country know Paschal’s restaurant, a central meeting place for civil rights activists, said the Rev. Herman “Skip” Mason, historian and preacher at the West Mitchell Street CME Church.

Public relations man Mitch Leff is also a former CNN employee, who gathered with hundreds of other alumni in front of the CNN sign on June 1 to bid farewell to the building. He suggested that the Tom Moreland Interchange, or Spaghetti Junction, seen from the air, is representative, along with Marietta’s Big Chicken, our counterpart to the famous doughnut shop in L.A.

For better or worse, said Leff, the 90-foot-high carving on Stone Mountain, the largest memorial to the Confederacy, may be the most unforgettable image associated with the city.

Counterbalancing that, said Mitchell, is Martin Luther King — not any particular statue or image of King, but his message. “That is an export of an idea rather than an object.” (The image to go along with that? The neon sign outside the original Ebenezer Baptist Church.)

Finally, the image that is photographed every day by tourists and natives alike, looking west from the Jackson Street bridge, puts the pieces of Atlanta together in a scene that is featured in countless establishing shots from news and sports broadcasts and feature films.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

And even though the ills of the city are on full display — obtrusive highways cutting directly through downtown — the landscape, the setting sun, the bunched up skyline, they seem to make up for it.

Said Tunnell: “It gives the profile of that energetic ever-changing dynamic skyline, and that presence seems to say Atlanta.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated with the correct year of the allied attack on Baghdad.

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