You’ve driven past Atlanta’s Population Now sign countless times in front of the Darlington Apartments on Peachtree Road, questions flooding your brain.
Who put it there, and when?
Did the city once designate someone as Mr. Million, and then bring him back almost half a century later to stand in front of the sign?
How many years would it take for the sign to run out of numbers again?
With the apartment’s residents being told to leave due to massive renovations by the new owners, what’s the future of the sign?
Hold your horses. We’ll get to all those questions, and more, about the sign so noteworthy that it’s been referred to as Buckhead's answer to Marietta’s Big Chicken.
Here’s a brief history of the beloved sign:
1965: A young Ted Turner, then a billboard mogul, had his sign company erect the metro Atlanta population ticker in front of the apartments.
Early that year, Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. posed for a photo in front of the sign while holding an 16-month-old boy. The sign read "Atlanta's Population Now!" and advertised the air-conditioned apartments, which were built in 1951 as the first high-rise in Atlanta after World War II.
1973: Metro Atlanta hit 1.5 million, and Mayor Sam Massell marked the occasion in a ceremony at the sign.
"I literally climbed up a ladder and changed a bulb manually to make it one million, five hundred thousand," Massell later said.
1980: In January, the sign was approaching 1.8 million.
1992: In early February, the sign notched around 2,520,618.
1993: It crept up to 2,540,931 in September.
2000: In June, the sign was closing in on 3.9 million. By the way, the number is determined by population projections and increases at a fixed rate, as opposed to increasing with each individual transplant and birth or decreasing with each death or departure.
2001: Donald Smith, who was declared the one millionth Atlantan in 1959 before the sign’s existence, returned to the city for the first time in many years when Census figures showed metro Atlanta's population near 4 million. Nearly half a century earlier, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce designated the Ohio newcomer as "Mr. Million" and sent him on a nationwide, eight-city tour to talk up Atlanta.
2007: In March, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter wrote: “Metro Atlanta marks a milestone today as the U.S. Census Bureau reports that it surged past 5 million people last year. According to the bureau's county population estimates, the 28-county metro area — known officially as the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta Metropolitan Statistical Area — showed a population of 5,138,223.” Yet the sign’s tally read: 4,83-,--9, with three digits on the fritz.
A few months later the landmark sign went dark, lacking the ability to go past 4,999,999 with its original technology. The old-school sign wasn't able to officially report the occasion: “The computer would not make a five where the four was. It was not configured to do that," former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell remarked.
The city of Atlanta approved a permit to make necessary changes to the landmark, but planned no observance for the 5 million mark.
“Population milestones used to be occasions for civic hoopla in Atlanta,” an AJC reporter wrote. “Now that the area's growth has earned it an international reputation for sprawl, local leaders are more measured in their attitudes.”
The reporter also remarked: “If it seems these seven-figure announcements are coming faster, it's because they are.
It took 122 years from the founding of Atlanta for the area to reach 1 million people in 1959. The second million came 21 years later in 1980. The third million took 13 years, the fourth million seven years and the fifth million less than six years.”
2008: The source of civic pride came back to life in August when the owners of the Darlington Apartments bought a $24,000 electronic upgrade. It blazed 5,435,532, based on figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and Atlanta Regional Commission for metro Atlanta.
The new model could reach 99,999,999, a rate that Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition, said would take about 720 years for the sign to run out of numbers again.
2010: The sign has often been used by public figures to exemplify how big metro Atlanta has become. For instance, in Sept. 2010, Rep. Edward Lindsey told a panel of high-ranking legislators and transit officials that he remembered passing the Atlanta population sign at just over 1 million about the time the MARTA Act was signed decades ago.
“The needs of metropolitan Atlanta have vastly changed since that day,” he told them.
2016: The sign crossed the 6 million mark.
2018: One morning in early September, as tenants of The Darlington scrambled to find new housing ahead of their Oct. 17 deadline to be out, the constantly-climbing sign read 6,760,017.
The 612-unit complex was sold for $30 million to Atlanta-based Varden Capital Properties, which was founded in 2011 “with the objective of acquiring undervalued real estate, repositioning the asset and creating positive returns for its investors,” its website says.
The AJC was unable to confirm future plans for the sign, as the company declined to comment. But due to the fond, nostalgic memories people have expressed about the sign over the years, it’s safe to say many would be unhappy to see it go.
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