Atlanta peace park to open with missing pieces

Credit: National Monuments Foundation

Credit: National Monuments Foundation

The play equipment will be ready when a new 16-acre Atlanta city park opens, which is scheduled for this summer, but it will be missing features that are supposed to make it a destination for more than children.

The 18 bronze statues, plaques and monuments to Georgia-related peacemakers, including a number of Atlanta’s civil rights heroes, have yet to take their place. Or be finished.

Rodney Cook Jr., the nonprofit impresario responsible for raising the estimated $25 million for the monuments — and the son of the man whose name will grace the park — can’t say when the first one will be installed. Half of the 17-foot-tall statute of Chief Tomochichi, the Native American whose tribe lent vital help to Georgia’s English colonists, is cast in bronze from bare toes to navel in an Athens artist’s studio. His torso, from naval to topknot, are awaiting more donations, which highlights questions raised by those who doubted Cook’s fundraising capacity through years of park discussions and planning.

So far, he has raised about 15% of the needed money as the park prepares to open. He remains undaunted.

“It was a point of honor to compel the rebuilding of the park as a result of a deathbed wish of my father,” Cook said in an email. “And it is a point of honor to finish the monuments for my Vine City friends until I take my last breath.”

Some in the Vine City neighborhood are not holding theirs.

Resident and neighborhood planning-unit chairwoman Jennifer McIntosh is happy enough seeing the long-awaited park near completion. As for Cook and the statues?

“We haven’t heard from them since last year,” she said.

Unusual park, big plans

Rodney Cook Sr. Park, located just west of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is an unusual hybrid greenspace.

Atlanta put up $20 million in land and infrastructure. The Trust for Public Land is pouring $13.5 million into design, landscaping and construction. The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation gave more than $2.7 million.

Veneered on top of it is Cook Jr.’s $25 million vision of populating the park with bronzes of Georgia-related heroes and peacemakers. More than a dozen will feature civil rights heroes, including the women who drove the movement, and Georgia’s two Nobel Peace Prize winners — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Jimmy Carter. Rodney Cook Sr. will also be placed.

The elder Cook was a white Republican city alderman, Georgia legislator and Buckhead businessman who earned his place in the pantheon by taking courageous stands in the 1960s and 1970s against segregation. Cook Jr. reminded the city of his father’s contribution early in the process. Before dying from cancer in 2013, the elder Cook asked his son to rebuild a razed city park that their ancestor, one-time Atlanta mayor Livingstone Mims, paid for in Vine City in 1899. Mims Park was bulldozed near the middle of the last century to make way for a school.

Cook’s family from generation to generation has left marks on the city. They donated the land the state Capitol stands on, paid for the construction of the first two swimming pools in Piedmont Park and the park’s Sidney Lanier memorial. His mother, Bettijo Cook Trawick, has been instrumental in saving and restoring historic buildings in town, including the Fox Theatre. Cook Jr., as a teenager, played a key role in organizing young people for that campaign.

Family members made Atlanta better, he said. He wants to do that, too.

“I take that very seriously,” he said in a February interview.

Read more about the park

Heritage meets opportunity

Cook’s sense of noblesse oblige to family, father and community found opportunity when a thundering three-inch downpour in 2002 flooded and destroyed about 200 low-lying Vine City homes. Ivory Lee Young Jr., the district’s city councilman at the time, saw a chance, using disaster-relief money, to move residents from the flood-prone area and build a park on it.

Cook saw the opportunity converge with family honor and dove in, partnering with Young, who died in 2018, and pushing the city to birth the grander idea of an inspiring destination.

During final city meetings last summer, questions came from residents, a city councilman and others about Cook's ability to raise the money. Frank Fernandez, a senior vice president with the Blank foundation, said in one meeting that Cook couldn't demonstrate that his foundation had the capacity to raise that kind of money.

Fernandez said in a March 13 interview that the Blank foundation looked into the National Monuments Foundation, Cook’s nonprofit dedicated to building and preserving classically designed places that its website says will be “… inspirational destinations that promote legacies of history, honor and hope,” and he believed the organization lacked the capacity to finish its project. The Blank Foundation didn’t feel comfortable making a donation to to the statues project, he said.

Fernandez said Cook intended to have some of the statues up for the park opening, but it became apparent that was not going to happen.

The Trust for Public Land is managing the park construction. It’s southern hub director George Dusenberry, said the trust is not involved in the installation of the monuments, though they can be added at any time.

“They have a separate contract with the city of Atlanta,” he said “We don’t know exactly where they are,” he added.

TPL’s color rendition of the park doesn’t show the monuments. He declined to talk more about Cook and his project.

“We designed the park to respond to a number of moving pieces. It’s going to be a great park. No matter what,” Dusenberry said.

His biggest project

Cook has had some successes. His foundation funded, built and owns the Millennium Arch in Atlantic Station, which has been reported as costing $15 million and $18 million, and which he said cost $21 million. County tax records value the 11-year-old landmark and museum at $3.8 million. Another triumph is the Prince of Wales Monument to World Athletes and the Olympics on Peachtree Street, which Cook said cost $6 million.

Cook’s private consulting and design business designed a small New York museum dedicated to a Hudson River School artist, Atlanta homes and, among other projects, he is contending to design the federally approved but unfunded Washington, D.C., memorial library to Presidents John and John Quincy Adams and their wives.

For the park statues Cook said he has raised $3.5 million and spent about $2 million of that on plans, designs, geotechnical analysis and the start of Tomochichi. He has another $3.8 million in long-term pledges, he said.

Documents his foundation has to file with the IRS show most of the $5 million the foundation raised in 2018 came from a handful of large donors. That was more than the $600,000 it raised in 2017. He shunts aside the criticisms of his ability to raise cash.

“Some people didn’t think I could save the Fox Theatre, build the $6 million Prince of Wales’ Monument to the Olympics, the $15 million Cropsey Museum or the $21 million Millennium Gate. I believe having a willingness to push boundaries is key to creating something new,” he said.