Lloyd Whitaker, 86, his $10M gift secured home for iconic Atlanta painting

Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker were honored for a $10 million gift that helped build a new home for the the famous and massive painting of the Battle of Atlanta. Photos: Kim Link and Bartram Nason
Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker were honored for a $10 million gift that helped build a new home for the the famous and massive painting of the Battle of Atlanta. Photos: Kim Link and Bartram Nason

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Businessman Lloyd Whitaker wanted to make a legacy gift to the city of Atlanta, so he and his wife decided to give $10 million to help preserve the iconic painting of the Civil War's Battle of Atlanta.
Businessman Lloyd Whitaker wanted to make a legacy gift to the city of Atlanta, so he and his wife decided to give $10 million to help preserve the iconic painting of the Civil War's Battle of Atlanta.

While reading The Atlanta Journal-Constitution over Sunday morning breakfast seven years ago, Lloyd Tait Whitaker got an idea that began a cascade of philanthropy bolstering some of Atlanta’s most notable icons for generations to come.

“We said, ‘Bingo! That’s it!’” said Whitaker in a 2016 taped interview with the Atlanta History Center, describing the decision he and wife Mary Ann Whitaker made to endow the Atlanta Cyclorama with $10 million, after reading a news article about the panorama’s need for funding.

The Whitakers’ gift set off a chain-reaction from other donors over the next six years, amassing over $90 million benefitting the Atlanta History Center, Zoo Atlanta, and Oakland Cemetery.

“I’ve never seen anything that’s had this much impact and ripple effect from one gift,” said F. Sheffield Hale, President and CEO of Atlanta History Center.

Whitaker died August 31 after a brief battle with cancer. He was 86. His family plans to hold a private memorial service in the future.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Lloyd Whitaker

Growing up in Greensboro, Ga., Whitaker was the only child of a dairy farmer and a history teacher. He woke at 4 a.m. to milk cows, and blazed through academics, graduating high school in 1950 at age 15. He finished Emory University with a political science degree in 1954.

Whitaker then joined the United States Marine Corps, earning the rank of Major. He laughed in later life about arriving at basic training with golf clubs and a tennis racket. He helped found the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., in 2006, and served as Director of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation.

After military service, Whitaker entered Emory University School of Law, graduating in 1960. He joined an Atlanta law firm, where he reconnected with Mary Ann, a former girlfriend. After reuniting in Atlanta, they quickly married.

The newly restored “The Battle of Atlanta” can be seen starting Friday at the brand-new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
The newly restored “The Battle of Atlanta” can be seen starting Friday at the brand-new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Though he was gifted litigator, Whitaker chafed under the constraints of logging every minute of work time, say those who knew him. He left his law practice after 10 years to enter the business world.

“The day he left law, he took his time board outside and chopped it with an axe,” said David Crumpton, longtime friend and business partner.

Whitaker’s outgoing personality and keen negotiating skills made him a natural in business. He had a knack for remembering names and connecting with people from all walks of life. He loved to tell stories and laugh.

“Lloyd knew everybody and everybody knew Lloyd,” said Crumpton.

Whitaker started his business career in 1970 at Cousins Properties Inc., participating in Atlanta developments including The Omni Arena, the Omni International Complex (now CNN Center), and the Georgia World Congress Center. He then joined Cousins Mortgage & Equity Investments as president and CEO, and chair for seven years, before forming Newleaf Corporation in 1986.

Whitaker worked until a few months before his death as President and CEO of the consulting firm that served struggling companies across the Southeast. Newleaf will close Sept. 30, Crumpton said.

As his success grew, Whitaker looked to make lasting impact on the city he called home. The news story he read about the Atlanta Cyclorama led him there.

Whitaker’s $10 million gift made the Cyclorama one of few paintings in the world with its own endowment.

At 9,000 lbs. and 49 x 382 feet, it’s one of the largest paintings in the U.S. It was created in the 1880s to present a three-dimensional experience of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, a turning point in the Civil War.

With the Whitakers’ $10 million gift in hand, Hale raised another $25 million to cover construction of a new building, relocation of the panorama from Grant Park to the History Center in Buckhead, restoration and repair of the painting, and new exhibits and galleries.

In response, Zoo Atlanta raised $55 million to convert the Grant Park site into an African elephant pavilion and event venue.

“Lloyd wanted to make a mark on the city,” said Crumpton.

Along with Whitaker’s wife of 59 years, survivors include daughter Sarah Tait Whitaker McGrath of Orofino, Idaho; and sons Mark Whitaker of Acworth, Ga., and Andrew Whitaker of St. Petersburg, Fla.

Memorials may be made to Holy Spirit Catholic Church, 4465 Northside Drive NW, Atlanta, 30327.

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