Proposals for Georgia’s national parklands

Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site

Proposed designation: Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park

Location: Downtown Atlanta

Addition: Southern Christian Leadership Conference building

Legislative status: Passed U.S. House; awaits U.S. Senate approval

Though small in size, the expansion of the MLK site looms large in significance.

Only one building would be added to the sprawling campus that currently houses King’s birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church and a visitor center. But the Prince Hall Masonic Building, a short stroll down Auburn Avenue, served as headquarters for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The SCLC, founded in 1957, trained the movement’s leaders, educated citizens and led voter-registration drives. King was the civil rights group’s first president.

“It would tell the story and the history of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and his contribution not just to Atlanta but to the nation,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, who sponsored the expansion bill. “It’s important for people to know about what happened during the latter part of the 20th century and the impact that Atlanta and Martin Luther King Jr. had on not just Atlanta, but America and the world.”

While the Prince Hall Masons (the men) and the Order of the Eastern Star (the women) still meet on the third floor, the remainder of the 1937 yellow brick building is little used and in need of repair. The Park Service would lease the first floor where the SCLC was located. King’s office would be replicated. A visitors center, exhibits and park ranger would be on site.

Sweet Auburn Works and the Historic District Development Corp., neighborhood restoration groups, would help with the building’s upgrade.

“There’s never enough money to do all that needs to be done,” said Judy Forte, the superintendent of the MLK Jr. site. “But I’m confident with all the various parties, friends and the interest in the community, this building will, once again, shine.”

Lewis’ legislation also would transform the MLK site into a national historical park.

“When you say ‘site,’ most people think of a house or a building. A park is more complex,” Forte said. “We realized that we had excluded something from the historic site that should have been included in the beginning.”

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

Proposed designation: Same

Location: Kennesaw

Addition: 8 acres and an old farmhouse

Legislative status: Passed U.S. House; awaits U.S. Senate approval

Much is made of Confederate history at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. But the park’s proposed acquisition would tell an important part of the Union’s successful campaign to defeat the Rebels in Cobb County and, eventually, Atlanta.

The park is set to acquire 8 acres just outside its boundary on Burnt Hickory Road. At first blush, the property isn’t anything special: a vine-entangled, boarded-up house favored by local kids with a penchant for partying. The outbuildings are crumbling. An upscale housing development looms nearby.

Look closer, though, and history comes alive. The old Wallis House, built by farmer Josiah Wallis in 1853, served as a battlefield hospital for besieged Confederate troops in 1864. Once routed, it became the headquarters for Union Gen. O.O. Howard.

It was a strategic spot. The nearby Harriston Hill, which would also be acquired by the Park Service, offered fine views down through the valley and up to Kennesaw Mountain where the Confederates were dug in. Howard’s men signaled troops in the field from atop the hill. Gen. William T. Sherman was also stationed at the farmhouse during the Battle of Kolb’s Farm at the park’s south end.

The property “allows us to interpret military strategies and how they evolved during the Civil War,” said Nancy Walther, the park’s superintendent. “We can also interpret key Union positions and give visitors an appreciation for the last major battle leading to the fall of Atlanta.”

The Wallis House is one of the battlefield's few original structures still standing. The tiled ceiling, added well into the 20th century, is caving in in spots. The fireplaces bookending the house are shuttered. Damp, soiled carpets cover the original pine floors. The house has sat vacant, except for trespassers, the past two decades.

A developer, in 2002, wanted the entire property for upscale homes. The Wallis House would have been demolished. Cobb County bought the house and 6.7 acres with the intent of donating both to the battlefield park. The Cobb Land Trust bought an adjoining 1.1 acres for parking. The Georgia Civil War Commission chipped in $120,000.

In all, 8 acres would be donated to the park’s nearly 3,000 acres. The Park Service would require the house be restored to its 1864 appearance. Public, private and nonprofit entities are expected to cover the minimum $1 million needed to return the Wallis House to its Civil War glory.

Park Service specialists uncovered hand-hewn logs cobbled together with wooden pegs and square nails. Latter-day additions to the house and most outbuildings must be torn down. Restrooms and interpretive panels would be added nearby. Schoolkids would be able to tour the property by appointment; it would be open weekends for everybody else.

“Kids will be all excited by the house, then they can hike up Harriston Hill and go, ‘Ooo and ahh,’ ” Walther said. “The history will just come alive.”

Ocmulgee National Monument

Proposed designation: Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park

Location: Macon

Addition: 2,100 acres

Legislative status: Passed U.S. House; awaits U.S. Senate approval

Big plans are in store for this park dedicated to 17,000 years of Native American life. And, if all goes well, even bigger plans will turn Ocmulgee into the state’s first full-fledged national park, joining the likes of Yosemite, the Everglades and the Great Smoky Mountains.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First up, Ocmulgee is in line for a 2,100-acre expansion — a tripling in size that would extend the park southward along the Ocmulgee River through archaeologically rich bottomlands. It would encircle the Lamar Mounds, the usually off-limits burial site two miles below the current boundary.

“It would fulfill an eternal dream for this park,” Park Superintendent Jim David said. “This area is unbelievably rich in resources.”

The Ocmulgee already holds the distinction as one of the largest archaeological sites in North American history. More than 2.5 million items have been excavated, many on display at the art deco-styled headquarters and museum. Native Americans first settled along the river as far back as 10,000 BC.

Its mound-building heyday occurred about a thousand years ago when the Mississippian Indians — perhaps the largest settlement of Native Americans in the South — built the Great Temple Mound. Burial mounds and the Earth Lodge, where the tribe’s elders conducted government and religious matters, were also constructed. The lodge, the park’s centerpiece, contains the clay effigy of an eagle with a fire pit and 50 earthen stools.

“It’s a cool spot, the only place in the world where you can see the original floor,” David said while touring the lodge. “I wish I had a time machine to go back and see what happened here.”

About one-third of the new land would likely be donated. It would take more than $2 million to buy the remaining 1,300 acres, with state, local, environmental and nonprofit groups picking up the tab. One goal: to link up with the Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and create an unbroken wildlife corridor with hiking trails.

One day, the Ocmulgee park could extend beyond the swamp all the way to Hawkinsville — 40 miles downriver. The legislation would enable a three-year study to determine whether the cultural and historical significance of the 45,000-acre tract warrants the creation of the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve. Much of the land is privately held, but there are two state wildlife management areas and Robins Air Force Base along the river. Congaree National Park in South Carolina, by comparison, is 27,000 acres.

First things first, though. If Congress approves, the national monument will become the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park and help clarify the park’s identity.

“If you walk downtown, a good portion of the people you ask won’t know what the Ocmulgee National Monument is,” said David, a 44-year veteran of the Park Service. “But if you say the ‘Indian mounds,’ then everyone in town will know what you’re talking about.”