Throwback Atlanta: Metro landmarks with staying power

A new, occasional series will highlight favorite places that have stood the test of time.
Zoo Atlanta entrance. ZOO ATLANTA

Zoo Atlanta entrance. ZOO ATLANTA

“We stand not so much as a gateway to the South,” Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson famously said, “but as a gateway to a new time, a new era, a new beginning for the cities of our land.”

He was, of course, referring to the airport that now bears his name and has become the busiest flight hub in the world. But Jackson, who served three terms as mayor across the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, was also eloquently summing up our city’s common credo: out with the old, in with the new.

The frenzy to constantly build, develop and pave over — with entire neighborhoods shape-shifting at times — is why we covet places that have stood the test of time.

With that in mind, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is starting an occasional series to highlight Atlanta’s hallowed historic haunts, places that have cheated the bulldozer and retained a good deal of their original character.

One note: The focus on longevity should never be misconstrued as a mistaken belief that the “old days” were somehow better. For many people, the past is ugly and painful. Rather, with each piece in this series, we want to celebrate landmarks from across the metro area that you can still visit — shops, bars, restaurants, museums and other sites with staying power.

Zoo Atlanta – 1889

The story of the zoo’s founding sounds like folklore. As the zoo tells it, a circus making its way up to Marietta got stalled in 1889. That was the first in a series of unfortunate events that led the circus owner to declare bankruptcy and leave behind all the animals.

Grant Park Zoo employee reaching out to calm "Jimmy Walker" the zoo's first tiger, through the bars, Atlanta, Georgia, May 1937. Lane Brothers Commercial Photographers, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library

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What followed was basically the 19th-century version of “We Bought a Zoo.” A Pennsylvania-born lumber merchant named George Valentine Gress purchased the animals, including hyenas, lions, camels and snakes, at an auction and donated them to the city.

In the early 1960s, visitors could feed the elephants at Atlanta's zoo. (Bill Young/AJC)

Credit: Bill Young

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Credit: Bill Young

Over the years, zookeeping has significantly improved from the Victorian idea of animal care, which mainly boiled down to “small metal cages for all!” By contrast, the zoo began construction last month on the Rollins Animal Health Center, a state-of-the-art veterinary care facility. The $22 million center will feature a dedicated laboratory, pharmacy and radiology, treatment and surgical areas.

Zoo Atlanta: 800 Cherokee Ave. SE, 404-624-5600, zooatlanta.org.

The Busy Bee – 1947

Last year, this beloved West Side staple won a James Beard Foundation Classics Award, which specifically recognizes a “locally and independently owned restaurant with timeless appeal, beloved in its region for food that reflects the character and cultural traditions of its community.” To say that this place embodies those qualities is an understatement.

The Busy Bee opened its doors just after World War II. (Jenni Girtman / Atlanta Event Photography)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

The Busy Bee was founded immediately after World War II by entrepreneur and self-taught chef Lucy Jackson, who ran the place until she retired in the 1980s. These days, with an emphasis on the “busy” part of its name, this cafe still manages to track and produce a massive amount of comfort food, including killer fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pie, for takeout and delivery.

Stand in the parking lot on any given weekend rush and marvel as a small team of professionals manages to keep everyone patiently waiting, offering reassurances and the promise of an epic meal to come.

The Busy Bee: 810 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive SW. 404-525-9212, thebusybeecafe.com.

Fernbank Science Center – 1967

Don’t confuse this with the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, which didn’t open its doors until 1992. The science center was founded as a public resource by the DeKalb County School System in the late 1960s, but the land on which it rests was purchased in the 19th century by Z.D. Harrison. His daughter, ardent nature lover Emily Harrison, named the area Fernbank and pressed to keep the old-growth forest preserved, according to the science center and the natural history museum.

Back in 1998, 3 year-old Trevor Krolak of Alpharetta examined one of the exhibits at Fernbank Science Center. (Anitta C. Charlson/AJC)

Credit: AJC staff photo

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Credit: AJC staff photo

Today, the center still has a lot going for it. First, it’s free. Second, it’s free. Third … but we digress. It boasts some wildly kitschy nature displays, like the Okefenokee Swamp scene constructed with frozen-in-action animal models, plus the actual 1968-launched Apollo 6 command module.

Back in the late 1990s, students examine the Apollo 6 space capsule at Fernbank Science Center. (Phil Skinner/AJC)

Credit: AJC staff

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Credit: AJC staff

The Ralph Buice Jr. Observatory, which boasts the biggest telescope in the southeastern United States, offers prime star gazing. Best of all, there’s an amazing planetarium with a 70-foot diameter screen. The planetarium shows aren’t free, but at $10 for adults and $5 for students and seniors, they are much cheaper than the local megaplex.

Fernbank Science Center: 156 Heaton Park Drive, 678-874-7102, fernbank.edu.

Wuxtry Records in Decatur – 1978

With the advent of music-streaming services like Spotify, you might think that actual brick-and-mortar record stores had gone the way of the dinosaurs. But you would be wrong.

Wuxtry Records inherently qualifies for "throwback" status. (Chad Radford)

Credit: Chad Radford

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Credit: Chad Radford

Vinyl has always held a particular appeal, and even CDs can be curious artifacts for the right collector. The Decatur branch of Wuxtry Records, located at the busy intersection of Clairmont and North Decatur roads, opened a year after the mothership location in Athens. The original store is where Peter Buck was working when he met Michael Stipe — an encounter that led to the first performance in 1980 of the wonder known as R.E.M.

For any true music lover, walking into Wuxtry is a soothing, meditative experience. The store is organized neatly into row after row of fine work by the world’s best musicians, including probably a project or two they’d prefer to forget. (“Cut the Crap” by The Clash, anyone?) You can get lost for hours in the bins. Plus, every inch of wall space is plastered with concert posters and iconic album covers.

In some places, the rug between the aisles has been so well-traversed by treasure hunters that it’s worn down to reveal the original flooring. Be sure to look for the friendly record-store pup, Podushka (Russian word for “pillow”), who may greet you when you walk in.

Wuxtry Records: 2096 North Decatur Road, Decatur, 404-329-0020, wuxtryrecords.com.

Johnny’s Hideaway – 1979

This is the kind of place that you wish could whisper its secrets to you. It’s a nightclub that time forgot with that distinctive old-bar smell — a witchy mix of dried beer, alcohol-fueled laughter and wild memories.

Not up for dancing tonight? No worries. Pull up a chair.
(Courtesy of Johnny’s Hideaway)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Pictures of big-name rock and pop stars line the walls with a corner dedicated to The King, featuring one of Elvis’ latter-era suits framed on the wall. There’s a fuzzy green sign hanging over the “Sinatra Room,” which features a similar tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes.

The walls of Johnny's Hideaway are covered in memorabilia.
(Courtesy of Johnny’s Hideaway)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

The high-top tables feature padding where you can lay your arms. The chairs and the lighting are red. There’s a mirror by the small dance floor, a DJ booth and those classic stained-glass “1980s Pizza Hut” lamps. Come during the day, and it’s a place where the bartender knows the regulars. By night, it’s an anything-can-happen equation.

Johnny’s Hideaway: 3771 Roswell Road NE, 404-233-8026, johnnyshideaway.com.

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