The first movie I ever saw at Garden Hills Cinema was “Howards End” in 1992. I was giddily in love with a new partner, desperate to visit the UK and utterly charmed by the fading glory of the old theater with its tattered velvet curtain and creaking seats.
The love affair lasted a year, but my love for Garden Hills continued until it closed its doors in October, 2006. I saw some of my favorite films there: “Orlando,” “All About My Mother,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy, “Ghost World,” “Requiem for a Dream,” and Derek Jarman’s “Edward II,” to name a few.
This was when George Lefont owned the cinema and screened foreign and indie films while multiplexes and mindless Hollywood blockbusters slowly encroached on the little movie palaces. Before Lefont, the cinema was operated by Affiliated Theaters and later the Weiss theater chain, when it was known as the Garden Hills Fine Art Theatre.
There was talk of resurrecting the cinema, but that ended in December 2013 when a fire gutted the Atlanta Bike shop and caused significant water and smoke damage to the other businesses in the Peachtree Road strip. On March 16, the wrecking ball arrived to begin demolition. The only thing that remains at the corner of Peachtree and Rumson is the part of the strip that houses La Fonda and Fellini’s restaurants.
The loss of Garden Hills Cinema hit me just as hard as when Lefont’s other indie theaters closed: The Silver Screen in Peachtree Battle Shopping Center, Toco Hills Theater, Ansley Cinema in Ansley Mall and The Screening Room in the old Lindbergh Plaza. Lefont also owned The Plaza Theatre and Tara Cinema – both, thankfully, still in operation under other owners – but all that remains of his indie cinema empire is Lefont Sandy Springs. Cinema hasn’t been the same in Atlanta since.
Sure, Garden Hills could be a pain in the neck. Parking in the tiny lot behind the building was often impossible. There was a single ticket booth and concession stand line; the circa-1939 cinema had a distinctly musty smell (although I would argue that was part of the charm) and you could feel every one of the springs in those seats.
Yet, the minor hassles were worth it once the lights dimmed and the curtain opened. In the 1990s, my weekends revolved around the also long-gone Oxford Books, coffee and dessert at Café Intermezzo and a movie at Garden Hills.
What will happen to the spot where Garden Hills Cinema once stood is unknown. Brand Properties, which owns the site, said it does not have a timeline for redevelopment, but has promised it will engage with Garden Hills’ residents about what is appropriate for the space.
A new building, whether it’s for retail or restaurants, will eventually rise there, but when I pass the spot where Garden Hills Cinema once stood, I’ll remember being young and in love, Emma Thompson’s lilting accent and the way the English rain sounded so deliciously close. Garden Hills transported me to other worlds, and I am forever grateful.