Nancy Ballew highlights names of major donors carved into limestone walls in the Atlanta History Center’s new 5,300-square-foot atrium.

The Atlanta History Center is reopening its front doors.
 
One recent Friday afternoon, construction workers were putting finishing touches on the building’s new 5,300-square-foot atrium. One worker touched up drywall on the new ceiling. Another worker spray-painted letters to highlight the names of major donors that had been carved into the new limestone walls.
 
Standing near the new front door, Jackson McQuigg, vice president of properties for the history center, pointed out how the new entrance and 30-foot-tall, glass-walled atrium would take future visitors directly to the large hallway leading to the center’s exhibits, and to the gardens and displays beyond.
 
“It’s all coming together,” McQuigg said. “And it’s so exciting.”
 
After about 14 months of construction, the history center’s new entryway, part of a $21 million renovation of the building, is scheduled to open to the public on Nov. 7. The opening marks roughly the halfway point in a renovation and expansion that officials say is intended to make the history center’s home on West Paces Ferry Road more inviting and less, well, stodgy.
 
“It’s not just the physical changes, it’s the cultural changes and the mindset changes we’ve had at this organization,” said Hillary Hardwick, vice president of marketing communications at the center. “It’s all about the visitor.”
 
The new atrium is roughly twice the size of the old entryway and the design of the new facade – a curve of glass and limestone set on a granite base – is intended to make the building more visible from West Paces Ferry. Inside, McQuigg said, designers want to make it “feel like a true civic building.”
 
“I’m hoping it will become a cultural landmark in years to come,” McQuigg said.
 
The new entryway is part of a parade of changes from new exhibits to a new, 23,000-square-foot building to house the Cyclorama, which is moving from Grant Park. As part of the project, the history center plans to restore “Battle of Atlanta,” the circular painting in the display.
 
The new structure housing the painting will rise 35 feet above the ground and extend 15 feet below ground level, McQuigg said. It will be connected to the center’s current building by a glass-enclosed breezeway containing “The Texas,” a Civil War-vintage train engine. McQuigg said the breezeway would be, in effect, “a giant display case,” and that the engine would be visible to passersby on West Paces.
In January, the center plans to open a new temporary exhibit called “Atlanta in 50 Objects.”  Then, next April, the center opens a new permanent exhibit on the history of Atlanta.
 
Also in April, Souper Jenny plans to relocate its Buckhead location to the lobby of the history center building. In a press release, the center promised the café “will be a cross between a chic, funky local café and coffee shop.” Jennifer Levison, founder and owner of Souper Jenny, called the move to the 4,017-square-foot location “a perfect fit for the culture of Souper Jenny.”
 
“When the Atlanta History Center first approached me about the idea, I was skeptical,” she said in a press release. “I always had a preconceived notion about what the history center was and who they attracted, and didn’t think our bohemian café was a good fit. It is apparent their enthusiastic focus is to turn these old perceptions upside down.”
 
The center says it also plans to install a bookstore featuring a mix of specialty sections and topics, including Atlanta history, Southern studies, architecture, gardening, children’s books and cookbooks.
 
“We want to do more than just engage visitors with our buildings; we want to find ways to foster opportunities to connect with Atlantans on a daily basis and perhaps surprise them along the way,” center President and CEO Sheffield Hale said in a press release.
Perhaps also to convince them to take more of a look around.
 
As McQuigg pointed out features of the new entryway recently, he admitted the old layout often encouraged visitors to pass through quickly to wherever they were headed. The new one is supposed to encourage them to stick around. “We want people to linger,” he said.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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