After a decade of preserving local landmarks, the Buckhead Heritage Society is celebrating a little history of its own with a 10th anniversary holiday party Dec. 15.
“I think for a small group that just started 10 years ago, [we’ve done] as good a job as could be expected,” said Wright Mitchell, the society’s former president who founded the group in 2006 alongside Tamara Bazzle and Bob Helget.
The society’s major preservation successes include moving the 1924 Randoph-Lucas House to Ansley Park to avoid demolition and rescuing the Harmony Grove and Mount Olive cemeteries from oblivion. Today, it has about 500 members and operates from an office on Mathieson Drive in Buckhead Forest.
Under new Executive Director Carmie McDonald, the society is looking forward to a busy future, too. That includes launching a master plan for public-art-style historic displays throughout the neighborhood and what McDonald says will be “more of a proactive approach to preservation in the community.”
Mitchell is an Atlanta native who has always had an interest in, as he puts it, “what was here before the cars and the traffic and the glass buildings.”
He previously served as vice-chairman of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. But the idea for a local history group came from a much smaller moment: a jog past the corner of West Paces Ferry and Chatham roads, where Mitchell saw old headstones peeking out of overgrowth.
“I stumbled across Harmony Grove Cemetery,” Mitchell said. “I lived here my whole life and drove past it a million times and never knew it was there.”
It turned out to be an 1800s cemetery that includes what are believed to be graves of African American residents marked only with fieldstones. Mitchell, Bazzle and Helge teamed for a rehabilitation and preservation effort that eventually raised $50,000 and won a 2009 Georgia Trust award.
“It confirmed to me the real need for a historic preservation group in the neighborhood,” Mitchell said.
The new organization first incorporated as the “Buckhead Preservation Society,” Mitchell said, but quickly decided that name was too limiting.
“We wanted to preserve not only the built environment, but also the stories, the culture,” he said.
The society’s work since then has included an ongoing collection of oral histories; a first-ever inventory of Buckhead’s historic resources; and research on the neighborhood’s African American history. The society even sorted out the origin of name “Buckhead” itself—a deer’s head mounted on a post around 1838 near Henry Irby’s tavern close to today’s Peachtree and Paces Ferry intersection.
Early next year, Loudermilk Park, located in that same area, will be home to the society’s own form of signage. A transparent plastic image will allow visitors to see the current Buckhead Theatre and a historic photo of the building at the same time. It will be the first interpretive sign built from a master plan organized by former Executive Director Erica Danylchak.
That’s one of the ongoing programs that will be continued by McDonald, who took over as executive director in September. She previously worked at the Historic Savannah Foundation and at the Fox Theatre, where she directed a program that shares resources with other historic theaters around the state. Her spouse, Mark McDonald, is the Georgia Trust’s president and CEO.
Carmie McDonald said the society’s next 10 years will involve more proactive preservation and interpretation work. Redevelopment is the biggest challenge, she said, but also an opportunity for preservation, rehabilitation and education.
“I think a lot of times, preservation is looked at as a culture of ‘no,’” she said, adding that in Buckhead it can mean development that is “authentic and appropriate” for the neighborhood.
One new effort coming soon is a training program for real estate brokers about preservation issues and options. “Frequently, [brokers] are the first line of defense for historic preservation,” McDonald said, explaining that they often know first about historic buildings that an owner might consider demolishing without knowing the history, or might want to preserve without knowing the resources available.
The society may also add its voice to preservation issues as the city discusses its ongoing urban planning efforts leading up to a new zoning code.
“I think we certainly will be a voice for preservation in Buckhead,” McDonald said, “and Buckhead exists in the context of a great city.”
The 10th anniversary celebration honoring founding members will be part of the annual Holiday Gathering on Dec. 15 at a historic private home at 3164 Andrews Drive. Tickets are $150 for members, $175 for non-members. For more information, call 404-467-9447 or see email@example.com.