ATLANTA — Where can you find a Presidential movie mansion, a 125-year old painting that’s longer than a football field, gardens and a tiny door?
Find all that and more at the Atlanta History Center.
“We have 33 acres of gardens and history,” Atlanta History Center CEO Sheffield Hale said. “You can come and browse and graze and take in as much or as little as you want. We’re not a 45-minute attraction. We’re an institution that’s got reasons for you to come back again and again.”
While visitors can trace Atlanta’s history at the Atlanta History Center, the center’s history begins at the Swan House. Emily and Edward Inman built the estate as their dream home in 1928. While Edward died three years later, Emily lived there until 1965.
“She wanted this home preserved,” the Atlanta History Center’s Jessica Vanlanduyt said. “She had close ties with people with the Atlanta Historical Society, and a little plan developed that when Emily passed, the Historical Society would ownership and purchase the home from her, from the family. So the Atlanta Historical Society purchase the home and its contents and the 28 acres and the intent was for the historical society to move in and have space to grow.”
Today, the history center welcomes guests to tour the Swan House, one of architect’s Philip Shutze’s most famous creations.
“The home itself is broken up into four different floors,” Vanlanduyt said. “The main level is kind of the family’s living space. You’ll see more of the formal space of the home, those intended for entertaining and many of the contents are original to the home. So you’re experiencing the home today as the family did in the 1920s and 30s.”
The second floor features the bedrooms and an exhibit that commemorates the centennial of the 19th Amendment. The third floor features the servant’s quarters and discusses their contributions to the home and the city of Atlanta.
The terrace level features an exhibit on Shutze. The architect left his estate to the Atlanta History Center and there, visitors will find some of his collections.
Fans of the “Hunger Games” will recognize the mansion as President Snow’s home in the movie franchise.
While the home represents the Atlanta History Center’s berth, it’s far from its only attraction. The center’s largest piece is this painting that stands 49 feet tall, is longer than a football field and weighs over 10,000 pounds. It’s now a multimedia experience called Cyclorama: The Big Picture.
“Imagine the viewer in 1886, you’ve never seen color photographs, about the only thing that you see are woodcuts in a newspaper, black and white, still images,” the Atlanta History Center’s Gordon Jones said. “You’ve never seen anything this size. You’ve never seen films. And you walk into this space and you’re completely immersed in this scene, and you can’t see where it ends in your peripheral vision and you can’t see where it ends at the top or the bottom. You’re in the middle of the battle. You’ve never seen anything like this before.”
The Cyclorama depicts The Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864. Jones describes the cyclorama somewhere between history and art, fact and imagination.
It was built for entertaining audiences. Visiting and viewing one of these is something people did back in the late 1800s. When it toured northern regions, it showcased a northern victory, which the battle of Atlanta was. But when the traveling production turned south, the cyclorama’s tale was spun another way to showcase the Confederacy.
“You’re not going to see another one of these outside of here and Gettysburg, Penn. They are the only two surviving cycloramas in the United States from this period that are currently on display,” Jones said. This right here is a piece of entertainment and Civil War history.”
The cyclorama showcases several interesting tidbits. There’s only one African American in the painting. Jones theorizes he’s there to symbolize the Union’s cause. Northern general John A. Logan is the largest person in it. He became a celebrity after the war and having him in it gave it some star power. Speaking of star power, another star can be spotted in it, though he wasn’t depicted in the cyclorama for the first 50 years.
“In 1939 when the white stars of ‘Gone With the Wind,’ the Black stars were not invited, to the premiere in Atlanta, Clark Gable, Vivian Lee visited the cyclorama at the behest of the mayor of Atlanta,” Jones said. “Clark Gable supposably said ‘Hey, this is all great, except for one thing, I’m not in the painting.’ So, the mayor did the next best thing, he had Clark Gable sculpted as one of the little figurines and put him on the diorama as a dead Union soldier.”
Play a game of Where’s Waldo and see if you can spot them all.
What else is there to explore at the Atlanta History Center? Don’t miss The Locomotion: Railroads and the Making of Atlanta exhibit. It represents the beginnings of Atlanta’s history.
“We’re right in front of the Atlanta History Center, in front of the Texas locomotive and right next to the zero mile post that is right here,” Hale said. “This is why Atlanta is here. We’re a railroad town, wouldn’t be here, wouldn’t have any issues with water or anything else because we wouldn’t be so high up in the Piedmont. We’re here because of the railroads and these are the two symbols of Atlanta’s beginning, right here.”
Climb aboard the railroad before venturing deeper into the center’s other exhibits. From the Atlanta 96 exhibit to American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith to the Bobby Jones Story, there’s so much to see and do that you can’t get it all done in a day.
And that’s before heading outside to explore some of the historic houses and gardens on the Atlanta History Center’s 33 acres.
Georgia’s oldest surviving farmhouse is on the property. The Smith Farm tells the story of a working slave-holding farm.
The Wood Cabin serves as a reminder that the Atlanta you know today used to be the frontier and tells the story of Native Americans, white settlers and southern folk traditions.
Explore some of the nature paths, boardwalk and gardens the Atlanta History Center has to offer. See some animals, too.
”Outdoors, we’ve got these different gardens, but we’ve got one cool thing which is animals. We’ve got sheep, we’ve got goats, we’ve got chickens and they are all heirloom,” Hale said. “You can bring your kids and grandkids there and they can learn a little bit about what farm life was like in 1860s.”
The Atlanta History Center is open Tuesdays to Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. There’s free parking, too. And whether you visit as part of a home-school group, with your family or bring out of town guests, don’t forget to allow some time to find the Tiny Door. Some of Atlanta’s most famous places include a seven-inch door from Tiny Doors ATL, an art project that aims to bring big wonder to spaces around Atlanta. Have some fun searching for the Swan House Tiny Door on a visit.
Between movie mansions, great gardens, trains and tiny doors, there’s plenty of fun to be had while learning how Atlanta became Atlanta.
“We’re not boring,” Hale said. “I’m against being bored. I’m an anti-boredom person. I can’t sand it. So come here, I promise you you won’t be bored.”
This story is sponsored by the Atlanta History Center.
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