By Tom Oder
The Atlanta History Center is getting a new front door.
This door, however, won’t replace the one at McElreath Hall, the center’s main building, which houses a treasure trove of Atlanta’s historical records. This new entrance will be at the corner of Slaton Drive and West Paces Ferry Road.
The center is building a new pedestrian and garden entrance to its 33-acre forested campus at one of Buckhead’s busiest intersections. The new garden will be called Veterans Park to honor America’s servicemen and servicewomen.
Veterans Park will open to the public during a Memorial Day weekend program called Military Timeline. Set for Saturday, May 25, from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., the program will feature patriotic and family-oriented activities. Admission is free for visitors with a military ID and to History Center members. Non-members can attend as part of the cost of general admission to the History Center.
The History Center will formally dedicate Veterans Park in a public ceremony on Memorial Day, Monday, May 27, at 5 p.m.
The new park will replace the green space that had been at the Slaton Drive and West Paces Ferry Road intersection since 2000. That space, called Veterans Plaza, honored veterans of the Vietnam War. Veterans Park will honor men and women who served in World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and recent conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Larger than the original park, Veterans Park will include a walled contemplative garden, a water feature, a seating area, and stations where visitors can use QR codes on mobile phones to hear oral histories of veterans.
“With the redesign of Veterans Park, we are trying to become more accessible and relevant to nearby residents and visitors,” said Jackson McQuigg, vice president of properties for the History Center. In addition to being a new entrance, McQuigg said History Center officials are encouraging people who live and work nearby to bring their lunch to the park on a regular basis and enjoy the new space.
“Access to Veterans Park will be free and it will have free wi-fi,” McQuigg emphasized. “People can even park in the History Center parking deck and walk to Veterans Park. The History Center parking,” he added with a chuckle, “is also free.”
“The new garden is in keeping with the History Center’s vision that gardens featuring native plants are as much a part of the state’s history as the manuscripts, maps and photographs in its research center,” said center spokesperson Leigh Massey.
The center offers 22 acres with five featured gardens, woodlands and nature trails that showcase the state’s horticultural history.
The most popular of the gardens, the Smith Family Gardens, should be in glorious bloom Memorial Day weekend, said Sarah Roberts, the History Center’s historic gardens curator. This garden features an 1860s farm setting with flower and vegetable gardens, a slave’s garden, a fruit orchard and field crop area. Some farm animals are back after being away for several years. There are four sheep, including two lambs, a rooster and chickens that will help bring the farm experience alive.
A stroller and wheelchair accessible trail leads to the other gardens: the quarry garden that features the state champion Franklin Tree (the largest Franklinia altamaha in cultivation in Georgia), long extinct in the wild; the lavish gardens of boxwoods and roses at the 1920s Swan House; the rhododendron garden featuring shade-loving plants that thrive in Atlanta; and the Asian-American garden of Japanese maples that is remarkable in any season but bursts with color in the fall.
Even with all the beautiful, rare and endangered plants to see in the gardens, one of the delights in strolling through the towering urban forest and listening to birds sing in the canopy is what visitors don’t see and hear. It doesn’t take long to forget that Buckhead’s office towers, glitzy shopping, dining spots and traffic on Peachtree and Roswell roads are located only several blocks away.
The Atlanta History Center: 130 West Paces Ferry Road, 404-814-4000, www.atlantahistorycenter.com
Hours of Operation: Museum
Monday – Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Sunday: Noon – 5:30 p.m. Gardens and grounds close at 5:15 p.m.
Swan House and Smith Family House tours
Guided tours are scheduled by onsite admissions staff at time of arrival. Space is limited. For groups of 10 or more, call 404-814-4062. All tour times subject to change without notice.
Monday – Saturday: 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Sunday: 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Smith Family Farm
Monday – Saturday: 11:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Sunday: 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Kenan Research Center
Wednesday – Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday – Tuesday: Closed
Holidays: The History Center and Kenan Research Center are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The History Center is open from 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. on Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Columbus Day.
Gardens and trails showcasing the Atlanta region’s horticultural history are among the main attractions at the Atlanta History Center. The trails are designed for stroller and wheelchair use, though access may be limited in places.
Featured gardens and trails
Connor Brown Discovery Trail
This trail links the gardens, grounds and historic houses. It was designed for families, and introduces children to weather, trees, plants, landscape and animals that are common to the Georgia region. Seven interactive discovery stations add to the learning experience. Be sure to spend some time at the overlook.
The Mary Howard Gilbert Memorial Quarry Garden
This 3-acre garden shelters one of Georgia’s most comprehensive collections of native plants (almost 600 species). A pond and bog garden in the center of the quarry provides a habitat for unusual species, such as carnivorous plants and wild orchids, and a variety of birds and woodland creatures. If you’re lucky, perhaps the lady slipper orchids will be in bloom during your visit.
Smith Family Farm Gardens
A fenced vegetable garden, a plot devoted to corn and cotton, old-fashioned flowers, a farm house, slave quarters and a swept-dirt yard will take visitors back in time to see what life was like in 1860s Georgia. The children won’t want to miss the sheep.
Cherry Sims Asian-American Garden
Asian plants and their American counterparts co-mingle under towering trees in this informal woodland setting. Many plants will be familiar to visitors because they often are the backbone of Atlanta-area gardens. The most familiar plants will be Japanese maples and hydrangeas.
Swan House Gardens and Grounds
The 18th century-inspired landscape of this elegant and historic house features a pair of cloverleaf pools, cascading fountains, a terraced lawn and roses tumbling over a stone retaining wall. Bring your camera; the Swan House Garden is one of the most photographed sites in Atlanta.
Frank A. Smith Rhododendron Garden
Gardeners who have shaded landscapes will find inspiration in this garden. They will see how an abundance of shade-loving rhododendrons, small flowering trees, eclectic ground covers and giant elephant ears can flourish in shady spots. An intimate pond and a dry stream offer added reasons to linger in this garden, especially on a warm day.
Swan Woods Trail
Vestiges of terraced cotton fields abandoned a century ago are still visible along this trail through 10 acres of robust urban forest. Wildlife sightings will reward the watchful. Fern lovers will want to put Fern Circle on their don’t-miss list. It includes a collection of fern species and wildflowers native to the Georgia Piedmont. Also situated on the Swan Woods Trail is the Garden for Peace, part of an international gardens network dedicated to promoting peace.