The new exterior of the Atlanta History Center.
The new main entrance to the Atlanta History Center.

By Joe Earle and Collin Kelley

The Atlanta History Center’s new “front door” has opened to the public.

Standing near the new front door, Jackson McQuigg, vice president of properties for the history center, recently pointed out how the new entrance and 5,300-suare-foot, 30-foot-tall, glass-walled atrium will take visitors directly 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 14 months of construction, the history center’s new entryway, part of a $21 million renovation of the building, reopened last month. The unveiling 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 in Buckhead 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.

A rendering of the new Cyclorama building. (Courtesy Atlanta History Center)
A rendering of the new Cyclorama building. (Courtesy Atlanta History Center)

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.

Atlanta History Center President Sheffield Hale said the Cyclorama would be restored to its original size and shape, with pieces cut away restored to show the painting as it was originally created in 1884. Hale said a 1980s renovation of the Cyclorama building essentially turned it in an “amusement ride” with a revolving stadium seating. The History Center will restore the circular viewing platform that gives visitors a more commanding look of the painting and diorama of figures the way it was intended to be seen.

The historic Texas locomotive will be visible through a giant glass wall.
The historic Texas locomotive will be visible through a giant glass wall.

Hale said during last month’s Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods’ meeting that the new Cyclorama building would open in 2017while construction and restoration was still under way so the public could watch it unfold. The completed Cyclorama will be ready in 2018, he said.

The new structure housing the painting will rise 35 feet above the ground and extend 15 feet below ground level. It will be connected to the center’s current building by a glass-enclosed breezeway containing “The Texas,” a Civil War-vintage train engine. Hale said the train will be visible on West Paces Ferry Road and will help draw in visitors.

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.”

A rendering of the new Souper Jenny restaurant and book shop at the Atlanta History Center.
A rendering of the new Souper Jenny restaurant and book shop at the Atlanta History Center.

“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.

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.

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.