Summer heat or winter chill, sometimes we all need an inviting and entertaining inside place to relax and enjoy. The Atlanta History Center is rapidly becoming an Atlanta destination for, well, let’s see: lunch, coffee, fascinating exhibits, historical homes and the beautiful Goizueta Gardens, perfect for strolling amid trees, ferns and plants such as common wild ginger, pinkroot, white wood asters and so many more.
To add to its allure, Atlanta History Center sits right in the heart of Buckhead, Atlanta’s center for high-end shopping, topnotch restaurants, popular pubs and glitzy nightspots.
“Barbecue Nation,” the newest exhibit at Atlanta History Center, runs through June 16, 2019. It’s a fun exhibit and the perfect appetizer for the phenomenal permanent exhibit opening at Atlanta History Center early next year. The historic cyclorama, “The Battle of Atlanta” painting, has moved from its long-time home in Atlanta's Grant Park to the new, custom-built, 23,000-square-foot Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama building at Atlanta History Center.
“The Battle of Atlanta” is one of only 17 surviving cycloramas worldwide. These massive paintings predated Hollywood talkies and are sometimes described as the 3-D IMAX movies of their time. Of the 11 still on exhibit, only three reside in North America -- one in Quebec, one in Pennsylvania and, of course, Atlanta’s own “The Battle of Atlanta.”
Standing 42-feet tall with a circumference of 371 feet, the painting weighs in the neighborhood of 10,000 pounds. Moving it from Grant Park, where it has resided since 1921, was a feat of engineering.
Once the team of experts completed the move, which took two full days, they began restoring the painting, an ongoing process that includes the re-creation of seven feet of sky across the top.
To add to the excitement of the newly restored and relocated cyclorama, the restored 1856 “Texas” locomotive – a relic of Atlanta’s early railroading days known for its role in 1862’s Great Locomotive Chase – also has a new home at Atlanta History Center. Repainted black, a typical color scheme for locomotives of the 1880s, the Texas is at home inside a new 2,000-square-foot gallery that is connected to the new cyclorama building. The Texas gallery opens to the public in November.
The Texas pulled passenger and freight trains in Atlanta and around North Georgia for 51 of the region’s formative years, retiring from service in 1907. A workhorse from the end of the Civil War through the early 1900s, the Texas was rescued from the W&A rail yard in Atlanta where it was heading for scrap in 1907.
The Texas and another locomotive known as the General were saved because of their roles in the Great Locomotive Chase. Union Army loyalists commandeered the General from the town of Big Shanty (now the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw) and drove it north toward Chattanooga, wreaking destruction to the W&A line, until it was finally caught by Confederate forces pursuing aboard the Texas. The Great Locomotive Chase is the subject of a 1926 Buster Keaton film, a 1956 Disney movie and dozens of books.
As exciting as those two restored attractions are, there’s plenty to see at Atlanta History Center right now. Here are just a few highlights from “Barbecue Nation:”
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s GE PartioCart is one of several vintage grills on display. Look closely. On the stove top, there are two burners and a grill. On the sides are drop-down cutting boards. Best feature: It’s portable. Lift up the handles at the rear and roll it to a favorite picnic spot. A photo of Ike with Herbert Hoover indicates that the prez sometimes did his own grilling.
- A showcase with a plush opossum inside tells the story of the 1909 banquet Atlanta threw for president-elect William Howard Taft. The main course was, yep, barbecued opossum. The exhibit notes that for a short time after the banquet, the plush Billy Possum became a visible, though short-lived, counterpart to Theodore Roosevelt’s Teddy Bear.
- Ford Motor Co. once sold not only cars, but also barbecue grills, one of which is on display. Some of these were actually affixed to the back of certain Ford automobiles.
- Hanging from the ceiling in one gallery is the neon Auburn Ave. Rib Shack sign dating to Atlanta's 1950s.
Now, about lunch: Popular Atlanta restaurant Souper Jenny recently moved into an inviting space near the entrance to Atlanta History Center. Even more recently, BRASH Coffee opened at the history center. (Visitors may grab lunch or coffee without buying admittance to Atlanta History Center.)
Just past the BRASH Coffee counter is the expanded Atlanta History Center gift shop, chock-full of Atlanta-centric merchandise including a table of golf-related gifts – a tie-in with the “Fair Play: The Bobby Jones Story” exhibit inside Atlanta History Center. There are books galore and coffee mugs, too, including one that reads, “Busy Making History.” Naturally, there’s pecan butter and Grits Bits plus assorted items including books, mugs and T-shirts all about the Swan House, which is one of two historical homes that are part of the Atlanta History Center campus.
If the “Barbecue Nation” exhibit leaves your mouth watering for some ‘cue, choose from eight popular restaurants in our Atlanta BBQ Smackdown.
As a button available at Atlanta History Center reads, "History is Messy!" So is barbecue, but who cares?
Journalist Carol Carter writes and edits for Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.