Among the various events on tap this month to mark milestones in women’s history is one that, at first blush, might not have an obvious connection. But in fact, the Atlanta Preservation Center’s Phoenix Flies celebration of the city’s architecture and landscapes has strong ties to local women who contributed to saving Atlanta’s historic and cultural heritage.
Running through March 26, this year’s Phoenix Flies is specifically dedicated to 13 women from Atlanta who have played an important role in preservation efforts here and around the world. Among the honorees are the late Boyce Ansley, a former APC president, Atlanta Opera chair and regent of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association; Mtamanika Youngblood, a driving force behind the revitalization of the Old Fourth Ward; and Elaine Luxemburger, an advocate for historic preservation and author about the historic roots of the Brookwood Hills neighborhood.
“Women invented preservation, but what they were trying to do was not just preserve one building,” said Boyd Coons, the APC’s executive director. “They were preserving national culture and identity, a way of making America a better place by holding up things that evoke the highest character and citizen participation. Those efforts evolved into preserving a quality of life that we need to get back to, especially in Atlanta, where preservation is only discussed in terms of development. In fact, it’s part of our daily quality of life.”
Women’s contributions are being celebrated at many of the 99 venues that will be open free of charge as part of the Phoenix Flies event. They’ll be showcased at the Atlanta Woman’s Club, housed in the 1895 Wimbish mansion that stands as a reminder of what residential homes once looked like along Peachtree Street; the Forward Arts Foundation that supports the Swan Coach House, now an art gallery on the grounds of the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead; and the Herndon Home, built by Alonzo Herndon, founder of the Atlanta Life Insurance Co., and his wife, Adrienne, who designed most of the 15-room mansion and died within months of its completion. Today, the family home is the only privately owned African-American house museum in the country.
New this year to the Phoenix lineup is the Atlanta Central Library at One Margaret Mitchell Square downtown. Built in 1980, the structure is the last work of renowned architect Marcel Breuer and represents an example of Brutalist design. Visitors can sign up for a two-hour tour and see a short documentary on the building that has been — and still is — listed as one of the Preservation Center’s endangered sites.
Another first is the Atlanta Ballet opening its studio at 1695 Marietta Blvd. The company purchased and renovated the 1950s-era warehouse in 2010, and it now serves as a rehearsal center, scene shop and costume closet filled with outfits used over the past 20 years. But the ballet’s heritage is more significant than its building: It was founded by Dorothy Alexander in 1929, making it the oldest ballet company in the country and worth honoring as a cultural icon, Coons said.
“Preservation is a part of a cultural idea, and the mission of the center is to preserve Atlanta’s historic and cultural buildings and landscapes,” he said. “So it makes sense to talk about the culture out of which these built things came. In the case of the ballet and the opera, women were behind the founding of both; they championed and were a big part of shaping the culture a city should have.”
Tricia Ekholm, the ballet’s chief marketing officer, isn’t sure many Atlantans are aware of the company’s historic importance.
“Even though we don’t have a physical history, we have been part of the community since 1929, and I don’t know if people know that,” she said. “Our founder was all about creating a place for the arts.”
Locals and tourists alike also might not know much about some of the other venues that will be open for tours. Phoenix Flies offers behind-the-scenes peeks into many lesser-known or restricted locations, such as the East Lake Golf Club, The Temple on Peachtree Street, the Piedmont Driving Club in Ansley Park, the U.S. General Services Administration building on Forsyth Street and the Bass Lofts, a former school building that was turned into residential units near Little Five Points.
The list of featured sites also includes an astonishing number of historic churches and cemeteries; walking tours of Underground Atlanta, City Hall and Peachtree Road in Buckhead; and a bus tour of the Beltline.
In addition to tours, the Phoenix features lectures and presentations on topics from the history of the Atlanta opera scene to the original settlers of Peachtree Creek. On March 11, Gordon Jones of the Atlanta History Center will discuss the strategies for preserving the Atlanta Cyclorama, the enormous canvas depicting the Battle of Atlanta that was recently moved from Grant Park to a new home at the center in Buckhead. On March 16, Matt Arnett, owner of Grocery on Home, an intimate music venue in a former Grant Park grocery store, will be joined by art historian and self-described “architectural tourist” Terry Kearns to discuss rare Gee’s Bend quilts, created by African-American women of Gee’s Bend in Alabama.
Phoenix Flies salutes ladies of preservation
A complete list of venues participating in the Phoenix Flies celebration (through March 26), including specific times and dates, is online at atlantapreservationcenter.com; 404-688-3353. While tours are free, some do limit the number of participants and may require reservations.