Atlanta History Center plans 21st-century transformation

Seeking to forge a stronger connection with the growing metro community and to attract a new generation of visitors who demand fresh approaches to understanding the past, the Atlanta History Center is unveiling plans for a major 21st-century makeover Thursday.

The big items on its long list of projects are a more welcoming main entrance on West Paces Ferry Road and an of-the-moment permanent Atlanta history exhibition. But there is virtually no part of the leafy 33-acre Buckhead campus that will be untouched by enhancements.

“We want to have a face on West Paces Ferry that reads that we’re running a museum,” said Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the History Center. “It’s not apparent what’s here now. We want it to (convey), ‘Open all the time — public space.’”

The transformation will be paid for with $21.1 million raised in a just-completed capital campaign, easily the largest in the august institution’s 88-year history.

Other aspects will include the shifting of the front entrance so that it leads straight into the corridor housing most of the museum’s permanent exhibits. Their sheet-rocked entry walls will be opened up with floor-to-ceiling glass.

A bookstore-bistro, also glass-fronted, will be added beside the main entrance, accessible without admission. And the lobby/atrium will be expanded to 5,300 square feet to better accommodate center and private functions.

The enhanced sense of openness will extend to the new Atlanta exhibit, which, in a change of policy, will remain open during all evening events, with guests allowed to stroll through while imbibing drinks of their choice.

A $3 million Goizueta Foundation grant will be dedicated to the revitalization of the center’s 22 acres of gardens and grounds, with an emphasis on pathways and lighting that will make the campus easier to traverse at night.

The Wood Family Cabin, an 1830s log structure, will become the center’s third historic home. It will be sited in Swan Woods, where it will offer interpretation about the city’s beginnings.

Even though the campaign’s completion is being formally announced Thursday, several major projects already have been finished. They include the 130-foot-long steel and wood Quarry Garden Bridge connecting the museum to the 1928 Swan House mansion; “green” improvements to the main building that will cut energy and water consumption; and the three-quarters-acre Veterans Park. Finished a year ago, the commemorative grounds added a community gathering space and opened up a vista to the center’s entrance from the busy West Paces Ferry-Slaton Drive intersection.

The institution’s front door has been a near-obsession of Hale, the attorney and former History Center board chairman, since he became became president and CEO in early 2012. In one of his first acts, Hale had a chain-link fence and security gate out front removed.

The Atlanta native said that “welcoming” has become his staff’s mantra as it has worked through planning with the Atlanta-based architecture firm MSTSD and landscape architect Mack Cain.

Hale has felt for years that the main building, sited between Buckhead’s bustling commercial center and its exclusive neighborhoods, looks more like a fraternal lodge than a history center. He noted that even the admissions desk feels off-putting, like a passport office.

The redesigned entry will be enhanced with $250,000 in landscaping, to suggest the diversity of the center’s six historic gardens tucked behind the museum.

“People have no idea right now,” Hale said of one of the city’s most appealing, yet little-known garden spots.

The History Center plans to remain open seven days a week for the renovation, scheduled to begin July 21 and estimated to be completed in a year. The main entrance will be temporarily located off Andrews Drive, with ticketing to move inside McElreath Hall, close to surface and deck parking that will remain available and free.

Even with construction beginning soon, countless decisions remain, Hale acknowledged.

The most major ones relate to the project cornerstone, the Atlanta exhibit that will replace “Metropolitan Frontiers.” That now-closed exhibit opened in 1993 with the museum building and had shown its age more with each passing year.

The still-to-be-named exhibit will fill a 7,700-square-foot footprint and meld the most contemporary technology with artifacts and documents from the History Center’s deep permanent collections.

There will be dedicated “museum theater” spaces, as well. In 2011, the museum launched “Meet the Past,” a multiyear programming initiative that uses interactive interpretation to bring to life stories of figures from throughout Atlanta’s history. It created a staff playwright position for Addae Moon, as far as Hale knows the only history center boasting such a slot.

The exhibition team, being led by new staff historian Calinda Lee, is mulling feedback from ongoing community focus groups.

For his part, Hale said he hoped the exhibit would allow visitors “to be able to see themselves no matter how long they’ve been in the city, to understand how Atlanta got to be where it is and how they are connected to Atlanta.”

He said he hoped that it would also suggest, at least fleetingly, what the future holds for the capital of the South.

“But it’s not about what I want,” the leader quickly added. “We’re really focused on what the public wants.”

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