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Address: 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard, Atlanta, GA 30313
What Is It: A museum with exhibition space that delves into the American struggle for, and achievements in, civil rights here and human rights abroad, the former infused with plenty of both Atlanta and U.S. Southern history.
What Are THOSE?: Particularly when Black History Month rolls around, interests rise in expanding or refreshing one’s knowledge base as it pertains to the contributions of Americans to the causes of civil and human rights, and the challenges they face along the way.
Often those terms are used interchangeably, but in general, “human rights” are moral principles founded in the recognition that everyone’s inherently entitled, simply by virtue of being human, to sharing a place and having a role in any civilized society.
Normative rules are established at multiple levels of governance and law around the globe, protecting people from human behaviors and decisions that could violate human rights. The United Nations established a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, today cited by Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s “most translated document.” Today’s annual day to call attention to the need to end “modern slavery”, promoted by the “End It” movement, is but one example of global human rights advocacy.
Human rights are seen as an umbrella under which multiple classes of rights, if you will, stay dry. Among those classes, “civil rights” serve as insurance for the lives and livelihoods of citizens, specifically protection from discrimination on many grounds… most popularly in America, on matters of race and national origin.
On the grounds of curbing discrimination in America, Congress began passing “civil rights acts” after the Civil War. The initial one, in 1866, established that emancipated slaves and anyone born in the U.S. regardless of race (excepting American Indians) are citizens of this nation. Fears that such a bill could not be passed through Congress (one with influential Southern members after the war) led to the development of a 14th constitutional amendment, ratified in 1868. Nearly a dozen subsequent “civil rights” acts were passed by Congress, the most recent made law in 1991.
History: This museum centers its initial focus on the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) led largely by African-Americans from 1954 to 1968. Widows of two prominent civil rights leaders, Joseph Lowery and Ralph David Abernathy, initially conceived the establishment of an Atlanta-based museum that commemorated the role of Atlanta citizens in the areas of both human and civil rights.
Prominent leaders themselves, Evelyn Gibson Lowery (pictured above, d. 2013) and Juanita Abernathy collaborated with two other key CRM figures, former Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and current U.S. Representative John Lewis. The group approached the City of Atlanta (specifically, then-Mayor Shirley Franklin) with its proposal in 2001.
At that time, Atlanta was still in the afterglow of hosting the 1996 Olympics, and interest in expanding the Centennial Olympic Park area as a tourist and local visitor center was a civic priority. Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus announced his plans for the Georgia Aquarium in 2001, on land donated across from the park donated by The Coca-Cola Company, whose headquarters looms over the property from nearby. Coke wanted a more modern “World of Coca-Cola” museum than the one that sat beside Underground Atlanta. The company re-designated their bulldozed and purchased land as “Pemberton Place”, named after the founder of Coca-Cola, to host a collection of visitor sites.
There was considerable push to establish a civil and human rights center on or near the Auburn Avenue site of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park, located east of downtown and near the Carter Center. But the likelihood of greater foot traffic from the park, aquarium, hotels and arena/stadium sites was the prevailing consideration. Delta Air Lines and Falcons owner Arthur Blank contributed millions in fundraising, backed by local tax allocation district funds, to help the National Center’s foundation build the museum at Pemberton Place.
Groundbreaking was delayed, and the design downscaled, during the Great Recession as fundraising slowed. But the National Center finally opened to the public in June 2014.
Inside the 43,000-square-foot space, particularly amid the CRM gallery, you can’t help but sense a theatrical performance is about to break out. That’s largely because the curator and the lead creative officer guided stage direction and set design for numerous prominent Broadway productions. The exhibitions seek to engage attendees with a blend of historical photography and footage, graphics, 3-D displays, audiovisuals, and interactives that help establish a fuller sense of place and time, and a stronger connection with the movements’ diverse participants.
Once you’re ushered into the CRM exhibition, “Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement,” you’re presented with two vibrant walls of life in the 1950s South… segregated by race. Much of the presentations feature Atlanta after nearly a century of rising from the ashes, building solid industrial economies along dual tracks of “White” and “Colored.” While there was considerable effort to keep things as separate as possible, backed by “Jim Crow” laws of the day, it becomes clear from the exhibits that things were decidedly unequal.
The extent of the resistance brought on by the U.S. Supreme Court’s pivotal 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to strike down state-sponsored segregation is powerful and unnerving. The emergence of civic and political leaders pushing for integration runs smack into powerful alliances insistent on maintaining a sense (for them) of “order”.
Matters weren’t purely Black-and-White (Christian) at the time. The exhibit includes the 1958 bombing of The Temple in Midtown Atlanta, ostensibly an attempt by supremacists to intimidate Jewish citizens from using the synagogue as a center for civil rights advocacy. An echo of this bombing would come to Atlanta about four decades later.
The roles of White central-city political and business leaders like Mayors William Hartsfield, Ivan Allen, Jr. and newspaper editor Ralph McGill are brought forward as icons of the Atlanta elite’s boosterism mentality to present itself exceptionally as “The City Too Busy to Hate,” foremost for the sake of the local economy. It’s probable that an international airport isn’t sited here, and pro sports teams from places like St. Louis and Milwaukee don’t look to relocate here, without the stances by Atlanta boosters to dampen resistance to the CRM.
While I won’t give away too much here, the star feature in the exhibit is the interactive “lunch counter sit-in,” modeled after the prominent demonstrations begun in the North in the late 1930s, and applied to places like Greensboro and Nashville during the rise in student participation in the CRM. At the risk of being reductive, for the uninitiated, this “hands-on” interactive shares commonality with the Beverly soda tasting experience at the World of Coke next door. It’s brief and highly discomforting, yet you’ll find yourself hoping friends will share the experience (hopefully, not relive it) during their visits.
Other strong takeaways include the stories of the Freedom Riders, where you gain a good sense of the magnitude of men and women of many backgrounds contributing to the cause of desegregation in public accommodations like bus terminals, and the heavy tolls inflicted upon them by fellow citizens and law enforcement agencies alike. The exhibits exquisitely detail the covert and overt threats to life, liberty and property during the time, from the church bombing in Birmingham to the assassination and funeral of Atlanta native MLK.
Along the way you learn of the lives of so many prominent leaders pushing the cause of civil rights, forging new alliances, and ensuring their issues remained front-and-center for debate in city halls, state houses and the White House.
The CRM exhibits lead museum-goers upwards to “Spark of Conviction: the Global Human Rights Movement”, a transition from the drab and dour scenes of CRM martyrdom toward the light and brighter promises of modernity. The starkness of the shift tends to give the impression that, while deep struggles for rights here and abroad remain, we have come a long way in many respects.
If you’ve been to more than your share of “national/international” civil rights museums in Memphis, Greensboro, and Birmingham, among other places, it is this permanent human rights exhibit that distinguishes The Center, invoking the museum’s relevance to this Olympic metropolis of global commerce. The curator for this exhibit worked extensively with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the affiliated Center for the Prevention of Genocide.
The exhibit seeks to remind attendees that there are human rights being fought for along many lines around the globe, whether it pertains to suffrage and women’s rights, to those for individuals with disabilities, religious minorities, LGBT citizens, children, immigrants, and industrial workers. Audiovisual displays detailing these concerns are presented together in a hall that shines daylight through a global window-map. The resistance to human rights advancement is well-displayed by a “rogues gallery” of murderous dictators and other committers of government-enforced human atrocities from many continents.
One simple yet effective set of displays challenge users to consider their “ethical footprint,” specifically the products we consume (from flowers to chocolate to sneakers, and so on) whose economies often rest on the suppression of others’ rights.
I disagree with the notion, presented by then-New York Times arts critic Edward Rothstein, that the inclusion of exhibits centering on human rights “diminishes,” somehow, the significance of the civil rights movement. Rather, Gandhian principles and the efforts to advance women’s and workers’ rights not only helped inform the concepts and practices of the CRM. Together, with the lessons learned from the CRM, they helped form a basis by which sociopolitical gains are being made today. These views are reinforced by the Human Rights exhibit.
People that come interested in purely a portrayal of civil rights struggles in the American South may find this exhibit off-putting. Yet millions of dollars spent on another museum that starts and ends with the CRM would have been a sadly shortsighted endeavor.
I do concur with Rothstein that the Global Human Rights exhibit can come across as “arbitrary”: how to properly convey the issues of rights for different classes of people, extensively enough for everyone’s satisfaction, but concisely so visitors don’t tune out? That issue, and the struggle to mesh it with the CRM exhibit, is in part ascribable to the downscaling of the museum design, cut roughly in half due to the Recession.
It is a “National” Center, and while the international aspects are important, I felt that more focus in this exhibit could be directed toward Americans who have fought for specific human rights causes, both here and abroad, and the instances in which our government and the U.N. use non-violent means to achieve positive ends. In this exhibition, some of the large-table interactives during my visit were either not functioning (unfortunate, for such a new museum) or too vague in their intent to spark interest.
I concluded my trip by visiting “Voice of the Voiceless: The Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection.” The central City of Atlanta figure to promote the museum’s development, Mayor Franklin also managed to form a coalition that acquired and preserved many of Dr. King’s papers and letters after his estate elected to sell them via auction. It’s a “rotating exhibit” of MLK artifacts, encouraging visitors to return periodically. In this quiet hall, you’ll find a photographed mural of one of his bookshelves, with items as King left them at the time of his assassination.
There is ample space for meetings and group events here, as our Atlanta Hawks can attest. Led by the team’s still-fairly-new chief diversity and inclusion officer, Nzinga Shaw, the Hawks are convening a series at the Center called “MOSAIC: Model of Shaping Atlanta through Interactive Conversations.” MOSAIC initiated last month with a panel discussion on Race and Gender in Sports, which incidentally allowed for local activists still sounding off about You Know What to be engaged in frank discussions about the state of the Hawks organization. Board member Grant Hill and his mother, Janet, were among the panelists.
Hawks big man Mike Muscala, guard Kyle Korver, and former Hawks Justin Holiday and Elton Brand have guided kids through the museum on several occasions.
You may have heard me mention before that, in July 1996, I was rocking-and-rolling late one evening at the celebratory round-the-clock Centennial Olympic Park concerts. But for a quirk of fate, I had planned to be in the park at the same time one night later -- the night of the park bombing. I stood within feet of the eventual site of the blast just over 24 hours before.
Through this and subsequent bombing attacks, the perpetrator sought to use violence and mayhem to further his and his colleagues’ objectives, specifically to suppress the rights of women, LGBT citizens and racial minorities through fear and intimidation, and to seize back an increasingly less-complicit government along the way. Standing just a stone’s throw away from the site of the blast 20 years later, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights is a testament to the fact that his ultimate aims were left to the untidy dustbin of American history.
Tix are currently $15 a pop for adults, with small discounts available for seniors, students, and educators with photo ID. It’s $10 for kids aged 4-through-12, and free for yung’uns aged 3-and-below. The Center asks that you set aside 75 minutes to take in the museum in its entirety. I’d suggest saving time (roughly 15 minutes) for the Morehouse-MLK collection at the end of the tour. The first-floor gift shop is pretty standard stuff, from koozies and tees to books and portraits. The museum is Closed on Mondays. During the rest of the week, it’s open until 5:00 PM but closes its admissions at 4:00 PM. It’s very possible to swing an afternoon trip and enjoy a post-tour respite prior to an 8:00 PM Hawks game. But call ahead if you’re coordinating a large group. There is a stunningly beautiful fountain, featuring inspiring quotes from Nelson Mandela and Margaret Mead, on the plaza facing Ivan Allen Boulevard near Centennial Olympic Park Drive. With angles of downtown in the background, this plaza is great for picture taking. It is NOT, however, the entrance... That entrance is up a winding set of concrete stairs to the shared Pemberton Place plaza, which should be your starting point across from the Park at Baker Street. Accessibility is more than adequate once you’re inside the museum. But if stairs give you or your fellow patrons trouble, ask a staffer for assistance in accessing the fountain plaza, as the doors back to the museum are locked to the outside. You’ll be encouraged to bring children with you on future visits to The Center. As with any museum with displays of human atrocities and discussions of uncomfortable content, you may prefer to pre-screen your visit if you’ve got kids with you (pre-teens, specifically). The Center maintains an “Across Generations” family guide available for free in PDF format online. The guide includes some discussion items for the family to share during and after their visit. A trip to see all the Pemberton Place attractions (Georgia Aquarium, The Center, World of Coke) all in one afternoon would, frankly, wear me out, especially with kids or larger groups in tow. Take in maybe one or two of them in a day, preferably after lunch. The aquarium + civil&human rights visits feel like it would be a bit much if taken together, but either of the two with World of Coke would work fine. Another option, as a more lighthearted balance, would be the College Football Hall of Fame, a couple blocks around the corner on Marietta Street. An even quicker option is the Studio Tour at CNN Center, on the opposite end of Centennial Olympic Park. If you plan on seeing at least three attractions in one weekend trip, look into the Atlanta CityPASS. You get combined admission for up to five attractions while saving at least 40 percent on current fees. For grub, there’s a café in the Pemberton Place plaza that I didn’t bother to visit as it looked kinda touristy. There are a variety of restaurants around the park (kids always dig Johnny Rocket’s), and along Marietta Street. Mellow Mushroom Pizza is a couple blocks east (toward downtown) along Ivan Allen Boulevard.
From Philips Arena: Walk north along Centennial Olympic Park Drive, or through the park, to the plaza entrance across Baker Street for the Aquarium and World of Coke (don’t bother asking around about directions to Pemberton Place, as nobody knows the area by that name.) The Center is located directly behind the World of Coke. If you’re driving, take Marietta Street north to Ivan Allen Boulevard and swing a right. Past the first light, there’s a shared Pemberton Place parking deck for these three attractions situated adjacent to the aquarium, although the parking decks along Marietta Street tend to be cheaper.
From MARTA: From the North/South (Red and Gold) Lines, Civic Center MARTA station is the best means of accessing the museums. Walk toward downtown from the station and turn at the first right down Ivan Allen Boulevard. Including a crossing over the Interstates, there’s three city blocks until you get down to the corner at Centennial Olympic Park Drive. Cross that street, then walk around the World of Coke to reach the common Pemberton Plaza entrance.
From Peachtree Street: Unless you have the lungs of a hyper teenager, do NOT use the hilly Baker Street to access the museums from Peachtree. Instead, the Atlanta Streetcar loop from Peachtree Center MARTA Station takes you across the street from Centennial Olympic Park, where you can continue by walking on flat land to the museums on the right. The one-way streetcar loop continues from there to the Edgewood and Sweet Auburn sites (like the MLK historic site, a perfect pairing for an all-day civil rights tour). So to save some time returning to Peachtree, walk up John Portman Boulevard (where the Streetcar stop is). Between the museum entrance and Peachtree, it’s just over a ten-minute walk in either direction, with John Portman Boulevard being much more scenic than Ivan Allen Boulevard.
Location: One-half-mile south of “the Gulch”, via Centennial Olympic Park Drive
What Is It: A pedestrian-friendly (but only once you get there) urban neighborhood with restaurants and shops, best known as Atlanta’s historic visual arts district.
(illustration by Zohar Lazar, in Atlanta Magazine)
History: Drunks! Whores! Rowdies! Cockfighters! Such was the prevailing scene around downtown Atlanta… in the 1840s.
Atlanta’s first person to run for Mayor, Moral Party leader and industrialist Jonathan Norcross, vowed to return law and order to the streets by publicly shaming the miscreants, and the red-light-district establishments that held them, right out of the city central.
Elected on his second try in 1850, Norcross also became essentially Atlanta’s police chief, and he organized raids of Atlanta’s “shanty town” establishments. Many of the rowdies shifted their activities from Five Points to a more hospitable locale a mile southwest of downtown, a community called “Snake Nation” that the press deemed “devoted almost entirely to the criminal and immoral element”.While times were slithery in and around Snake Nation (at least, until Norcross’ raiders burned down that settlement, too), the area also laid adjacent to the budding railroad lines Norcross advocated, particularly the Macon and Western Railroad flanked by Peters and Whitehall Streets. Soon after the ruffians came the factory builders. By the time the Civil War was underway, Castleberry Hill was teeming with factories producing terra cotta and building materials, along with cotton warehousers, butchers, blacksmiths, meat packers, and grocers.
One of the grocer outfits was run by the Castleberrys, the family the Snake Nation neighborhood was wisely renamed after. Daniel Castleberry was an early settler who owned land along Walker Street. M.T. Castleberry was a former Confederate Army soldier, shot in the face at Antietam, who wanted nothing to do with “issues of the past,” but instead immersed himself in the revival of Atlanta (during Reconstruction) and the industrializing New South.M.T. and Zach Castleberry were prominent businessmen in the furniture-making and terra cotta production fields in the late 19th century. By this time, a mule-drawn trolley was transporting workers and citizens across the Peters Street Bridge between Downtown, this community, and West End.
Fast forward over a century later, and deindustrialization began in earnest the process of factory closures. The ghost-town factory settings were ideal for filmmakers searching for dystopian backdrops, as well as the arrival of adventurous urban dwellers, most notably local artists on the hunt for cheap intown loft living.
Today: Communal interest in economically stabilizing the community around its many art galleries and studios (and many artists that live there) led to the establishment of the Castleberry Hill Art Stroll. Held on the second Friday of every month from 7 to 10 PM, the Art Stroll not only adds vibrancy to the area between Downtown and West End, but helped establish Castleberry Hill (according to USA Today last year) as one of America’s Top 10 city arts districts. Food trucks and bands liven up the street scene between Art Stroll venues.
The neighborhood maintains its 20th-century warehouse aesthetic, but the streets (particularly Walker Street, the main artery south of Philips Arena, and Peters Street) are walkable and well-lit. And more modern-looking loft developments (with first-floor shops) have since joined the party.
Grub: Among the busiest eateries in Castleberry Hill is No Mas! Cantina, featuring well-portioned Mexican dishes in a spacious setting loaded with Mexican art décor (some of it, naturally, for sale). A wide range of Mexican brews, margaritas and tequila options will help wash the food down. The space is flexible enough to accommodate parties of all sizes (call ahead with reservations if you’ve got more than five with you). In my experience, wait service can be spotty at lunchtime, so don’t hesitate to grab a nearby server if yours has disappeared for a minute. They’re also a clever option for Mexican-oriented breakfast and brunch.
The signature hole-in-the-wall neighborhood pub, Elliott Street Deli and Pub, is just as good for its Boar’s Head-centric deli sandwiches as it is for its pub fare. Elliot Street hosts Karaoke in the hours after the monthly Art Stroll. “The 51” is its event stage, and is almost always rocking on mid-week nights. True to the neighborhood’s industrial edge, Atlanta Metal Arts stages an occasional Iron Pour (yes, exactly what it sounds like) and concert outdoors in a neighboring lot, so ask ahead if that intrigues you.
If sushi is your thing you should try Bottle Rocket, in a much more swanky setting (the burgers and “crab sammiches” are underrated here as well). I’m useless in the sushi department (eel sauce? I’ll pass), but I am told the ones with tempura shrimp in them are yummy.
About a dozen years ago, the historic Paschal’s Restaurant moved from Clark Atlanta University to newer, airy digs at the Loft at Castleberry Hill, facing Northside Drive. Reportedly, MLK used to enjoy the soup at the former AUC spot. Many eateries in Atlanta have recently fallen in love with special “fried chicken nights” for the foodie crowd, but few offerings compare to Paschal’s “Famous 1947” entree. Menu items are a tad pricey, but you won’t complain about being hungry when you leave.
Very much not a hole-in-the-wall is Smoke Ring. Rightfully, you’d give pause whenever a woodsy barbecue joint has an Executive Chef. But their “low-and-slow” smoked meats and a plethora of sides and snacks happily take the edge off of their upscale veneer. Last week they catered and co-hosted a season-premiere party for The Walking Dead (a Bob-E-Que. Get It? Okay, never mind!) with Atlanta Movie Tours.
Arts ‘n Stuff: It would be unfair to try mentioning all of the galleries in Castleberry Hill. But many of them (I’ll call out Besharat Gallery and Marcia Wood Gallery, in particular) have taken up modest 19th- and early 20th-century spaces and created stunning interiors to showcase their exhibits. Many are participating in this month’s Atlanta Celebrates Photography annual festival.
Castleberry Hill serves as an apt focal point for TV and film production in the metro area. The previously-noted Atlanta Movie Tours has a gift shop and runs tours of just about everywhere filmmakers and TV show producers call for “Action!” in the ATL, from The Walking Dead to Driving Miss Daisy to The Hunger Games. This month, obviously, is big for their Big Zombie Tours. Call well in advance to book a tour. If you’re in need of a cool zombie shirt or some Gone with the Wind knick-knacks for your Aunt Petunia, this is the place for you.
Whether you dress like Travis Scott or Mike Scott, you’ll find the hip (fly? dope?) apparel and sneaks you need at Fly Kix ATL boutique on Peters Street. If Mitchell & Ness items, Billionaire Boys Club tees, or swaggy New Balance sneakers (did I just type that) are your cup of tea, or you need to up your Sock Game, it’s worth popping in to see what they’ve got in store (they’ve got Hawks/NBA fitteds and related stuff there, too).
Going south from the arena, Centennial Olympic Park Drive (briefly, “Dominique Wilkins Way,” in front of Philips) becomes Walker Street, which threads through the center of Castleberry Hill. The Gulch, of course, is VERY desolate at night, and even more daunting these days with the Mercedes-Benz Stadium construction going on beside the Georgia Dome. So I’d discourage foot traffic from the Centennial Olympic Park area UNLESS it’s mid-day, there’s good weather, and you’ve good energy to burn and time to kill (all of the above must apply). With your own ride, a rental car, or Uber/taxi, it’s a quick dash to the area where C.O.P. Drive (due to nearby construction, a two-way street, at least for now) becomes Walker Street. Curb parking is minimal, but there are lots behind/near many of the restaurants and galleries. Park at the lofts only while you’re visiting retail there. MARTA rail doesn’t serve Castleberry Hill, but it’s roughly a ten-minute walk south from the Dome/Arena/GWCC Station next to Philips (see my advisory above about walking). Add another five minutes one-way if you’re walking from Centennial Olympic Park or the Streetcar stop on C.O.P. Drive. Bus Route 13 takes riders to the southern edge of Castleberry Hill from Five Points Station – get off at Peters and Haynes Streets, then walk a short couple blocks to Walker Street. Ideal times to visit? Lunchtime, or during idle afternoon hours leading up to Hawks games, or after weekend/holiday Hawks matinees. Most galleries are open during the afternoon and early evening hours, but call ahead or check websites for specifics. More of the bar action is in the evenings, so plan ahead with your transportation. The times NOT to go? Those eight times a year (hopefully a couple more!) when the Falcons are playing at home. Tailgaters abound, and parking just to hang out in the neighborhood is a bear during those times.
Upcoming Art Stroll Dates: November 13, December 11, January 8, February 12, March 11, April 8, May 13, June 10.
Note: I’m of the opinion that there needs to be something akin to a “Fodor’s travel guide” for Hawks fans needing stuff to do besides merely getting to the arena and going home. To that end, here’s an initial installment of venues and sites within a short walk, ride, or drive of Philips Arena that some may find worth checking out, under the banner of “Levenson’s Guide”.
Address: 152 Luckie Street, Atlanta, GA 30303
What is it: Former church, converted into downtown Atlanta’s most popular mid-range concert venue.
History: Situated on land now occupied by Centennial Olympic Park, Third Baptist Church was bursting at the seams not long after Rev. Len Broughton arrived in Atlanta to pastor at the turn of the 20th century. Several on-site expansions proved futile in meeting demand.
The North Carolinian fundamentalist minister was vocal on political issues of the day, a tireless advocate for temperance and teetotaling prior to the national Prohibition era. Broughton embarked on a quest to construct a tabernacle closer to the city center and large enough to accommodate all comers. He worked with noted Chattanooga architect R.H. Hunt to design the building at Luckie and Harris Streets.
Broughton’s new church opened in 1911, with an auditorium seating 4,000 and Sunday school facilities downstairs for 3,000. The largest Bible Conferences in the South were hosted here, at the new Tabernacle Baptist Church. Churches were at the forefront as cities warmed to caring for the ill outside of their own homes, and one of the services hosted by this church was an infirmary, the predecessor to Georgia Baptist Hospital (now Atlanta Medical Center).
Broughton didn’t stay at his new church for long, accepting an offer to come to London’s Christ Church. But he returned to America after The Great War took its toll on England and personal health problems mounted. He last led Tabernacle Baptist from 1929 to 1931 and died in Tennessee in 1936. The Tabernacle he left behind continued to prosper for decades.
With the onset of suburbanization and desegregation, many Atlanta intown places of worship relocated further out to accommodate their longer-commuting congregations. But Tabernacle Baptist held firm. Church membership declined from a peak of 3,000 in the 1950s to 500 in the 1980s. By 1991, its pastor resorted to fasting in a last-ditch attempt to draw sympathetic donations to keep the place open. The 100-member church decided to put the building up for sale later that year, but it would take years to find buyers.
The 1994 sale went to investors seeking to use the building as an entertainment site during the Olympics, given its proximity to the Olympic Park being constructed just across Techwood Avenue.
Those plans seemed to finally come to fruition when the place became the host of The House of Blues just in time for the Games. The Blues Brothers were the first act that summer of 1996, followed by James Brown, Johnny Cash, Al Green, Bob Dylan, and other notable acts. Unfortunately, the House of Blues franchise owner had no plans to continue their run in Atlanta beyond that Olympic summer.
A California developer then invested heavily in what he believed would be “the premier venue in the Southeast.” The Tabernacle became the host for a breakthrough gospel play by a struggling local stage director named Tyler Perry. Its lower floor was rented out to host The Cotton Club, run by local promoters best known for creating Music Midtown.
Finding the travel distance between Atlanta and home to be too great, the California investor sold his interest in the Tabernacle property to the entertainment group now known as Live Nation in 1999.
Today: Now managed around-the-clock by Live Nation, the Tabernacle has become downtown Atlanta’s go-to site for SRO music concerts and comedy stands, lauded in Rolling Stone and other magazines as one of the nation’s top concert venues. The palatial design of the former church has proven to offer impressive acoustics and superb sight lines for concertgoers thrilled to see their favorite acts in more intimate and historic settings than run-of-the-mill arena stages. Frequent concertgoers declare that there’s hardly a bad seat in the house, particularly in the tiered balconies above the floor.
The Tabernacle continues to survive even after the 2008 Tornado that ravaged downtown, ushering in extensive repairs to the roof, windows, wiring, and pipes. A packed concert for the aptly named “Panic! At the Disco” in February of this year had to be evacuated due to fears the stage floor was cracking (the place was promptly inspected, and it’s fine). As one Yelp commenter amusingly noted: “Part of the fun is worrying if the whole place is going to fall in. I kid – but you feel every bass bump and every footfall up in the balcony. GREAT Acoustics.”
Tabernacle events are NOT for kids. Despite the non-smoking signs posted around the venue, it’s safe to say the smoking rules are liberally enforced once performances begin… and I’m not just talking tobacco. Still, for visiting adult Hawks fans, the Tabernacle can be suitable for postgame fun on matinee days, or as someplace fun for the out-of-town grown folks to go during two-night stays. It’s a far cry from what Len Broughton envisioned for the place, but one century later, there’s plenty of good-natured shouting at the Tabernacle.
* Purchase tickets to events online (www.tabernacleatl.com) or at a Ticketmaster outlet if possible. The Tabernacle box office is usually open just a couple hours before performances, and the best acts are usually sold out by then.
* Call in advance if you have ADA/accessibility seating needs. Don’t bring any large purses or bags, and dress light as there’s no coat check.
* Get to the Tabernacle at least an hour before performances, not only to avoid the long lines around the building, but also to mingle while enjoying the full-service bars ("sorry, Rev. Broughton! Haha.") on the stage floor. The original version of Ted’s (as in Ted Turner’s) chain restaurant known for its bison burgers is situated right across Luckie Street.
* The Tabernacle has a VIP bar and lounge (“The Room”) on an upper level for season-ticketholders. Do NOT purchase “VIP passes” hawked by vendors or yahoos on the street, as there’s a likely chance they’re invalid.
From Philips Arena: Cross Marietta Street and walk north along Centennial Olympic Park Drive to the traffic light at Andrew Young International Boulevard (near the park entrance where you’ll find the Fountain of Rings). Cross Centennial Olympic Park Drive and then walk back toward the arena one block to Luckie Street. The SkyView Ferris Wheel is right next door to the Tabernacle.
From MARTA: Take the North/South train (Red or Gold Line) to Peachtree Center Station, then take the long escalator to the Carnegie Way exit (Main branch of the library is across the street). Walk two blocks down Carnegie Way, cross Spring Street and then walk two blocks to the left along Spring to reach Luckie Street. The Tabernacle is across Luckie, just past Ted’s Restaurant. Alternatively, in a few months you can access the new Peachtree Streetcar from the Ellis Street exit at Peachtree Center. The streetcar travels right in front of the Tabernacle just after it passes Centennial Olympic Park.