One Street At A Time: Atlanta's Peachtree Street

By Joseph Skibell

Originally published in the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler Magazine, March 3, 2003

In his exploration of dreams, Freud compared the mind to an ancient city, its many layers, one buried beneath the next, revealed only by the archeological investigations of a psychotherapist. Now, however, it's not our dreaming mind that resembles a city; rather, our cities have to come to resemble our dreaming minds - jumbled, chaotic, built upon an obscure system of non-logical associations.

Stand on the corner of Peachtree and Fifteenth in Atlanta's vibrant midtown and you'll see a crazy salad of architectural styles as dizzying as any Surrealist construction. The Christian Science Church is in a Greek temple with columns and a verdigris dome, the Woodruff Art Center (home to the world-class Atlanta Symphony and the acclaimed Alliance Theater) is a featureless concrete bunker. Diagonally across, behind the Sheraton, the horizon is blocked out by a rectangular bank of apartments that looks as though it were transferred directly from Warsaw before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Nothing appears ordered or patterned. In the middle of the traffic circle is a fountain whose semi-abstract sculpture, a playfully dancing nude with large, rolling breasts, was erected - perhaps, you think, you're reading the plaque incorrectly - by the DAR. Skyscrapers tower over a perfectly preserved Victorian house that sits, inviolably, if dwarfed, atop a medieval military parapet. Intrigued by its incongruous presence, I walk around its four sides before discovering, as though it were a DaDaist joke, that there is no path leading to its front door.

(Built in 1910, "Fort Peace," according to Atlanta's Lasting Landmarks, "represents the boyhood fantasies of its eccentric owner.")

The entire street is like this.

These few blocks of Peachtree, in the early 1900s Atlanta's most prestigious residential address, now seem like a mouth that's been worked on by too many dentists at different times. Tiny buildings with art deco faades stand shoulder-to-shoulder with mirrored end-of-the-century monstrosities, next to modest yellow-brick Chicago-style condos, next to an abandoned lot, next to a modest public library, with a Starbucks and a Kinkos thrown in for good measure. Atlanta is not a walker's town and even the workers, who, at noon, suddenly inhabit the street, leaving their offices in pairs and small constellations, look incongruous on this brisk January day, some of them bundled in coats and gloves, others in short sleeves shirts.

A woman in a blue parka jaywalks with a copy of the Yellow Pages in her arm. "Do you take Medicaid?" she asks into her cell. "It's chaotic, but it doesn't have to be," another woman, passing by, says to a friend. The closer you look at the street, in fact, the more wild and dreamlike its details become. The frieze on the stately old Reid House (c. 1924) displays six O'Keefe-like cow skulls, each horn linked to the others by a carved curtain, beneath a round cameo of Lady Liberty. At 17th Street, a monument stands in a traffic triangle, near where W. Peachtree veers off. On a high granite pedestal, five muscular, if pudgy nudes, cast in black bronze, their swaybacks turned to each other and their penises dangling, heft a large globe onto their shoulders. Dedicated to world athletes and relating in design to nothing in its immediate vicinity, the monument, a gift from the Prince of Wales Foundation, hopes, according to its plaque, to inspire "an improvement in the quality of the built environment." Further down the street, across from a BP gas station, in front of the highway, near a radio tower and a Marriott, the Rhodes House rises like a memory that refuses to be repressed. Constructed in 1904 out of granite from Stone Mountain and patterned by its architect Willis F. Denny after the Rhineland Castles loved by its owner Amos Rhodes, the house is one of the few survivors from Peachtree's glory days and, restored by the Georgia Trust, it's the only one open to public viewing. Until 1928, "La Reve," as Rhodes called his home, stood on 128 acres, but after his death, his inheritors deeded the house to the State of Georgia and built strip malls on either side of it. Even here a confluence of disparate elements obtain, as though the house plans were revealed to Denny in a dream. A railroad and business man, Rhodes not only heavy Germanic architecture, but also the Florida everglades, and so the veranda and porte-cochere, although hewn from marble, are designed to resemble a tropical bungalow. The house was built with 500 light bulbs at a time when the city could produce only four to six hours of electricity a day. "When the electricity was on," my tour guide Michael says, "people came by just to see the lights." "Too Germanesque" for the residents of Peachtree Street - "their houses were more Georgian," Michael says, "and Rhodes dropped in a castle that looked like it fell from the skies" - the Rhodes house is quintessentially southern in at least one of its more remarkable features.

On the eastern wall, behind the mahogany staircase, is a 1,250-piece floor-to-ceiling painted-glass mural called "The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy." Reputedly the largest civil war monument in a private home, it depicts, among other scenes, Jefferson Davis's swearing in, the firing on Ft. Sumter, and Lee's farewell. The sun rises behind the birth of the confederacy; it lights up the South's victories at noon; and it sets, at dusk, behind its defeat. A battle scene in the middle section had to be redone, Michael says, because "Mr. Rhodes didn't think the Yankees were running away fast enough."

Farther down the street, I stop in at The Temple, another Greek Revival building with a dome, home to the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, perhaps Atlanta's oldest Jewish organization.

Left to wander alone in its sumptuous, light-filled sanctuary, beneath its enormous chandelier and four blood-red globes hanging from the ceiling at the cardinal points, I'm confronted again by a strange collision of motifs. The Holy Ark in gold leaf with its sharp-nailed lion's feet and the pulpit with its black wrought-iron wreaths have a heavy European look. The cherubim are depicted as black winged griffins with emaciated dog's bodies. The Eternal Lamp, however, hangs from a bas-relief of an American eagle surrounded by clouds.

Behind a golden curtain, on top of the Aeolian-Skinner organ, I find, as if I had in fact wandered into my own Oedipal dreamscape, an exact replica of the Nathan Lerner lamp that sat on my father's desk when I was a child. Metallic brown, the rectangular lamp hangs like a head on a mechanical crane's neck, with two little buttons, one black, one red, resembling eyes.

Like a sluggish Yankee, I retreat to the High Museum. Designed by Richard Meier, it's the jewel of Peachtree's crown. It looks like a gigantic bath tub, all white porcelain squares and curved white railings. A Calder mobile buoys on one side of its lawn and Rodin's mournful "Shade" stands on the other, as a memorial to the 130 Atlantans who died in 1962 in a crash at Orly Field. Members of the Art Association, they'd been on a scouting tour of European capitals, looking for ways to make Atlanta an international city.

The money to build the Art Center was raised in their memory and it might be easy to laugh at the helter-skelter hodge-podge city that rose up or was torn down and rebuilt in the wake of their deaths, but my walk through the High forces me, almost against my will, to see the city and this representative street in a different light.

Though its exterior is all angles and squares, there's not a straight line or plumbed wall in the High's curvy interior. The permanent collection is exhibited, with a gleaming intelligence, according to theme, rather than era, style or medium. In a section called "Reflections on Faith," Benny Andrews's 1994 canvas, depicting a black preacher bringing his congregation to ecstasy, is displayed between a 16th Century icon of St. Andrew and a 17th Century canvas of "Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac." In a nook called "The City Seen," an impressionist piece by Ernest Lawson hangs near a Rausenberg plexiglass construction. Emily Brock's 1991 miniature glass reproduction of a diner with jukebox, stools, and shake machine, sits beneath a 1654 Dutch depiction of winter sports, its foreground peopled with burghers playing ice golf.

Maybe this is how we experience our lives now. Maybe the tangled Freudian dream-skein of Peachtree Street accurately reflects the 500-channels-24/7-Internet-surfing-multitasking-ahistorical-the-globe-is-one-great-village-if-you'll-only-answer-your-cell-phone world we live in, I think to myself, sitting in a small alcove surrounded by the satirical carved pictures of Ned Cartledge.

A Georgian who died last year at 84, Cartledge gave up decorative work after the Vietnam war politicized him and his pieces here depict William Safire's hands attempting to place a halo on Richard Nixon's horned head and Ronald Reagan pulling a skunk out of a magician's hat.

The centerpiece is a skinhead standing on the back of a war protester, waving the Stars and Bars, in front of an overturned school bus, with the word nigger written three times on the space inside his open mouth.

Two friends, one white, the other black, move into the alcove and stand before the piece, the black man remarking that you could read the picture either way.

A skinhead, he says, might not read the piece as condemnatory of bigotry.

"I could see a skinhead looking at this and saying, 'Yeah, that's right. We've got to defend our way of life.'"

"Right," the white man agrees, "it all depends on how you interpret it."