Without news of a preservation campaign, the old Georgia Archives Building was doomed for demolition as soon as the Georgia Building Authority could raise the funds. Since being abandoned for a new $30 million building in Morrow in 2003, the sleek megalith, seated just south of the State Capitol Building, has been awaiting its inevitable demise. Walking on the premises now, the groovy 1960s planters are full of weeds; the hilly parking lots are empty; the custom steelwork and designer light fixtures have been left to decay, unappreciated. Occasionally used as temporary storage for the film industry, it’s a big chunk of unused space in an otherwise frozen real estate zone. And, nobody seems to care.
Luckily, hard economic times have delayed the decision to get rid of this significant building. Its destruction, which was imminent eight months ago, is now on hold and under review.
It’s an odd building, shaped like a gravestone sticking up out of the green space where I-20 and 75/85 intersect. Opened to the public in 1965, the old Georgia Archives Building was lovingly coined, “The White Ice Cube.” This imposing, ultra-contemporary, block facade protected the physical remnants of the state’s deep past for almost 30 years. It still stands as a literal monument to our heritage. Its placement was purposefully located in a central area, where large numbers of people pass through our capital on the highways everyday; they could take it in as an impenetrable landmark or stop by to investigate their own genealogies. Was it unwise or naively radical to pair a highly Modern design with Georgia’s sense of historical pride? Was this building doomed to fail because it fell stylistically out of fashion? Perhaps if the design had taken the shape of something more like a traditional Greek Revival state building, its existence would never have been threatened; Atlanta never did sit well with Modern architecture, even when it attempted to stylize its columns.
The archives started as a loose collection of documents—maps, records, photographs, drawings, diaries, and state charters—dating back to precolonial time, and has evolved into an official state repository for precious and fragile analogue data. As of 1918, it was just a bunch of unofficial pilings: old government records were haphazardly stored on the balcony of the State Capitol Building. According to Archives Director David Carmicheal, “On cold days, stoves were lit using some of its historic documents.” In 1930 it moved to the magnificent Rhodes Hall. Furniture magnate Amos Giles Rhodes bequeathed his castle-like, “Victorian-Romanesque” mansion on Peachtree Street to the state for historic purposes. Although this was a big improvement, and the collection and storage of state paperwork had begun to be taken seriously, the old house was no facility for the caring of old documents. By 1965 then Archives Director Mary Givens Bryan, former Governor Ernest Vandiver, and Secretary of State Ben Fortson, Jr. passionately raised the support and the funds to establish a new, state-of-the-art facility. It’s ironic that such a significant and massively solid design made in the name of preserving and sharing local history was ultimately slated to be erased with such little fanfare.
A great deal of pride and idealism surrounded the opening ceremonies for the $6.3 million Georgia Archives Building. A thousand people attended. In a glass display case was the prize artifact: a copy of the royal charter brought from England by General Oglethorpe in 1733, signed by King George II, establishing the royal colony of Georgia. Reporter Andrew Sparks seemed mesmerized in a promotional stupor as he described the new building for the Atlanta Journal Constitution Magazine: “Opening off the entrance lobby—a huge room with oiled walnut walls and 12 display cases…the Search Room…looks like the grandest library reading room.” In a bizarre juxtaposition of time periods, a giant artifact from Rhodes Hall was placed in the auditorium. “A carved mahogany staircase and curved wall of stained glass windows depicting civil war heroes had been carefully taken apart, cleaned, refinished and reassembled on the stage of a small auditorium at the right of the front entrance. The scenes are lighted from behind and glow with a brilliance they seldom had in that house.” (Incidentally, in 1990 the staircase and stained glass were returned to Rhodes Hall, which is now home to the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. ) It was in this auditorium that at “a push of a button a movie screen would automatically descend from the ceiling to show slide lectures and films.” The script of which stated, “Tyranny begins when a government’s records are destroyed or locked away.” The Archives were serious about sharing their treasure with “all Georgians and everyone else.” Tours were conducted daily at 9:30, 11, 12:30 and 3.
But as of 2011, due to budget cuts, the new archives building in Morrow is open only on Fridays and Saturdays. Visitors can drive 15 miles south of Atlanta to personally look at real documents from colonial times, the revolutionary war, and the civil war. Documents can be found that detail interactions with Native Americans, slaves, the railroads, land owners, tax payers, and churches.
Perhaps a different kind of market idealism had replaced that of former times. The value of the state archives had shifted to that of a potential tourist boon to the city of Morrow. In 1998, during the height of the real estate boom, the old archives building was determined by engineers to be sinking and unstable due to groundwater. It makes sense, since the rumbling highways are very close by, and two-thirds of its heavy 17 stories are underground (most of it is parking space designed to convert to storage if the need ever arose). Morrow had an ambitious “live, work” development underway called Gateway Village, which proposed to move the new archives building into close proximity of the Southeast Regional Branch of the National Archives, Clayton State University, and a 225-room Hilton hotel, making the entire complex a giant research destination. Since fixing the HVAC systems in the old archives building was going to cost a lot of money, the state decided to make the move. The new facility opened in 2003, which according to Wikipedia, “has been awarded design awards by the American Institute of Architects at the state, regional, and national levels.”
“But the ugly facade isn’t what prompted the move south,” claimed David Carmicheal: Government-generated data is now electronically stored, and thus there is less of a need to have an expanding physical place for the collection of future papers. But why the thirst to demolish the original, the destruction of which would be a difficult and expensive feat? Hopefully, the old megalith now stands a good chance to be repurposed, or, simply left as a relic, a very unique and iconic state building. I dream that we’ll hold onto it as a large, symbolic sculpture on which to project historic images. Imagine seeing old scripted documents from the 1700s or the portrait of a Cherokee on its massive white, marble edifice at night!