It seems like Grady Memorial Hospital is always in the news. Among the largest public health systems in the Southeast, it is also one of the oldest. Named after beloved Atlanta newspaperman Henry Grady, the hospital opened in 1892. Throughout its century-plus of existence, Grady has been the site of many medical innovations and many physical renovations. Unfortunately, lately the health system is more known for its financial woes. Grady’s ambitious construction projects in the 1980s and 1990s transformed the physical space the hospital occupies into the soaring tower easily visible from the Downtown Connector. But a little-known proposal in the 1930s would have transformed Grady’s architecture in a much different way.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, GradyMemorial Hospital was actually known as “the Gradys,” because there were separate facilities for African American and white patients, and medical professionals. Instead of being concentrated in one imposing structure, Grady was a conglomerate of many small buildings in the downtown area, a few of which remain standing and are still in use today. In the 1930s, in the wake of the Great Depression and with many New Deal projects in the works, downtown Atlanta began to see major changes to its built environment, with new municipal projects planned and the first wave of urban renewal, labeled “slum clearance,” taking place. Grady was well situated, both physically and philosophically, to benefit from newly available federal funding.
On November 1, 1937, Emory University paid $159,675 for about 5½ acres adjacent to Grady Memorial Hospital, according to an Atlanta Constitution article. Emory and Grady have a long-standing relationship, with Emory medical students completing their internships and residencies at Grady. Emory president Harvey W. Cox stated that “the purchases had been made against future contingencies, but did not mention any immediate development.” There were rumors circulating that the Rockefeller Foundation or the Rosenwald Fund, or both, would assist in funding the construction of new hospital buildings, although Emory officials were hesitant to discuss these rumors. Cox’s commentary on the matter was polished and vague: “We wish the Emory Medical School to do its part in developing an outstanding medical center in Atlanta. As such a center develops, it is probable that the land just acquired will be needed. To safeguard the possibilities, we thought it wise to acquire the property while it could be bought at a reasonable price.”
On February 19, 1939, a Constitution article announced a comprehensive plan to expand and beautify the Grady campus. The vision of Thomas K. Glenn, an Atlanta banker and chairman of the Grady Board of Trustees, this plan called for the four blocks bounded by Piedmont Avenue, Coca-Cola Place, Pratt Street, and Gilmer Street to be completely redeveloped with scenic, landscaped parks and new buildings. Additionally, the plan called for the complete closure of Butler Street (now Jesse Hill Jr. Drive) within the two-block area, and the partial closure of Armstrong Street, with short service entrances remaining at either end of the new site.
Glenn felt strongly about the importance of a pleasant outdoor environment for hospital patients. He could “see buildings—many buildings—dotting the landscape. In the parks and flower gardens surrounding these buildings he [could] see patients enjoying the warm sunshine as they recline[d] in wheel-chairs or stroll[ed] among the shrubbery.” Glenn saw the Grady plan as one piece of a larger beautification effort in downtown Atlanta, and included “the proposed housing project near the hospital and the proposal for the triangular park in front of the city auditorium” as other projects that could help make this area “one of the scenic spots of the city.”
The Board of Trustees would seek Work Progress Administration (WPA) funds for the Grady project; no mention was made of the Rockefeller or Rosenwald foundations. Glenn stated that work would begin as soon as the proposal to close the streets was approved by the city council. There were apparently no major setbacks in this initiative, as a March 21, 1939, Constitution article reported that the city council had adopted an ordinance for street closure to create an unbroken plot of approximately four square blocks.
That’s where the trail runs cold. After March 1939, there is no further mention in any local news publication of the Grady park proposal. Although the other two major public works projects to which Thomas K. Glenn alluded, Grady Homes and Hurt Park, were ultimately undertaken, the Grady beautification plan fell by the wayside, perhaps amid lack of WPA funding and complications arising from World War II. Clearance of the four-block area was definitely taking place in 1939, though, as part of Glenn’s optimistic plan. City directories from the time list few addresses, and aerial photographs show, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, an area that is essentially a large parking lot—a far cry from Glenn’s scenic destination, but a familiar sight in the mid-20th century, as urban renewal projects found the funds for demolition but not for redevelopment.
It is difficult to imagine, more than 70 years later, what the Grady area of downtown would look like now if Glenn’s proposal had become a reality—or how the construction of the Downtown Connector may have altered it. But the artist’s rendering from 1939 looks not unlike public and corporate facilities that are being conceived today, as we become more mindful of the interplay between the built environment and physical and mental well-being. Maybe the buzzwords we hear so often—green space, sustainability, human-scale development—aren’t such new concepts after all.
Amber Rhea is a student in the Master of Heritage Preservation program at Georgia State University, hoping to parlay her lifelong love of old buildings into a career. She is interested in things most people find mundane or annoying, like urban infrastructure and traffic flow. In a previous life, she was a web developer, blogger, podcaster, and conference organizer. She was responsible for PodCamp Atlanta in 2007 and Sex 2.0 in 2008, and co-hosted the award-winning podcast “Mostly ITP” from 2006-2009. Amber grew up in Augusta and used to bad-mouth Atlanta, then ate her words after landing here in 2004 and realizing there was nowhere else she wanted to be.