In its heyday, the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center hosted Broadway musicals, operas, concerts, speeches from Georgia governors, senators, and a president—and even a Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions.

But as Atlanta Housing (AH) moves forward with plans to redevelop the Civic Center property, the fate of the iconic auditorium at the heart of the site remains unclear. The once celebrated performing arts center—famous for its 4,600-seat auditorium and infamous for replacing a poor Black neighborhood called Buttermilk Bottom—has been sitting idle since 2014.

The housing authority just executed a master development agreement for most of the nearly 20-acre property with the joint venture of Republic Properties, the Michaels Organization, and Sophy Capital—but a plan for restoring the auditorium wasn’t part of the deal. However, AH said it will preserve the auditorium, when it chose the development team last summer.

Buttermilk Bottom, which would make way for the Atlanta Civic Center, as seen in 1960. (Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Georgia State University)

There have been calls in the past to tear down the Civic Center, built in the late 1960s, said David Mitchell, the executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center. But the historic public auditorium “is part of Atlanta’s visual biography,” he said. “It is ubiquitous to Atlanta and should be celebrated as such.” 

“The Civic Center has the ability to be this unchallenged Atlanta place that captures the courage of that time, and turn that whisper into a new language that personifies Atlanta and speaks to everyone,” Mitchell said.

AH did not respond to Atlanta Civic Circle’s questions on why restoring the auditorium wasn’t part of the joint venture’s redevelopment plan that the AH board approved last summer. The agency hasn’t yet released to the public the master development agreement it executed July 21.

“Why is it so difficult to see our future by understanding our past?” Mitchell wondered. Atlanta has long been a city focused on progress, but not the past, often prioritizing development over historic preservation. But Mitchell takes a different perspective. “We are defined by the buildings we have preserved, the buildings that we have chosen to not preserve, and the way we approach historic preservation,” he said.

Architect Harold Montague in the lobby of the newly constructed Atlanta Civic Center, 1968. (Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Georgia State University)

Darin Givens, a co-founder of the urbanist nonprofit ThreadATL, lives two blocks from the Civic Center, on Ralph McGill Boulevard. A staunch historic preservationist, he said he’s eager to see the land around it brought back to life with housing and hotel rooms, restaurants, retail, and office space—but he doesn’t understand why a building so important to Atlanta’s history has been left languishing.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing some life get injected there after so many years of it sitting empty,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle. “I often walk to the Civic Center MARTA station past the property, and it’s always a grim experience.” 

“That large block of Ralph McGill feels so dead, and it shouldn’t,” Givens added. 

Mayor Maynard Jackson addresses the crowd during his inauguration, 1974 (Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Georgia State University)

“I’m very happy to know that the auditorium will be preserved,” he said. “Part of that is selfish, since I’m a local and grew up seeing shows there in the 1980s. But I genuinely think it’s a significant building architecturally, and also functionally in that we don’t build new auditoriums like this one anymore.”

With Atlanta’s population booming, he added, “we’ll need more space for performing arts, not less.”

Regarding Atlanta’s future, Mitchell added: “The word ‘redevelopment’ will be used regularly, but it seems fitting that a Phoenix defines it.”

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