In terms of land mass, Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River. It features a varied geography ranging from the coastal barrier islands and marshes (the so-called Golden Isles), to the Okefenokee Swamp (the largest, intact freshwater and blackwater wilderness swamp in North America), to the coastal plain (comprising some sixty percent of the state’s land), to the Piedmont plateau above the fall line, and finally, to the Valley and Ridge Appalachian plateau and Blue Ridge Mountains in the north. The fall line marked the point where river navigation ceased and portaging was needed, where river elevation changed, and where water energy encouraged the establishment of saw mills, grist mills, and water mills; the cities of Augusta, Macon, and Columbus trace the fall line across Georgia.
Local geology and the availability of regional building materials informed construction from earliest times. During the colonial era, the southeast coastal region developed tabby construction, a poor-quality concrete made of burnt local oyster shells (for quicklime), water, wood ashes, sand, and an aggregate of broken oyster shells. Tabby construction is preserved in ruins at Wormsloe Plantation, Horton House on Jekyll Island, Fort Frederica on St. Simon’s Island, the Spaulding “Long Tabby” sugar mill on Sapelo Island, and elsewhere in Georgia. In the north, available stones include a pink marble at Tate, used at Emory University; a white “Georgia marble” widely used throughout the United States in public buildings and monuments; and Stone Mountain granite, found in local churches, railroad depots, and houses. These more permanent structures display a range of indigenous limestone, marble, and granite found in Georgia architecture and employed statewide as lintels, sills, quoins, and other building trim. Moreover, stone aggregate in abundance found its way into the reinforced concrete buildings of the twentieth century.
Georgia clay, so troublesome to local gardeners, served brick makers, who provided materials for a range of Georgia buildings from the grander private homes of the state (Davenport House in Savannah, Hey House in Macon, or Peters House in Atlanta) to mid-twentieth century ranch houses, from textile mills (in Columbus, Atlanta, and Porterdale) to lighthouses (Sapelo Island, St. Simons Island, and Tybee Island), and from commercial buildings fronting courthouse squares to college and university buildings (including the Atlanta University complex and the traditional black colleges, Agnes Scott College, and the engineering buildings of Georgia Tech). Neo-Georgian, classical revivals, and other brick structures characterize the red masonry tradition of colleges throughout the university system of Georgia. But it was the widespread availability of Georgia pine that prompted the extensive use of wood framing for houses throughout the state, from plantation houses and their outbuildings, such as at Hofwyl and Smith Plantations, the Tully Smith House, or the Roswell Greek Revivals, to antebellum camp meeting arbors, rural stores, and residences as preserved at Westville, to the clubhouse and cottages on Jekyll Island. In the mid-nineteenth century, metal first appeared in the form of cast-iron ornament adorning verandas built onto southern houses in response to Georgia’s humid, subtropical climate (as seen at Green Meldrim House, Savannah). Following the introduction of steel frame construction in Chicago in the early 1880s, designers of hotels and tall office buildings in Georgia’s larger cities began to make use of this innovative technology, as seen in Atlanta’s Empire Building.
Historic periods offer sharp contrasts in Georgia’s architectural development. Native American sites remain in Georgia, including the surviving burial mounds at Etowah, Kolomoki, and Ocmulgee (where a spiral mound survives at the Lamar site), as well as Cherokee architecture at New Echota and at the Joseph Vann House Historic Site. These sites record American Indian habitation, from ancient mounds dating from 350–750 at Kolomoki and from 1000–1550 at Etowah, as well as a sophisticated Cherokee culture that had been forcibly removed from Georgia in the 1830s, culminating in the Trail of Tears. Eighteenth-century sections of Savannah, Georgia’s largest city of the colonial and early national periods, were largely lost by fire, the two worst occurring in 1796 and 1820. The century’s most outstanding and lasting contribution to the built environment of Georgia, however, may be the Savannah city plan itself, with its squares, orderly streets, trustees lots, and tithe lots. In Augusta, the 1795 George Walton House survives (known as College Hill and home of one of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence), and the 1797 Ezekiel Harris House, built by a tobacco planter, is considered one of the state’s finest eighteenth-century houses.
Early-nineteenth-century architecture follows settlement patterns in the state, as seen in Summerville on the edge of Augusta or in Georgia towns further west that were settled in the antebellum period. Early building types included log cabins and inns, log-and-frame “Plain Style” farmsteads, and such structures as wood-frame covered bridges, corn cribs, stables, smokehouses, and well houses, many in evidence at Traveler’s Rest in Toccoa, Smith Plantation in Roswell, Vann house in Murray County, and New Echota in Gordon County. An important influence on Georgia’s development was Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin at Mulberry Grove Plantation outside Savannah. This machine improved the cost-efficiency of extracting seeds from upland cotton, and in a matter of a few years “King Cotton” spread across middle Georgia and the Lower South. New towns in Georgia were established along the fall line cotton belt including Athens (1801) and Milledgeville (1806). Patriotic names were selected for early-nineteenth-century towns, which also provided market centers for King Cotton: Washington (1804), Jefferson (1805), Madison (1809), Monticello (1810), and Monroe (1821). As a federally supported Indian removal program moved Creeks out of central and southern Georgia, other inland towns were established along rivers (Macon on the Ocmulgee in 1823 and Columbus on the Chattahoochee in 1828, the same year as LaGrange). During the following decade inland Georgia development spread to both the southern and northern parts of the state, prompting the establishment of Thomasville in 1831, Americus and Albany in 1832, Dahlonega in 1833 and Rome in 1834. Three years later, with the arrival of the railroad over the mountains from Chattanooga, the town of Terminus was established in 1837; it would later be renamed Atlanta.
One of the original seven states of the Confederacy, Georgia was also the hub of the South’s rail network and the Confederacy’s bread basket; for both reasons the state fell victim to Sherman’s March to the Sea, following the 1864 devastation of Atlanta by federal troops and ending with the capture of the port city of Savannah in 1865. Sherman’s goal was to demoralize Southerners and rip the heart out of the Confederacy by destroying military targets, the South’s industrial and agricultural infrastructure, and the regional rail network. Sherman twisted and tied Georgia’s iron rail lines into “Sherman’s knots,” foraged and then set fire to central Georgia’s farms, and decimated the state’s cotton culture. Much of the state’s built environment was thus altered or destroyed. Isolated surviving antebellum architecture in Georgia helps preserve iconic Southern images ranging from Spanish moss-festooned streets and the squares of Savannah to Greek Revival buildings in Roswell, a town north of Atlanta that was “spared” by Sherman. Amidst it all is the persistent and mythic image of the Southern plantation embodied in the fictitious Tara and colored by the romance of Gone with the Wind, the book and the film. As a result, white Georgians hold dear extant Greek Revival houses, as well as later Classical Revival mansions intentionally recalling their antebellum predecessors; particularly noteworthy examples are found in Athens, LaGrange, Edenton, and Macon, although many also survive in other small towns throughout the state. The more common reality, of course, is not this Old South of the imagination and subsequent post-Civil War reconstructions but the more prevalent vernacular and Plain Style building traditions, white and African-American alike, that survive in farms, small towns, bungalow neighborhoods, and rural cottage architecture.
The Civil War marked a distinct break in the history of the state, and in its architecture. Henry Grady’s post-war call for a “New South,” supported by northern investment, sought to develop new industries in the Empire State, linked by the resurrected rail network, which resulted in a rise in the textile industry at such river sites as Porterdale, Columbus, and Augusta, as well as at smaller inland communities such as LaGrange. The urban and architectural embodiment of the New South was Atlanta, a city whose development was the result more of the confluence of rail lines than geography or topography. During the late nineteenth century and through the 1920s, the city experienced a meteoric rise and witnessed the emergence in Atlanta of an eclectic era of architecture as architects and builders erected structures of nearly every popular national style. These included a multitude of historical revival public and private edifices as well as vernacular cottages, bungalows, and industrial and commercial buildings of various expression.
Many of the state’s earliest skyscrapers (1890s to c. 1910) are found in Atlanta’s central business district, known as the Fairlie Poplar district. Following a brief building boom in the 1930s, which produced the Art Deco city hall and other commercial office towers, there was no new tall-building construction until the mid-1950s. At mid-century, however, Atlanta again surged dramatically forward to become a “sunbelt city” of modern glass skyscrapers embodying boundless civic ambitions and progressive attitudes. Mid-to-late-twentieth-century Georgia attracted new industries from car and airplane manufacturing to modern research laboratories, factories, and centers for information technology. Corporate office campuses filled the rapidly growing suburbs of Atlanta with glass towers set in lakeside wooded settings, complexes sometimes more remarkable for their careful siting and the preservation of the natural landscape than for the architectural merit of their speculative office blocks.
During the years immediately following World War II, educational institutions began to adopt the progressive architectural forms of modernism. Influenced by the Bauhaus, architects such as Stevens and Wilkinson, Tucker and Howell, FABRAP, and others designed open and airy modern-styled elementary and high schools. Stevens and Wilkinson’s E. Rivers School received scores of school commissions for the firm all over the state, including equalization schools for African-Americans in a school system still operating under “separate but equal” guidelines. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Paul Heffernan designed a notable ensemble of “functionalist” buildings for Georgia Tech. Soon after, science buildings, dormitories, and medical buildings throughout the state followed this new modernist idiom. Stevens and Wilkinson’s 1956 Center for Continuing Education at the University of Georgia brought progressive design to traditional Athens.
Georgia hosts a large number of military bases representing the Army (Forts Stewart, Benning, and Gordon); the Marine Corps (Logistics Base, Albany); the Air Force (Warner Robbins, Dobbins, and Moody); the Navy (submarine base in Savannah, Supply Corps School formerly in Athens); and the Coast Guard (in Savannah and Brunswick). Historic forts include colonial tabby outposts now in ruins (Fort Frederica); timber reconstructions such as Fort George (from 1721 until 1736 the southern outpost of the British Empire in North America) and Fort Hawkins (a rebuilt blockhouse of a frontier fort in Macon); earthwork forts (Fort Morris from the American Revolution and Fort McAllister from the Civil War); brick masonry posts such as Fort Jackson (War of 1812) and Fort Pulaski (Civil War) in Savannah; and concrete batteries at Fort Screven, Tybee Island.
Atlanta is Georgia’s largest city, serving as the state capital since 1868. As the home of national sports teams in football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and a sports club for soccer, the city seems obligated every generation to build and rebuild its stadiums and arenas. Notable architecture was built in the city in preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games. Atlanta is also the site of corporate headquarters such as Coca Cola, CNN, and a rising $5.1 billion film industry. The city is also the location of major universities (Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Emory University, Agnes Scott College) and several traditional black colleges (Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse, Spellman, and Morris Brown Colleges). Half the state’s population lives in the metropolitan Atlanta area; moreover, of the fifteen largest cities in Georgia (each with a population above 50,000 according to the 2012 census), almost half make up the metropolitan Atlanta region: Atlanta, Sandy Springs, Roswell, John’s Creek, Alpharetta, Marietta, and Smyrna.
Atlanta is a regional transportation crossroads, and the multi-tiered Tom Moreland interchange is one of the engineering marvels of the state’s many concrete interstate highways. Also a regional marketplace, Atlanta hosts some 35,000 people at John Portman’s Peachtree Center on a typical weekend. The city’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the busiest airport in the world. The 50-story-plus skyscrapers in Atlanta, including Roche and Dinkaloo’s Nations Plaza and Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s IBM Tower, are among the tallest buildings in the South. Portman’s Hyatt Regency Hotel of 1966 established the model for atrium hotel design for the rest of the century, and the coordinated urban project comprising the seventeen city blocks of Peachtree Center spawned similar projects, from Detroit and San Francisco to Singapore and China.
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