Back in 1785 when the Georgia legislature selected the site for their state university, the city of Athens was called Cedar Shoals and it was little more than a remote trading post on the Oconee River. Just nine years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Georgia was the first state to make such a move. The legislators granted 40,000 acres of land to be sold and the money generated would be used to build a state-funded college. It was not until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 that this method of land-grant funding for schools would become common practice in many states.
John Milledge, one of the Georgia trustees and future Georgia governor bought over 600 acres of the grant land and donated it to the college. After that other people began buying adjacent lots for businesses and homes. When the city of Athens was officially founded in 1805, 35 years after the establishment of the university, the Georgia governor chose to name the new city in honor of Plato and Aristotle’s home in Greece.
As could be expected the city of Athens’ culture is dominated by the university. The school employs 10,000 people. Two area health centers employ over 5,000. The largest private industries are the Caterpillar Athens plant with 1,600 employees and Pilgrim’s poultry with 1,300. The city of Athens has truly been built around the university.
Our visit to Athens was on a Friday and we booked a room at Hilton Garden Inn, which is situated in the heart of the historic downtown. We quickly dropped off our things and headed out for a walk. In spite of COVID, the streets were pleasantly busy, populated with polite and well dressed students. Many of the young women wore dresses and some of the young men were even wearing blazers. As busy as the streets were that evening, we were later told that on game weekends in football season the town is completely overrun with enthusiastic football fans.
Athens is also known for its music scene. Plans for a music festival to kick off the introduction of the city’s Music Walk of Fame were derailed by COVID, but in September the first ten distinctive guitar-shaped plaques were unveiled at sites downtown. These plaques honored the inaugural inductees such as R.E.M., Pylon and The B-52s.
As we strolled the streets that evening, we enjoyed looking at the lovely old buildings and the golden fall leaves of the ginkgo trees.
The next morning we began with a walk around the central business district. Standing outside City Hall is a unique double-barreled cannon that was cast in the Athens foundry. The gun had been designed during the Civil War to fire two balls simultaneously. The balls were linked together with a chain and the intent was to “mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat.” Thankfully, the gun failed because it would not fire both barrels in the same instant and the weapon was never used (Interpretive Marker: The Athens Double-Barrelled Cannon).
The bright morning light brought out interesting architectural features and we could have tarried longer…
… but we were eager to start touring the university’s Old North Campus, which we could see just across Broad Street. Two members of the original planning committee were Yale graduates and they pressed for the campus to be laid out in the quad-style of their alma matter.
We started our tour at the Arch at Broad Street and College Avenue. Today the arch’s graceful cast-iron columns stand for UGA’s founding principles: wisdom, justice and moderation…but it was originally installed in the 1850s as a gate to keep stray cattle from roaming the quad.
The earliest structures were of log construction and they have long ago been replaced with stately buildings.
At the far end of the quad is the Old College building that was completed in 1806. It was the first permanent structure to be built on the campus and it is the oldest building in Athens. The statue in front of the building honors Abraham Baldwin, the first president of the university.
Just a few steps away from the quad is the Founders Memorial Garden, which is dedicated to the twelve founding members of the Ladies’ Garden Club of Athens, and is credited as being the first garden club in the United States.
The university continued to grow over the years and it is now more than two miles from the Arch down to the State Botanical Garden, which is at its southern border. Next, decided it was time to get in the car and drive to see more of the university as well as some of the historic sites in town.
Early on, cotton mills had been the driving industry and had fueled the city’s growth. Railroad lines arrived in the 1840s. The burgeoning industries combined with the university’s growing influence and Athens was on its way to become one of the state’s most important cities. Athens has a total of seventeen historic districts for those who want to really delve into its story. As the first step in our touring, we opted to visit four of the historic Antebellum Period homes located along Museum Mile.
Athens Welcome Center at 280 E. Dougherty St. is located on the site of the Church-Waddle-Brumby House (1820). This Federal-style home is believed to be Athens’ oldest surviving residence and its restoration helped spark the local historic preservation movement.
The Ware-Lyndon House (1856) was built for Dr. Edward Ware and his family. Dr. Ware became involved in Athens business community and eventually left his medical practice to develop his business interests. He became active in city matters and become Athens’ mayor for four terms; meanwhile, his lively and social wife, Elizabeth, made their home the social center of the city. In 1880 the home was purchased by Dr. Edward Lyndon and his wife, and they raised six children in the home.
The city of Athens purchased the house in 1939 and it served many government agencies before becoming a home for visual arts in 1974. The house was developed into a museum highlighting the stories of its two named families. The Lyndon Arts Center, with its five galleries of exhibition space, was built and connected to the house.
Be sure to pause to enjoy the home’s Parterre garden with its white wooden fence and statuary…as well as the elegant front walkway.
The T.R.R. Cobb House (Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb) was built in 1852 before Cobb went on to become a one of the principal authors of the Confederate Constitution and a Confederate general in the Civil War. The home was moved to Stone Mountain Park in 1985 and then returned to Athens in 2005. If you visit the home’s website you can see a fascinating time-lapse video the house being moved back to Athens and being reconstructed (www.trrcobbhouse.org).
The fourth of the most noted Athens houses is the Taylor-Grady House that was built in 1844 by Robert Taylor, a planter and cotton merchant. Henry Grady’s father bought the house in 1863 and Henry lived here during his years at the university. He went on to be the managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper and in his writings he stressed “the importance of reconciliation between North and South” (Interpretive Marker “The Taylor-Grady House”).
During the Civil War, Athens had been a supply center and it was spared any major battles. The Reconstruction Era brought continued growth to the city and the university. Freed slaves moved to the city where they could now receive an education. They also developed their own businesses and culture in different parts of the town.
After seeing these four historic homes, we turned back toward the university to tour more of the campus and along our route we ran into more interesting historic properties, colorful neighborhoods, and quirky sites.
The Old Fire Hall No. 2 with its wooden doors and cobblestone drive caught our attention. This flatiron building with its distinctive triangular shape is perfectly fitted to the tight corner lot at the intersection of Hill Street and Prince Street. This area was originally known as Cobbham (the Cobb House is just across the street) and in 1833 was Athens’ first suburb. The building was on the docket to be demolished in the mid-1900s, but the public outcry saved it and it is now the home of Historic Athens, a group dedicated to preserving the city’s history and heritage.
The next corner is home to the colorful Daily Groceries Co-Op. Their friendly staff and fresh produce department were enough to convince us that we would be regular customers if we lived in the area.
One thing in Athens that we didn’t want to miss was a visit to the stately white oak that stands at Dearing and Finley Streets and is known as The Tree That Owns Itself. “According to a legend first printed in the local newspaper on August 12, 1890, Colonel William H. Jackson’s will deeded the tree possession of itself and all the land within eight feet of its trunk” (visitathensga.com).
When the original tree was felled in a wind storm in 1942 and the Junior Ladies Garden Club of Athens decided that the legend should not die. The members gathered acorns from the site and nurtured them. The tree that stands here today was just a sapling when it was planted on December 4, 1946, and it was granted the same tax-free status as its parent. It is probably one of the only property owners in the city that doesn’t receive a real estate tax bill each year.
The tree is located in the Dearing Street Historic District and there are some interesting homes on the streets surrounding it.
Reentering the UGA campus, one of the first things that caught our eye was the UGA Latin American Garden, which was cultivated to research medicinal plants use by the Mayans.
Touring the campus on a quiet weekend has its advantages, but many of the University buildings are not open so we were not able to visit the University of Georgia’s Special Collections building that holds a collection of historic items. If this is of interest, you may want to check the university schedule before you visit.
Fortunately, the Georgia Museum of Art (the state’s official art museum) was open on the weekend so we were able to tour its extensive collections. The special exhibit, The Art of the Chair, gave us rooms full of chairs that included little doll chairs and children’s seating to fascinating patented devices from the Victorian Era and more unique pieces up through 21st-century designs.
As one of the interpretive signs explains: “Few objects tell the history of modern design as eloquently as the chair. Aesthetics trends, the emergence of new technologies, ergonomics, social and cultural developments are all reflected in the evolution of chair design.”
From there we wandered through galleries holding works of Old Masters to early Georgia O’Keefe, American Impressionism, Ash Can School paintings and more.
The museum has a strong and growing Southern Decorative Arts collection with objects ranging from Choctaw basketry and weather vanes to ornamental needlework.
After touring the entire space, I determined that my two favorite pieces are works by Margaret Morrison, a professor of painting and drawing at UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art. Morrison’s massive paintings were inspired by her visit to an open-air market in Arezzo, Italy, where she saw table after table laden with antique pieces for sale. Atomic No. 47 and Keramilkos are part of a series of works she created based on that experience. “Atomic No. 47 is tightly packed with its radiant silver objects, and Keramikos, which overflows with resplendent ceramic cups an crystal goblets, are the first two paintings in this series” (Museum sign).
Looking closely, at individual pieces in Atomic No. 47, you can see reflections of buildings, sky and other objects on the shining surfaces. Both are fascinating works for their composition and what there is to be discovered within each piece. In the body of this teapot, if the reflection of a person leaning forward to take a photo of the display…I wondered if this was a humorous “selfie” Morrison added to her work.
If you still have time in your visit you may want to enjoy the 300-acre State Botanical Garden, which is located just south of the campus. Be sure to wear good walking shoes because there is much to explore with a variety of gardens to view, five miles of trails and its conservatory, herb and physic gardens.
Now it was time for us to leave Athens, but not without one last photo of the UGA mascot wearing the school’s distinctive red and black colors.