A BRIEF HISTORY OF MIDTOWN
Neighborhood Beginnings: 1800-1900
Prior to the Civil War, what is now the Midtown was a rural landscape. Peachtree Street began as a small country road along a ridge in the early 1800s and land east of it descended down to Clear Creek (a waterway that runs today in culverts underneath Piedmont Park, Grady High School and Ponce City Market). By the mid- 1800s, three families – the Walkers, the Medlocks, and the Todds – owned all of the land in today’s Midtown east of Penn Avenue, while west of Penn were several hundred acres owned by Richard Peters, a railroad entrepreneur. By the time of the Civil War, railroad lines were expanding throughout Atlanta as the city became an important junction at the center of the Confederacy’s main food-producing region. Streetcar lines began in Atlanta in 1871 and became a major catalyst for the city’s rapid growth. In 1874 a line along Peachtree was expanded eastward along Ponce de Leon Avenue. By 1894 all of the city’s streetcars were electric powered and the system had significantly expanded, with routes along West Peachtree, Peachtree, Piedmont, 8th and North Boulevard (now Monroe Drive). The various streetcar lines provided an impetus for Atlanta to grow steadily northward. The original city limit (the one mile radius from the Zero Milepost) ran between Third and Fourth Streets, but by 1897, the city limits had been moved north to Sixth Street and were expanded again in 1904 to include all of Midtown as well as Piedmont Park. By the end of the 19th Century what is now Midtown included mostly wealthy families living on suburban estates occupying large tracts of land (sometimes entire blocks) along Peachtree and West Peachtree Streets.
Neighborhood Expansion: 1900-1950
By the turn of the Century, there were larger homes lining streets such as Penn and Myrtle, but not much development existed east of what is now Argonne. For example, there were only about nine houses along St. Charles Avenue before 1900. However, by 1910 the street was filled with large homes. By the late 1920s the much of the neighborhood had filled-in and included a variety of single-family home types and styles. Atlanta saw a building boom during the first quarter of the twentieth century. The city’s population grew from 90,000 in 1900 to 200,000 in 1920. By then, building activity was at a feverish pace and the major influence of the automobile had taken hold. Atlanta became an attractive location for corporations, creating a large housing demand for the influx of office workers. This workforce wanted well-designed in-town living spaces close to streetcar lines, giving way to construction of apartments throughout the neighborhood – a relatively new type of housing for Atlanta at the time. In 1917, a large fire destroyed large portions of neighborhoods along Boulevard and Jackson Streets as far north as Vedado Way and Greenwood Avenue. Approximately 2,000 homes were destroyed in the fire, leaving over 10,000 people homeless and camping out in Piedmont Park for months. New apartments filled this demand while replacing many of the single-family residences destroyed in the fire. The housing demand during this time was also often met by subdividing single-family residences, especially the older, nineteenth-century buildings. Examples of apartment buildings existing today include the Massellton Apartments (on the national register, located on Ponce de Leon Avenue), 907 Piedmont Avenue, 691 Juniper Street (formerly Juniper Terrace Apartments) and The Tyree on Durant Place (also on the National Register).
Commercial development was also prominent throughout Midtown around the 1920s and 1930s. Within two blocks of the intersection of Peachtree and 10th Streets there was a post office, a dentist, lawyer offices, a dance studio, a theater, Kress’s “dime store,” Cooledge Paints, C&S bank, two garages, two plumbers, two electrical companies, two barbers, two hairdressers, two hardware stores, three bakeries, Franco’s delicatessen and no fewer than twelve grocery stores, four drug stores, two fish markets, a meat market and a dairy. During the 1920s and Ponce de Leon Avenue was characterized by low-scale automobile service stations, the oldest of which still exists (built in 1939) near the corner of Ponce de Leon and Argonne. While corridors such as 10th Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue drew citywide clientele, smaller commercial nodes had become established within the center of the neighborhood, including at Argonne at 6th Street, which still exists today (now L&M convenience store).
Neighborhood Evolution: 1950-1970
Following a period of stalled development during the 1940s due to World War II, the early 1950s began to see a new construction activity. Several apartment buildings were built on some of the last vacant land in the interior of the District as the northern part of the Glendale Terrace subdivision was finally developed. In 1947, the city’s last streetcars were replaced by “trackless trolleys,” which ran on overhead wires but had rubber wheels instead of tracks in the streets. By the end of the 1950s, these would give way to gasoline-powered buses. In 1949 as well, construction began on the city’s system of “expressways,” later incorporated into the Federal system of interstate highways. One of the first segments constructed was the North Expressway, which was completed through the valley of Tanyard Creek a few blocks west of the District in the early 1950s. Automobiles facilitated suburban development further and further away from the center city during the 1950s, and by the end of that decade there would be a five-county metropolitan population of 1,000,000 people. In 1952, the city tripled its land area and added nearly 100,000 to its population by annexation of some 83 square miles, including all of the present city north of 26th Street, as well as Cascade on the southwest and Lakewood Heights on the southeast. It would be the city’s last major annexation. During the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood saw rooming houses and rental property increase dramatically as disinvestment by absentee landowners allowed many of the oldest houses in the District to deteriorate. By the 1960s, many of the houses on Juniper and Piedmont were beginning to disappear, several by fire, and by the late 1970s, entire blocks had been cleared. Elsewhere in the District, scattered demolition and redevelopment, mostly with apartment buildings, continued to occur. 1967 brought the “summer of love” to the District as the changing business district became “The Strip,” and Midtown became a center of the “counter-culture” of the 1960s and early 1970s. Although Midtown escaped the turmoil of white flight that plagued neighborhoods like West End and Grant Park, the drugs and prostitution that replaced the hippies on “The Strip” brought its own kind of turmoil to the District. By the end of the 1960s, the middle class population had left Midtown and the neighborhood suffered economic decline. Atlanta’s population and tax base had shrunk as white flight to the suburbs began.
Neighborhood Revitalization: 1970-2000
By the 1970s few of the old businesses remained on the western side of the District, although a laundry and a diner on Monroe Drive continued to thrive. Construction of a first phase of Colony Square in 1969 began a long slow period of revival, and by the early 1970s a movement to revitalize residential Midtown had begun, much as it did in Inman Park. The Midtown Neighborhood Association was formed in 1969 and a movement to revitalize residential Midtown had begun. Up until this time the “district” had been referred to as many things but no unifying name seemed to carry from one decade to another. Peachtree at Tenth was often referred to as simply “Tenth Street” and briefly “Uptowne” until Buckhead began to establish itself as Atlanta’s true uptown area. The neighborhood soon became known as “Midtown” and the Midtown Neighborhood Association was formed, one of the first of its kind in the city. Property values stabilized and remained high relative to the Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park and some other areas of the city. Rehabilitation of some of the decaying mansions on Piedmont began in the 1970s and there was increased interest by owners and residents in revitalization of the entire area. By 1980, the Midtown Neighborhood Association had spearheaded land-use policies that would help preserve the neighborhood’s historic character. As a result, city zoning laws were crafted limiting density within portions of the neighborhood east of Piedmont Avenue. In the mid-1970s, while the Midtown Neighborhood Association was focusing on revitalization within the mostly-residential portion of Midtown, a related movement had begun to “clean up” the commercial portion of the neighborhood to the west. The Midtown Alliance was then formed in 1978 with much involvement from MNA. The Alliance focused on neighborhood safety, commercial redevelopment, cultivating arts and education programs, and building community leaders. MNA and the Midtown Alliance worked tirelessly together through the 1980s and 1990s to improve the commercial district and the neighborhood in tandem. Urban planning gained alot of traction throughout the city following the 1996 Olympic Games (hosted in Atlanta) and several major initiatives soon followed in Midtown. In 1999, what is now the Midtown Garden District (i.e. the neighborhood) became a National Register Historic District (approx. 360 acres). At the time of nomination, the historic district included 723 historically contributing, 168 non-historically contributing properties, and 4 individually listed historic buildings. Around the same time in the late 1990s, the Midtown Alliance led an extensive community planning process called Blueprint Midtown. In 2000, as an outgrowth of the masterplan, the Midtown Improvement District (MID) was formalized as city development policy and its own overlay zoning district. At the same time, the MID became a self-taxing district by Midtown commercial property owners that would augment public resources and catalyze economic growth.
The evolution of Neighborhood Streets
The District includes a well-connected street network composed of uniquely-abstracted sections of street grids. Much like the District’s eclectic array of building types and architectural styles, its arrangement of streets reflects the fact that the neighborhood was initially developed by many different people over the course of many decades. For example, west of Argonne (developed in the 1870s by Richard Peters) the grid is aligned with Peachtree Street, which is skewed from true north by roughly 6 degrees. Streets east of Argonne, by contrast, were built after 1900 and were aligned to surveyed land-lots (oriented to compass points). Straight versus curved streets throughout the District also reflect the preferences of individual developers. For instance, “The Vedado” (est. 1906) and “Glendale Terrace” (est. 1925) were built as subdivisions and feature varied types of curvilinear streets. This evolution explains the different street character between areas such as Penn and Myrtle (very wide streets with larger front lawns) and areas like 8th and 9th Streets (more narrow streets with smaller building setbacks). Other unique street features include Charles Allen Drive, which includes a planted center median. Although most of the neighborhood’s sidewalks have been replaced since initially developed, some original sidewalk materials can still be found along streets such as Piedmont and Myrtle (red brick from late 1800s) and along streets such as Greenwood and Vedado (pre-WWII hex pavers).
Housing types & Architectural Styles
The majority of the District’s historic structures date from the 1890s to about 1930, representing a wide variety house types built during this period, including American four-squares, duplexes and bungalows. Most of the houses within the district are woodframed and represent a wide variety of architectural styles and house types that were constructed in Georgia and throughout the Southeast from 1885 to 1930. The Midtown Historic District retains house types built during this period, including American foursquares (photo B below) and bungalows (photo A). Stylistic influences that can be found on these house types include Queen Anne (Ivy Hall), Craftsman (photo A), Italianate, Classical Revival (photo D), Shingle Style , Gothic Revival, Mediterranean Revival (photo C), Colonial Revival (photo B), Jacobethan Revival and Renaissance Revival. Two prominent “eras” of apartment buildings exist within the district. The first era includes apartments built from 1915-1930 include subdivided houses, garden-style apartments, and hotel-style apartments (photos C and D below). The second era includes post World War II housing generally built between the late 1940s through the late 1960s. Even today these lower-scale two-story flat apartments can be found within the neighborhood and represent much of the District’s more affordable housing types.