Creating the "People's Playground"
by Lorna Gentry
At the stroke of noon on Tuesday April 18, 1882, an Atlanta Constitution newspaper reporter climbed into Col. L.P. Grant's carriage on Hunter Street in downtown Atlanta. As Grant headed his horse toward Washington Street, he talked about his ideas for the city's first public park.
Two weeks earlier Grant, a Civil War veteran and president of Atlanta and West Point Railway, offered the city 100 acres of his vast southeast Atlanta property. While it wasn't the only park site under consideration, it was the only land donated, a gift valued between $40,000 to $50,000 - the largest donation in the city's history to that point.
Grant Offered the reporter a personal tour, which began with the railroad man's vision of a new streetcar line. The proposed line, he explained, would run east down Fair Street to Oakland Cemetery. "There are then two ways that it could go," he said. "One out by my lawn and the other around the ridge to the northeast corner of the park."
The southeast area, which was sparsely populated and only partially within city limits, was forested with hardwoods and pine, and rendered vivid by numerous streams. "All the streams head in a ravine just above the park, and the water is clear and pure," the reporter wrote in the next morning's paper. "A bold stream runs down the ravine and passes the Grant spring. The waters join, run a hudred yards and strike the park line. It is proposed by Mr. Grant to conduct this water in pipes into the park, and when sufficient fall is secured to make fountains."
No doubt Grant's thinking was greatly influenced by Frederick Law Olmsted, father of landscape architecture, who 25 years earlier designed New York's Central Park. Olmsted's ideas about landscaping have been the template of urban American green space since 1857. Grant clearly subscribed to Olmsted's philosophy that public parks are a manifestation of freedom and equality. He intended his park to be the "people's playground," a cool, leafy resort where urbanites could escape the hot dusty city - physically and psychologically.
The park commission began discussing design ideas with the Olmsted Brothers firm in the 1880s, but didn't formally agree on a plan until 1903, the year Frederick Olmsted died. Park officials worked with Olmsted's stepson, Charles, on park improvements. Although Grant didn't live to see them, some of Olmsted's touches are still visible today.
Within months after Atlanta accepted Grant's land offer, the city formed a park commission, on which Grant served. The city extended its boundaries to include the park, and bought an additional 44 acres in 1890. Work on the park was under way by June 1883. Initially the city spent $3,500 on materials and labor to carve the land into a park. Four miles of gently winding drives were graded at different elevations so people could walk without seeing one another, giving a sense of space and solitude with nature.
A stream ran the length of the park from north to south. Wrote one newspaper reporter soon after the park opened: "There is a good supply of water from a bold, clear stream and from half dozen crystal springs, the largest of which bears the name of the Constitution." While the stream is gone, the; name Constitution Springs lives on in a carved stone set above a now-dry bed, located on the west side of the park. In fact, none of the five springs that ran through the park exist today. At the turn of the 20th century, they were diverted into storm water pipes. But in 2003 when the city built the new retention pond near the zoo, one of the springs, Salaam, was uncovered and continues to flow into the pond at a rate of 18,000 gallons a day.
Avenues named after Georgia's major cities were cut through Grant's property for better park access. The city began work in May 1887 on an unprecendented six-to eight-mile series of boulevards connecting Grant Park to Peachtree Street, Georgia and Capitol avenues, Washington and Pryor streets, and West End. In 1886 the streetcar line Grant envisioned was completed. Streetcars ran from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. At 10 cents a ride most everyone could afford to visit Grant's "health resort," as it was commonly called. Every summer in the early years a band performed concerts at least three days a week in a crimson-and-gold painted pavilion. Nearby people boated on Lake Abana, a nine-acre manmade lake that was two-and-a-half feet deep with a pebble bottom and an island in the middle.
Confederate breastworks ran diagonally through the park, culminating at Fort Walker, a four-gun battery that was one of the strongholds of the Confederate Army. Because Grant was the engineer in charge of building the fortifications during the war, he possessed the original plans of the fort. Although the cannons disappeared after the war, Grant's blueprints enabled the park commission to restore the fort's dimensions. Named after Maj. General W.H.T. Walker, who was killed nearby in the Battle of Atlanta, the renovated fort opened to the public in August 1885. Park patrons used to take medicinal baths in a mineral spring located nearby. The park commission built an ornamental shelter over the spring to protect the water's rich iron and sulfur from the damaging sun.
Over the years many items were donated to Grant Park, most of which have disappeared. At one time two large bronze lions guarded Fort Walker. Park Commissioner Sidney Root personally bought a bronze angel in memory of his late wife and placed it at Bethesda Spring. Now the lions and angel are gone.
Perhaps the most spectacular donation was a hand-carved, bronze sundial manufactured by a New York optician and purchased for the park by former Atlanta businessman W.F. Herring. He presented the sundial to the city in December 1883 and displayed it in a storefront window on Whitehall Street before it was installed in the park. In the Dec. 29, 1883 issue of The Atlanta Constitution, a reporter described the sundial as, "a solid plate of bronze on which is engraved by hand the names of 50 of their respective distances from Atlanta, which is in the center of the plate. The dial proper, 12 inches in diameter, gave the sun time in this city. A movable bronze crown on a povotal pedestal in the center may be made to point towards any locality on the large plate, thus indicating its geographical direction from Atlanta.
By the late 1880s, Grant Park was well established, but a broken-down circus made the park one of the city's most popular destinations for nearly six generations. In March 1889 a traveling circus bound for Marietta ran out of money in downtown Atlanta. When the owner declared bankruptcy, the performers and handlers abandoned the animals in their cages. Two weeks later the animals were auctioned and purchased by prominent Atlanta businessman George Valentine Gress. He donated them to the city, establishing the Grant Park Zoo, which opened in April 1889. Between donations from private citizens and purchases made by the city, the small zoo grew slowly over the years. A single contribution of animals doubled its size in th e1930. Coca-Cola entrepreneur Asa Candler had an exotic collection on the grounds of his estate, Callonwolde, on Briarcliff Road. Complaints from neighbors prompted Candler to donate the animals to the zoo, which in turn spurred the city to invest in larger facilities, laying the foundation for today's Zoo Atlanta.
A second donation by George Gress sealed Grant Park's place in Atlanta's history. Twenty years after the July 22, 1864 Battle of Atlanta, a former Union Army officer, General Logan, commissioned a cyclorama depicting the war scene to use in his political campaign for vice president. When the artwork was completed in 1886, it was the largest oil painting in the world. Running on the strength of his was record, General Logan used the painting as a backdrop on the campaign trail. The painting was later housed in a building on Edgewood Avenue and Courtland Street. It was moved to Grant Park in 1893 and displayed in a wooden structure located in the area close to where the Zoo Arc building is now located. The Cyclorama was moved into its present home in 1921.
Grant Park continues to be the "people's playground," with more than two million visitors annually. Some come to see the past in the Cyclorama and Fort Walker, and some visit the zoo, but many come to simply picnic, stroll and relax, just as Atlantans did 125 years ago.
This article first appeared in the 2008 Grant Park Summer Shade Festival GUIDE (Aug 2008)