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Old Maps Reveal Compelling History Around Woodruff Park

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In this new series, Adventures In Mapping, we'll dig through historic Sanborn fire maps of the city — drawn between 1886 and 1922 — to uncover secrets behind some of Atlanta's most prominent places. Comparing relatively ancient maps to those of today, we'll see just how much neighborhoods have changed and trace the rise and demise buildings and streets as we go. Along the way, we'll point out quirky aspects of the city's evolution and highlight not only what we've lost through the years, but what we've managed to save and gain. First up: the area now known as Woodruff Park.

Opened in 1973 as Central City Park, Woodruff Park occupies a central place in the city along Peachtree Street, just north of Five Points. Surrounded by historic buildings, the park is a fairly recent addition considering the neighborhood is one of the oldest in Atlanta. Until Robert Woodruff bought the land and donated it to the city for the park, the blocks were filled with buildings, even when the first map was drawn in 1886...

Two decades after the end of the Civil War, the area just north of Five Points was booming. Though the five-way intersection existed at that point, Edgewood Avenue hadn't happened yet, so Line Street formed the fifth point of Five Points, tapering off just two blocks later at Ivy Street (now Peachtree Center Avenue). Auburn Avenue was called Wheat Street — vestiges of that name still exist in Sweet Auburn and Old Fourth Ward — and did a funny jog at Pryor Street (now Park Avenue) before meeting Peachtree Street near Poplar Street. (Auburn Avenue, meanwhile, made a sharp turn and bisected Woodruff Park to meet Luckie Street).

There were numerous wooden houses in the blocks to the east of Pryor Street between Houston (now John Wesley Dobbs Avenue) and Wheat streets. The grandest building in the area was the First Methodist Church between Peachtree and Pryor streets just before Peachtree turns to run north. Built in 1870, the building would later be replaced by the Candler Building. Along Line Street, there were streetcar sheds — smack dab where the new Atlanta streetcar runs along Edgewood 129 years later — and a small medical college along Porter's Alley (now, straightened and shortened a bit as Equitable Place).

Few pieces of Atlanta from the first Sanborn map have survived, because downtown needed room to build, after all. The area was about to host Atlanta's first skyscrapers.

Near the turn of the century, the neighborhood had grown up. Houses south of Houston Street were being replaced by hotels. While there was still a coal and wood yard in the center of what would become Woodruff Park, two high-rises lent a sense of urbanity to the area. The Equitable Building, the first skyscraper built in Atlanta, was completed in 1892 at Pryor Street and Edgewood Avenue — which had been constructed some time after 1886. The English-American Building — known now as the Flatiron Building — had risen on the tiny triangular site between Peachtree and Broad streets in 1897. Degive's Grand Opera House, opened in 1893, would survive to host the world premiere of "Gone with the Wind" as the Lowe's Grand Theatre, before being destroyed in a mysterious fire in 1978.

But the theater wasn't the only cultural attraction for highfalutin ladies and gents of the day. The Columbia Bicycle Riding Academy stood prominently on the corner of Houston and Pryor streets, across from both the Methodist and Episcopal churches.

Oh, but what would the new century bring?

In 1911, the final Sanborn Fire Insurance map was drawn for the area. By that time, many high-rises had joined the first two, and more than a few of them would survive to see this century.

The Candler Building had replaced the Methodist church in 1906, and the Grant and Empire buildings both rose just off of Five Points. Atlanta got its first central library thanks to Andrew Carnegie; the street that it was built on still bears his name, despite the building's demolition for Marcel Breuer's brutalist box.

Other grand structures in the neighborhood at the time included the Forsyth Building and the Piedmont Hotel, both of which were lost to "renewal" in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today the neighborhood is steadily becoming a vibrant part of downtown, thanks in part to the efforts of Georgia State University. Having taken over many of the historic buildings (and buildings that replaced historic buildings), GSU helped reverse downtown's decline of the 1980s and 1990s. With preservation and new projects to fill in blighted and underutilized lots, smart money says the neighborhood could one day be a major center in the city.

· Sanborn fire maps [Digital Library of Georgia]
· Atlanta's First Apartments are Hiding in Plain Sight [Curbed Atlanta]