I’ve always had a bit of a penchant for local history wherever I’m currently living. When I was younger, it was old houses in Tucker (a suburb of Atlanta). When I went off to college, it was Milledgeville. Milledgeville was the Capital of Georgia up until the War of Northern Aggression, so it had a ton of history to lose myself in. In fact, I even lived in a house that was built in the late 1800’s for a time. Now that I’m marginally grown up and living in the blood n guts of Atlanta, I’ve started to take a deeper interest in the history surrounding me.
Atlanta is often derided as not having many historical locations. This is due to two primary things: Our good friend Sherman burning all the cool stuff just to prove his point, and our own dumbass predilection for tearing down what’s remaining of the cool stuff to build new things that often start “free” and end with “way.” Nonetheless, Atlanta does still have a few gems. A quick visit to the Atlanta Time Machine will prove that. Today I’d like to share with you something that’s intrigued me for most of my life…
When I was a kid, my uncle had some mental issues. As such, he was committed to the Georgia Mental Health Institute (GMHI) for a little while. Now, don’t get too excited, this wasn’t like One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest. It was more like a hospital or nursing home than an asylum and he was allowed to leave for visits and things like that. Anyways, when we’d go to visit him, kids weren’t allowed in the building (or at least that’s what my mom said), so I’d have to wait in the car.
GMHI was located on Briarcliff Road near Ponce De Leon Ave. and the Callenwolde Fine Arts Center. It’s a bit of an odd area to drive by since you’re in this nice neighborhood area and all of a sudden there’s a huge stone wall and all you can see is a gate house and a medical building in the back. The health institute and its satellite buildings were closed in the 1990’s and recently purchased by Emory University. Emory got a ridiculously good deal on the property from the state, paying only $2.9 million for all the buildings and 42 acres in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Atlanta. The only condition: everything was purchased as is and believe me, it was in need of repair.
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The main building itself was built in the 1960’s and was pretty sterile looking, like most government buildings, but what always freaked me out about the place was this huge decrepit mansion that sat near the parking lot. This thing looked like something out of Casper: The Friendly Ghost or something. I had a morbid fascination with the place. Whenever we would leave, my mom would drive me all around the mansion so I could look at it. It was pretty intimidating for a 7 or 8 year old kid. It was massive, it was in serious disrepair, and it was right next to a mental hospital. That’s the kind of dreamcatcher nightmares are made of.
I’m sure my mom told me who the mansion belonged to or why it was even still there on the campus of a hospital, but I was young and it obviously didn’t register with me. I just couldn’t imagine anyone living in a house that big. Throughout the years, the mental images of that mansion stayed with me, lightly pecking away at my curiosity.
When I was about 25, I moved to Decatur, GA, a little town just over the Atlanta line and about two or three miles from GMHI. One day, my roommate and I were riding down Briarcliff Road and passed a group of buildings called the Emory Briarcliff Campus. My roommate went to Emory, so I asked him what was there. His answer was, “Not much. The school recently bought it. It used to be a hospital or something.”
This piqued my curiosity and I decided to do some searching. After a quick call to my mom I discovered that it was, in fact, where GMHI used to be. I kinda forgot about the whole thing until last year when I purchased stock for a company researching an AIDS vaccine in collaboration with Emory called Geovax. Geovax’s headquarters were on the Emory Briarcliff Campus (they’ve since moved to a larger location in Smyrna, GA). Then I remembered that creepy-ass mansion…
The Candler Mansion was built by Asa Candler Jr., son of the founder of Coca-Cola, in 1920. It was built on a 42-acre estate with greenhouses and two swimming pools, one that was open to the public for a small fee. It featured landscaped gardens and the precursor to the Atlanta Zoo. Candler was a bit of an eccentric and had four fully grown elephants named, Coca, Cola, Refreshing, and Delicious on the property. He also had many exotic birds, A Bengal tiger, a black leopard, four lions, a gorilla, and numerous baboons. After one of the baboons got loose and attacked a neighbor, he was sued and subsequently donated the animals to start Zoo Atlanta in Grant Park.
In 1948, the estate was sold to the General Services Administration for a VA hospital, but nothing ever came of that. It was then turned into the DeKalb County Addiction Center which later became GMHI. The mansion fell into serious disrepair when the main building was built. Emory now owns it and it is now a national historic site.
This morning I ran across this Flickr Stream by a user named Sevensumerz. I don’t know how this guy managed to finagle a tour, but I’m envious. I’m trying to swing one myself, but it’s a tough road to hoe. Give this guy major props for some excellent work. Pay close attention to the external shots and tell me this place wouldn’t freak you were a kid. I don’t think it was boarded up back then either. It looks like Emory has done some work to stabilize the building, so hopefully it will be restored to it’s formal glory. Lastly, check out the Solarium and Ball Room. Insane, huh?