Atlanta’s Millennium Gate

Millennium Gate, Atlanta, Georgia Photo: Scott L. Robertson PhotographyAt the start of the twenty-first century, Atlanta is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States, with a population exceeding five million. Its skyline is punctuated with elegant new skyscrapers designed by leading urban architects, and the city is home to more Fortune 500 companies than any other, except New York. It has been an amazing rise in a century and a half. On September 1, 1864, Confederate General John Bell Hood surrendered the city of Atlanta, after four months of brutal siege, to a Union army led by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who burned the entire city to the ground before marching south through Georgia. Relatively small at the start of the war—its population was only 9,554 in the census of 1860—Atlanta struggled to rebuild during decades of reconstruction to become an industrial behemoth today. The saga is immortalized by the phoenix on its city seal, which bears the motto “Resurgens,” Latin for “rising again.”

Unlike other distinctly Southern cities, such as Charleston, Richmond, Savannah and New Orleans, Atlanta has almost no architectural legacy. As the city has prospered, however, leading developers and cultural institutions have sought to reconnect rapid development with a deeper appreciation of its traditional roots in our national history. One such organization is the National Monuments Foundation, headquartered in Atlanta. On July 4, 2008, it opened the Millennium Gate, an 85-foot-tall monumental classical arch, which houses a 12,000-square-foot museum, gallery, business center and educational resource. The Arch rises at the transportational hub of a two-billion-dollar, 140-acre development called Atlantic Station, the site of the former Atlantic Steel company. Only a solitary furnace tower survives, an impressive iconic reminder of the original structure now surrounded by hundreds of handsome condominiums, a thriving business district, theaters and shopping centers.

The Milliennium Arch and Museum, ten years in the making, is the inspiration of Rodney Mims Cook, Jr., whose southern family roots go back to the founding of Jamestown in 1607. Growing up in Atlanta, he explains, he didn’t have the cultural benefits provided by the classical architecture and public monuments that characterize other important cities. The National Monuments Foundation was established to create noble civic structures, which represent and serve the interests of the greater community. Cook originally sought to build a millennium arch in Washington, D.C., for a planned extension of the National Mall to the Anacosta River. While the events of September 11, 2001, stymied those ambitious plans, Cook is still drawn to the iconic romanticism of the National Mall and its influence on the imagination of the millions of Americans who visit each year. At the same time, he recognizes a decline of quality in much public architecture and civic space.

He has rallied a group of architects, sculptors and investors to collaborate on the Millennium Gate, and draws analogies to the McMillan Plan of 1903, which transformed a swampland in the nation’s capital into the National Mall we know today. Among the advisors and judges he enlisted were architects Robert A.M. Stern, Dean, Yale University; Carroll William Westfall, Chairman, the University of Notre Dame; Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Dean, University of Miami; Michael Dennis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Leon Krier, Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture. The American architectural firm CollinsCooperCarusi is the Architect of Record. Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart created two monumental bronze statues, Peace and Justice, set on pylons flanking the front entrance to the Gate. The artist recently completed the Queens Gallery in Buckingham Palace, London. 

Exhibitions in the main galleries of the new structure pay homage to the early history of Atlanta, with a rich display of photographs and artifacts. Other galleries focus on the State of Georgia, the Enlightenment ideals instrumental in its inception and the role it played during the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States. Several galleries on the top floors of the Arch are accessible by elevator. Indeed, the entire structure is a remarkable balance between high technology—including movie-screen-size interactive computer terminals operated by visitors—and museum-quality installations, featuring re-creations of notable historical rooms, furnishings and decorative arts.

The mission of the National Monuments Foundation is to create a series of great public structures and spaces that lift the human spirit with their classical beauty and provide educational resources. The Millennium Gate, with its beautiful new park in the center of Atlanta’s still rapidly expanding midtown community, has spectacular rooftop views and salon accommodations. It will attract visitors, with planned events both for the public and the business community, which has become a major contributor. Future plans include a gallery for contemporary classical sculptors, such as George Kelly, who created the impressive bronze bust of George Washington displayed in the main gallery. It is the largest public monument built since the construction of the Jefferson Memorial. Adorning the top of the Arch is a Latin inscription which translates: “This American monument is dedicated to all peaceful accomplishment, Anno Domini 2000.”  The Millennium Gate and Museum is located at 395 17th Street NW, Atlanta, Georgia 30363. Museum hours are 10 am–6 pm, Tuesday through Sunday. Telephone: (404) 237-8970. On the Web: www.thenmf.org

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2008, Volume 25, Number 4