ArtsATL > Art+Design > Feature: The Atlanta Time Machine offers an online free ride back to the city’s yesterday

Feature: The Atlanta Time Machine offers an online free ride back to the city’s yesterday

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Ever wonder what the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport looked like when it was known as the Atlanta Municipal Airport in the mid-1940s? Have you ever seen the original Waffle House location or wanted to know what was in the space the Star Bar currently inhabits? Did you know Colony Square once had an indoor ice skating rink, and that the amusement park known as the World of Sid and Marty Krofft was located in the Omni International complex before it became CNN Center?

Whether you’re a native or just curious about the city’s history, you can chart the progress of Atlanta over the past century, street by street and neighborhood by neighborhood (in some cases), on the Atlanta Time Machine. This website, which takes a before-and-after approach to the city’s transformation through photographs, postcards, ephemeral material (magazine ads, newspaper clippings, brochures) and even rare audio recordings, is the creation of Greg Germani. The Atlanta Time Machine has grown exponentially since it first launched in 2004 and is now a quintessential resource for exploring a side of Atlanta that is often overlooked in glossy, coffee table photo studies of the city.

Germani, who works full time in the network operations division of the Turner Broadcasting System, operates Atlanta Time Machine as a personal side project. Combining the creative vision of an art gallery curator with the sensibilities of a photo library archivist, Germani takes a quirky, nonformal approach to his subject that allows him to mix historical artifacts with his own interest in film locations (1974’s “Cockfighter,” 1977’s “Smokey and the Bandit”), local nightclub life (the Domino Lounge, the Harem Club) and high profile events (Ray Charles at Herndon Stadium in 1959, the 1964 Barry Goldwater rally at Hurt Park, the Beatles at Atlanta Stadium in 1965).

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Germani credits the Georgia State University Special Collections and Archives as the inspiration behind the creation of Atlanta Time Machine. He enjoyed surfing the GSU online collection and viewing archival shots of former nightclubs, businesses, streets and neighborhoods he passed by on his way to work. Occasionally, he’d find an archival photo from GSU of a house or building he passed every day going to work; he’d print out the photo and leave it the mailbox in front of the structure.

“No doubt they would scratch their head and go, ‘Who left a 1946 photo of our house in the mailbox?’” he said. “Not long after I started doing that, I thought: this is a great idea for a website.”

Germani started taking digital photos of familiar landmarks and locations around Atlanta that he would post next to an image of the same property taken maybe 50 or 60 years earlier. He would also try to replicate the same perspective of the original photo so the viewer could easily perceive any changes that had occurred over time. After securing permission from the GSU archives to use their photos as long as no paid advertising was allowed on his site, Germani launched his creation and eventually began to supplement the collection with photo donations from other sources along with postcards, brochures, and vintage ads from out-of-print publications for the Atlanta tourist trade.

Unlike the GSU archives website, which is arranged by collections and can be overwhelming or confusing to navigate for a novice researcher, the Atlanta Time Machine organizes the content by distinct categories. There are links to all of the photos he scans on a monthly basis, going all the way back to 2004.

There are always new discoveries to be made, and Germani is constantly coming across fascinating obscurities that he adds to the mix. He was astonished to discover there was an intersection of Huntley and Brinkley Drives, an apparent hat-tip to Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, NBC evening news anchors from 1956 through 1970.

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“Nobody knows who Huntley and Brinkley are now,” he said. “But these guys were so big and influential some developer named an intersection after them. That’s the kind of thing I think people want to know about so that’s my mission. Interesting facts about Atlanta nobody knows.”

The website is also chock full of local and national celebrity sightings around town, such as baseball legend Hank Aaron, WXIA-TV’s weatherman Guy Sharp (in simian makeup to promote a sequel in the “Planet of the Apes” series) or Jayne Mansfield’s visit to radio station WPLO to promote her appearance here at the Copa with husband Mickey Hargitay.

There are also a few whose notoriety has put Atlanta on the map in an unfavorable way, such as Mark Chapman, John Lennon’s killer, who went to high school in Decatur (you can see photos of his residence) or former governor and diehard segregationist Lester Maddox. “I enjoy learning where famous people used to live,” he said. “The wrestler Fred Blassie used to live in Atlanta. He’s not a native but he spent several years here. It’s amazing the people you can find in old city directories. Hank Ballard, the guy who wrote ‘The Twist,’ spent several years in Atlanta and lived on the Westside. I went and took a picture of his house because ‘The Twist’ had a huge cultural impact.”

When comparing photos of Atlanta’s past to present day locations, Germani was struck by one positive aspect of the city’s urbanization. “So many of the photos are based Downtown, and I noticed in the contemporary photos that there were trees everywhere Downtown,” he said. “Trees Atlanta gets a lot of credit for that. If you look at the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s photos of Downtown, there’s hardly a tree anywhere. Along the sidewalks now, up and down every street, there’s trees.”

Another aspect of Atlanta that stands out on Germani’s website is the vibrant nightlife and social scene that always existed here. You can step back in time to view such popular hot spots as the Bayou Club at the height of “The Twist” mania; the Domino Club touting rhythm and blues singer LaVerne Baker on the same bill as the Bugaloo Topless Revue; and the Copa Caprice, advertised as “Atlanta’s Smartest Supper Club.” Of course, the Clermont Lounge is here too, but did you know it has a rich and varied history that extends back to the 1940s when it was known as the Anchorage Club (“the Sweetest and Softest Dance Music in the South”)? Through the years and countless management changes, the world famous strip club has been known as the Gypsy Room, the Continental Room, the Jungle Club, Sultan’s Harem and, for a brief time, Atlanta’s Playboy Club.

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An added attraction at Atlanta Time Machine for fans of obscure country, rhythm and blues, and novelty records is a sampling of vintage 45 rpms by mostly unknown local musicians or personalities singing about very specific Atlanta events, such as Leroy Abernathy & the Homeland Harmony Quartet’s “Burning of the Winecoff Hotel,” a song about the tragic 1946 hotel fire in which 119 people lost their lives. Other arcane surprises include Elliott, Walter & Bennett’s “The 12 Days of an Atlanta Falcons Christmas,” the Turnstyles’ “He Was Cable When Cable Wasn’t Cool” (a 1982 nonhit about Ted Turner) and Billy Johnson’s Civil War ballad, “The Battle of Kennesaw.”

Germani’s musical tastes and interests extend beyond his website; he occasionally dabbles in band and concert promotions, booking one or two events a year at Kavarna in Oakhurst. In the past he has brought such acts to town as Rob McNurlin and His Cowboy Band featuring Kayton Roberts, a Nashville musician who is in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.

But Germani’s main focus remains the Atlanta Time Machine. “It’s probably the best project I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “It really has become this huge repository of historical photos and ephemeral stuff like nightclubs, burlesque ads . . . That’s one of my favorite parts of it because nobody’s captured that to any degree. And that is a really important part of history and the fabric of the culture of Atlanta.”

Click here to view more photos featured on the website. 

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