Piedmont Park: Rich in Nature and History
By Daniel LaChance
Piedmont Park occupies 189 leafy acres at the center of Midtown, a lively neighborhood in northeast Atlanta. Landscape architecture connoisseurs will immediately recognize the aesthetic influence of Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose sons oversaw a redesign of Piedmont Park in the early 20th century. Never fully implemented, their work nevertheless left Olmsted’s unmistakable signature on the triangular-shaped space.
Settlers Samuel and Sarah Walker purchased the farmland on which the park now sits in 1834, before Atlanta or Fulton County existed. It remained in the Walker family until 1887, when their son Benjamin sold it to the nearby Piedmont Driving Club, an organization of horse enthusiasts. They created a racing track on the present site of the park’s “active oval”—now four large ballfields encircled by a half-mile-long running track—and permitted the Piedmont Exposition Company to use park space for large events.
Expositions held in Piedmont Park in 1887 and 1895 played their part in a larger effort to demonstrate Atlanta’s recovery in the wake of Civil War, and its readiness to play a broader role in the national and international economy. The Cotton States and International Exposition, a 100-day long fair that began in September 1895, brought about two of the current park’s more notable features: its tropical gardens, which would eventually become the Atlanta Botanical Garden (now located on the high ground of the park’s northwest side); and Lake Clara Meer, a rare body of water in an otherwise dry city. The Exposition is best remembered for the “Atlanta Compromise,” Booker T. Washington’s speech urging African Americans and European Americans to see themselves as economically interdependent but socially distinct: “separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand.” A marker commemorating the place where Washington delivered those lines on September 18, 1895, stands just inside the park’s 14th Street entrance.
The city purchased the land to formally establish the park in 1904. Since then, it has grown in size, amenities, and number of users. Major events are held in the park year-round, from the city’s annual Dogwood Festival (begun in 1936) to the Peachtree Road Race (1970), Gay Pride (1972), and Music Midtown, a festival that has drawn big name headliners annually since its inaugural year (1994). Managed under a private-public partnership between the city and the Piedmont Park Conservancy since 1989, the park continues to expand. In 2011, a newly developed 35-acres opened in the tip of the park’s triangle. More growth is in the works.
Open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., popular with runners, walkers, and anyone seeking respite from the city, Piedmont Park is easily accessible from the AHA’s conference location. Take either of MARTA’s two Northbound lines (gold or red) to Midtown station; exit on Tenth Street and turn right. The park is a mere three and a half blocks away. Its southeastern corner connects to the paved segment of the Atlanta Beltline trail.
By Daniel LaChance
Facts drawn from the Piedmont Conservancy website