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Monumental Ambitions

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Monumental Ambitions

Rodney Cook, Jr.’s Atlanta project seeks to reinvigorate American civic art. Spring 2022
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

Atlanta’s Vine City, a black neighborhood with a notable history but with many impoverished residents, has a new 16-acre park, situated in a floodplain where a calamitous 2002 storm ravaged dozens of houses that are now gone. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family lived nearby, on Sunset Avenue. So did the civil rights activist Julian Bond and Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. B. DuBois also lived in the area. A cluster of historically black institutions of higher education is located a short distance to the south. Even so, the park is named for a dead white male. More on that shortly.

The park’s centerpiece is an elaborately landscaped pond and wetland that will provide stormwater retention. This nucleus includes fountains, one with a waterfall, and a stony channel resembling a creek bed. Pedestrian bridges loop this way and that, and paved paths cross the park, which rises gently up a grassy slope. Not far away, the gigantic, faceted roof panels of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons, loom like a surreal origami set-piece.

Rodney Cook Sr. Park has few trees—open vistas offer more security—but boasts a well-equipped playground, complete with a splash pad, along with two multipurpose athletic courts. And what is believed to be the largest maple tree in Fulton County still reposes on the western slope. Not far from that tree, Rodney Mims Cook, Jr., son of the park’s namesake, wants to erect a monumental column reaching a height of 95 feet, to be crowned by a 20-foot-tall bronze of Tomochichi, the Yamacraw chief who welcomed James Oglethorpe and his companions to what would eventually become the great state of Georgia. A statue of Cook Sr., a Republican businessman and politician who actively supported the civil rights movement when it counted, would stand on the column’s pedestal, a 10,000-square-foot building housing collections including King’s library. Numerous statues of civil rights luminaries are to be situated elsewhere around the park.

Endowed with Southern charm, chiseled good looks, and a distinguished pedigree, the 65-year-old Cook Jr. is one of a kind—a monument impresario. He’s into building classical monuments that lift the spirit, not the more fashionable, anti-monumental sites of mourning like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, or Montgomery, Alabama’s new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, commonly known as the “lynching memorial.” Cook took a passionate interest in architecture as a child. His interest flourished under the tutelage of another Atlantan, Philip Trammell Shutze (1890–1982), one of the finest classical architects the South has ever produced.

Steel blocks commemorate lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. (Mark Hertzberg/ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)

As a teenager, Cook played a leading role in the fight to save Atlanta’s old Fox Theater (1929), a stupendous multipurpose venue featuring a movie palace designed as an Arabian Nights fantasia, with a nod elsewhere in the complex to the pharaonic splendor of Luxor. His numerous civic initiatives since then include two important Atlanta monuments: the World Athletes’ Monument (1996) and the Millennium Gate (2008). Both trace their descent to ancient prototypes, the former to the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens; and the latter to the triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome. (The Tomochichi column would itself derive from the columnar monuments of antiquity.) Cook’s local and international connections made these projects possible. With good reason, former president Donald Trump appointed him to the Commission of Fine Arts prior to leaving office in January 2021. Since 1910, the seven-member CFA has reviewed architectural and commemorative designs for Washington’s monumental core. In late March, however, Cook became the fifth Trump appointee to be summarily dismissed by the Biden White House; no previous administration has taken such action.

During a visit to the park last August, I found a bronze figure of the late congressman John Lewis, the first statue that Cook’s National Monuments Foundation (NMF) installed there, waving as he looked east over the pond toward Atlanta’s skyscraper skyline. The civil rights crusader sports the Presidential Medal of Freedom that he received from President Obama. Weeks later, the bronze statue of Tomochichi that is intended to crown the park’s monumental column was unveiled at its temporary site in front of the Millennium Gate. And on March 10, a statue of Andrew Young, the King confidant and former Atlanta mayor, congressman, and diplomat, was unveiled in the park in conjunction with the celebration of Young’s 90th birthday.

Eventually, Cook plans to transform a wooded slope at the park’s southwestern corner into an acropolis harboring a “peace pantheon” and a peace institute. The former, a two-story, $10 million classical structure, would offer “think-tank incubation space” for international peace initiatives. It would be surmounted by an open-air circular shrine harboring statues of Nobel Peace Prize winners with Georgia ties: King, former president Jimmy Carter, Woodrow Wilson (who grew up in Augusta), and Theodore Roosevelt, whose wife, Martha, was a Georgian—as well as the Dalai Lama and the late South African bishop Desmond Tutu, on account of their professorships at Atlanta’s Emory University. Behind it a much larger, $60 million building would house an institute for the pursuit of international peace named for Young, along with a noted collection of African-American art. Cook envisions the park as both anchoring a civil rights–themed historic district and rebranding Atlanta as a global center for peace. The National Park Service acquired the King family home, located a block from the park, in 2019 and is expected to open it to the public before long.

Many doubt that Cook can pull off his grand plan. And some don’t want him to pull it off. “Statues in a park?” the head of the local NAACP chapter remarked a few years ago. “Birds poop all over statues.” Though the city council unanimously approved his park plan in 2020, Cook has yet to secure a ground lease agreement from city hall.

That problem appears surmountable. Still, Cook Park is a far bigger project than any that the NMF has previously undertaken. The foundation’s fund-raising efforts are running years behind schedule, and it’s waging the campaign at a time when the generation that vanquished Jim Crow is fading away. Young, for whom the peace institute is to be named, defeated the senior Cook in a 1972 race for a House of Representatives seat. The “Atlanta Way” that Cook and Young epitomized and that Cook Jr. espouses—the hashing out of consensus on sensitive matters by the city’s white and black leaders—may have spared the city the race riots that ravaged cities like Los Angeles half a century ago; but in today’s racially polarized climate, it doesn’t get the respect that it once did. During the 1960s, the senior Cook, who died in 2013, served concurrently as an Atlanta councilman (or alderman, as the position was then known) and member of the Georgia legislature, an arrangement no longer permitted. His civil rights advocacy earned him a KKK cross-burning on his front lawn. For that, fortunately, his memory still commands respect in an overwhelmingly blue city like latter-day Atlanta—and despite his pivotal role in shaping Georgia’s latter-day Republican Party in mentoring key figures such as the late U.S. senator Paul Coverdell and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

Another challenge that the junior Cook faces is that woke politics—as demonstrated by Montgomery’s Peace and Justice memorial, whose centerpiece is a pavilion featuring hundreds of identical, six-foot-tall rectangular blocks of rust-tinted steel hanging from the ceiling—is apt to reinforce anti-monumental trends in commemorative design, and not just in the South. The impact isn’t limited to what gets built, of course; it also holds for what gets vandalized or removed. Cook’s focus on cultural continuity in public art and architecture is decidedly countercultural.

One political threat to Cook’s park plan at this juncture is Native American hostility to the Tomochichi statue, which the NMF commissioned at a cost of well over $400,000. Tomochichi has traditionally been regarded as a benevolent figure—Georgia’s answer to the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims’ loyal friend Massasoit, the Wampanoag sachem. Young has referred to Tomochichi as a forerunner of King and other Georgia civil rights leaders. But Tomochichi broke away from his ancestral Muscogee (Creek) tribe before entering into a pact with Oglethorpe, and Muscogee advocates have denounced him as a sellout who contracted to return escaped slaves to the colonists. Objections have also been raised to the youthful, muscular Tomochichi figure’s seminudity, as though it were a degradation rather than a heroic attribute. Michael Julian Bond, a city council member and son of the civil rights leader, declared in February that the statue’s inclusion in the park would have to be “reconsidered.”

Cook says that he has “almost” enough money in the bank to erect the $11 million column for which the statue was created. Whether that statue wins acceptance or not, a statue-crowned column at Cook Park will likely get built. The odds on his acropolis plan—the peace pantheon and institute—appear longer. But Cook’s vision amounts to a remarkably salutary alternative to the destructive “urban renewal” schemes of yesteryear. It would add new cultural and economic value to Vine City, where public-private initiatives will seek to limit displacement of current residents as a result of anticipated gentrification.

A quarter-century ago, Cook instigated and oversaw the design competition for the athletes’ monument—also known, thanks to its sponsor, as the Prince of Wales Monument. Cook has known Prince Charles, a longtime advocate of traditional architecture, for decades. Commemorating the 1996 Olympics, which took place in Atlanta, the monument is situated at a difficult site, a triangular spit of parkland formed by the junction of two major avenues, with an expressway verging off from one of them. The circular monument, based on the winning design by Russian-born architect Anton Glikin, is only 55 feet tall. It consists of a high base with heavily rusticated bands of limestone surmounted by five columns (representing five continents) enclosing a cauldron, all crowned by five bronze Atlas figures holding aloft an openwork bronze globe. The base is articulated with elegant aedicules—stylized window motifs—facing north and south. They contain black granite panels inscribed with the names of supporters of the project. Akin to the larger, similarly circular Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1902) in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, the athletes’ monument performs the vital civic function of endowing an otherwise amorphous, visually cluttered but important, urban intersection with a redeeming artistic focus.

Cook’s civic initiatives include the World Athletes’ Monument (1996). (Courtesy of the National Monuments Foundation)

Cook subsequently attempted to sell Washington, D.C., on the idea of erecting a triumphal arch at Barney Circle, where Pennsylvania Avenue approaches the Anacostia River in the city’s southeast quadrant, to celebrate the new millennium. It was an excellent idea because Washington lacks such an arch, and Barney Circle is a grassy nullity. The ambitious plan that Cook offered included the monument; roofed colonnades flanking the circle; a new, appropriately formal, entrance to the historic Congressional Cemetery immediately to the north; and elegant bastions on each side of the avenue where it meets the John Philip Sousa Bridge over the river, with fountain terraces and steps down to the riverfront. Cook says that the plan had the support of Senators Coverdell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan but that it was consigned to oblivion after 9/11, by which time Coverdell had died and Moynihan had retired from office.

So he took his idea home. The timing was propitious. On a brownfield site formerly occupied by a huge steel foundry, a tightly woven, 138-acre mixed-use complex of offices, shopping outlets, houses, and apartments was under construction in Atlanta’s Midtown. The main artery through the Atlantic Station development is 17th Street, a six-lane avenue running east–west. Cook got his 101-foot-tall arch, the Millennium Gate, built just where the street swerves to the southwest, with eastbound and westbound lanes parting at the point where Tomochichi now stands. The arch’s design originated with a Barney Circle competition in Washington and was refined by a British architect, Hugh Petter. As you approach the structure from the high-rise business district to the east, it presents itself at a cranked angle that makes its mass much more visible—much more monumental—than if you were approaching it dead-on.

At the top, a penthouse in the form of a low-slung, temple-like pavilion of bronze and glass runs athwart the arch. The pavilion, with its slender Corinthian pilasters, is a subtle but handsome touch, partially screened by the limestone arch’s parapet. The attic panel below is carved in relief with two large, crossed palm branches (a variation on the familiar crossed-swords motif). Farther down, the arch’s Latin frieze inscription reads: “In the year 2000 the American people celebrate with this monument all that has been achieved in peace since the birth of Jesus Christ.” In front of each of the arch’s broad piers, a pedestal is surmounted by a black steel tripod. Cook works out of the penthouse, though it is available for special events. The views that it offers, day and night, are spectacular.

Just before the 17th Street lanes’ parting and fronting the pylons on each side of the street, Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart’s seated, hieratic female figures of Justice and Peace, each accompanied by a more animated male youth, face due east, marking the entrance to the Millennium Gate precinct. On the other side of the arch, the pavement extends back to a balustrade, with steps to either side leading down to an oval-shaped, sunken terrace lawn flanked by colonnades and, outside them, clusters of fir trees. The trees provide a screen for private gatherings. The lawn opens onto a park nestled between the east- and westbound 17th Street lanes. This park, likewise oval-shaped, features a man-made lake with a few fountain jets. It is another locus of stormwater retention, and it is girded by maples and Japanese cherry trees, with low-rise, hipster-postmodern apartment buildings framing it on each side. At the park’s far end, the street’s east- and westbound lanes reunite. The Millennium Gate thus crowns an extraordinarily cohesive and successful composition involving architecture, sculpture, and landscape design that vastly enriches its urban setting.

One end of the sunken terrace’s oval lawn abuts a massive stone arcade, leading to the foyer level beneath the arch. This level features an enfilade of galleries, designed by Cook himself, devoted to the history of Georgia and its capital city, with display cases containing historical artifacts and memorabilia. Scroll-like canvas drops on the walls provide a historical narrative, commencing with the settlement period. The Millennium Gate Museum includes a high-tech interactive gallery that lets visitors time-travel around Georgia—stopping, for example, at one of Savannah’s historic squares to see it as it looks now and as it looked 200 years ago. The museum also offers thematically wide-ranging temporary exhibitions. Pre-pandemic, it drew as many as 200,000 visitors annually.

Not long after the Millennium Gate opened, Cook turned his attention to Vine City, where a great-great-uncle and onetime Atlanta mayor, Livingston Mims, had commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted’s office to design a park extending over a full city block. Cook says that the park, which opened in 1899, was Atlanta’s first racially integrated playground. Mims Park, located a few blocks from the Cook Park site, was replaced during the 1950s by a school. It was his father, Cook adds, who got the idea of re-creating it, though the original plan to name the new park after Mims was eventually scrapped because he served as a Confederate army officer.

In 2012, the NMF got the go-ahead from the city to build the park to its designs. But the foundation’s fund-raising efforts lagged. Four years later, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land was charged with overseeing, and raising some of the money for, the $45 million park project, which wound up being funded mainly by the city. The design was produced by a corporate firm, HDR, which had previously planned a somewhat similar park in another part of town. With its curlicued pond and wetlands layout and modernistic bridges and railings, Cook Park as built is a far cry from the more formal, traditional landscape that the NMF envisioned. What Cook is proposing amounts to a monumental overlay.

The antithesis of Cook’s monumental sensibility can be seen at the Peace and Justice memorial, perched on a low hill overlooking downtown Montgomery. Designed by Boston’s MASS Design Group, it opened in 2018. The memorial is the brainchild of Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated African-American attorney whose Equal Justice Initiative and its staff of lawyers are credited with saving scores of Alabama prisoners from execution. EJI has exhaustively researched the history of lynching, identifying some 4,000 cases in the South between 1877 and 1950, a quarter of them previously undocumented. (Its findings appeared in a 2015 report that makes for disturbing reading.) EJI also has identified 400 other cases of lynchings of blacks in other states during that period and more than 2,000 cases that took place during Reconstruction. Each of the memorial pavilion’s more than 800 blocks of rusting COR-TEN steel corresponds to a U.S. county where one or more lynchings occurred. Names of the counties and the victims and the dates when they were murdered are inscribed on each block.

The square, open-air pavilion rings a grassy, sloping courtyard and is itself situated within a grassy landscape. As you walk through its four galleries (one on each side of the pavilion) with their rows of steel blocks, the wood-plank floor under your feet gradually descends while the blocks, all suspended on poles from the ceiling, gradually rise from the floor and eventually hang above you. A long inscription on a concrete wall at the bottom with a thin film of water cascading down its surface pays tribute to the unknown victims. Long rows of bleacher-like seating face it. In a plaza outside the pavilion, duplicates of the blocks are neatly stacked. EJI wants communities where lynchings occurred to claim them for public display, but the Montgomery Advertiser reported in late February that not a single one had moved.

The idea of descent to some kind of moment of reckoning became an anti-monumental meme, thanks to Maya Lin’s chevron-shaped Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982). You descend along its wings to the vertex, where the walls reach a height of 11 feet. It is here that the quantity of names of the dead and the magnitude of loss inflicted by the war are intended to register most powerfully. At the deconstructionist architect Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005) near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, 2,711 gray concrete blocks, arranged in a grid, sprawl over five and a half acres. The uneven cobblestone pavement slopes downward as the visitor ventures into the grid. The blocks rise just a few inches from the ground on the memorial’s perimeter but gradually morph into ominously tilting slabs as tall as 15 feet.

The Berlin Holocaust memorial’s influence on the lynching memorial, with its minimalist plethora of hanging blocks, is obvious. Both are guilt memorials. And in both venues, quantity winds up displacing quality—displacing, in other words, the spatially compact, highly resolved symbolic resonance that makes classical monuments like Atlanta’s athletes’ monument and Millennium Gate tick. It’s the same anti-monumental deal, mutatis mutandis, with the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan, with the titanic quantities of water falling into the gigantic abysses where the Twin Towers once stood.

The lynching memorial’s landscape includes figurative sculptures addressing the themes of the African slave trade, the mid-century struggle for civil rights in Montgomery, and the criminal-justice system’s mistreatment of African-Americans. The memorial’s many textual panels give the white-guilt theme quite a workout. Panels near the entrance to the memorial grounds say that Africans were “kidnapped” for enslavement—like Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley’s famous epic, Roots—without mentioning that the overwhelming majority were, as Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. noted in a 2010 New York Times commentary, “enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders.” As Gates continued: “The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.” A nearby panel states that the nearly 6 million blacks who migrated to the North between 1910 and 1970 “fle[d] racial terror as traumatized refugees” without mentioning economic motivations that were surely more important, especially after the mechanization of agriculture got under way in the 1930s.

The memorial, in short, is the centerpiece of EJI’s larger commemorative agenda of drawing a line from slavery to lynching to systemic racism in law enforcement. The title of EJI’s multimedia Legacy Museum exhibition in downtown Montgomery is From Slavery to Mass Incarceration. (The memorial and the original museum, which moved last fall into more spacious quarters—allowing for a larger, more elaborate, exhibition—reportedly cost some $20 million, about the same as the NMF’s Atlanta arch and museum.) No doubt the treatment that young black offenders receive at the hands of the criminal-justice system deserves serious scrutiny. But when you read about 104 people being shot in Chicago over last summer’s long July 4 weekend alone—almost all the incidents taking place in black or Hispanic neighborhoods, with none of the victims shot by police (though two policemen were shot)—you get to thinking that the Legacy Museum is missing something where the abuses suffered by today’s blacks are concerned. The museum’s overarching narrative—addressing racial injustice throughout the nation, not just the South—jibes to perfection with Black Lives Matter propaganda.

A cynic might say that the Millennium Gate’s exhibit of Georgia history amounts to propaganda. It includes dark incidents like Atlanta’s horrific race riot of 1906 and the lynching a few years later of Leo Frank, an Atlanta Jew unjustly accused of murder, but it unquestionably emphasizes the positive. That’s not the same thing, however, as indoctrination, and the interlocked themes of black victimhood and white guilt are so relentlessly woven into EJI’s commemorative program that indoctrination appears to be the aim. And that program has been a success. Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the memorial and museum—a huge development for a city with a population of about 200,000.

Yes, simplistic narratives concerning white supremacy and systemic racism can have much uglier ramifications than a minimalist guilt memorial. A fitting synecdoche for 2020’s plague, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, of statuary defacement by mobs of BLM and antifa enragés and statuary removals by spineless public officials pleading “public safety” might have been the once-majestic granite pedestal of the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. A legally dubious state supreme court decision issued in September cleared the way for the statue’s removal. But the obscenity-riddled pedestal remained in place until year’s end, an open sore to delight the woke and distress many families living on or near the avenue. Only after Governor Ralph Northam agreed to transfer the entire state-owned monument to the city of Richmond was the pedestal finally dismantled and hauled away. Lee Circle, once the crown jewel of one of the nation’s finest streets, is now desolate.

Rodney Cook’s monumental initiatives are particularly valuable at a time when American civic art is being dumbed down—or worse—by reductive aesthetics and political fanaticism. Whether Tomochichi or another historical figure winds up crowning his column, Cook Park’s western slope is well suited to a monument of this scale, and placing an observation deck at the foot of the crowning statue should make the column, as well as the park, a very attractive destination, perhaps providing leverage for the development of the acropolis complex that Cook envisions.

Working within a demanding tradition that imposes objective standards of achievement is a tall order. Cook has met the challenge with remarkable success. With the Tomochichi column’s realization, he will have accomplished a monumental trifecta in his hometown—and that would represent a significant feat in the annals of American civic art.

Top Photo: The Tomochichi statue in front of the Millennium Gate (Courtesy of the National Monuments Foundation)

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