Tourists Seeking Tara Find Cramped House

Atlanta's skyscrapers ring the 'dump,' where Mitchell penned her epic novel

Tourists searching for Tara in Atlanta are often disappointed to learn the "Gone With the Wind" antebellum mansion exists only in fiction. Starting tomorrow, however, they may find the city's newest cultural attraction is the next best thing.

And even though a one-time occupant, author Margaret Mitchell, named it the "dump," the house is as close as most will get to the bygone era of gentility captured in the famous novel.

The road to restoration has not been an easy one for the "dump." The house is opening to the public after a 12-year effort, a financial struggle, and two arsons. But just as Mitchell put Atlanta on the map with her novel, organizers hope the Margaret Mitchell House will become world renowned.

Margaret Mitchell's life and work are "an important story to tell that helps define our city, even the people we've become," says Mary Rose Taylor, executive director of the house.

Indeed, many people, particularly international visitors, are enthralled with the mystique of the Old South and "Gone With the Wind." When the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau invited 100 foreign journalists here last month in an attempt to improve the city's image as a tourist destination, most seemed more captivated with the house and the low-country barbeque lunch on the lawn than tours of CNN.

"The tenacity of the interest in and attraction to the 'Gone With the Wind' story is just constantly amazing," says Andy Ambrose, a research coordinator at the Atlanta History Center. "We have so many people coming to Atlanta for that antebellum, moonlight-and-magnolias setting that was popularized more so by the movie than the book. It definitely has appeal worldwide."

The three-story red-brick Tudor Revival mansion sits on a corner of a busy intersection dwarfed by gleaming skyscrapers. Built in 1899, it was converted to a 10-unit apartment building in 1919. Mitchell moved in to No. 1 in 1925 and lived here with her husband for seven years. She wrote most of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in the cramped, cluttered apartment.

In 1978 the building was abandoned, and it was boarded up until 1985, when a group of preservationists came together to restore the house. During restoration efforts, an arson fire swept through the structure in 1994. Soon after, Daimler-Benz, the German firm and a highly visible Southeast corporate citizen, contributed $5 million for a new renovation.

But days before its scheduled opening in time for the 1996 Olympics, the house was the target of another fire. No motives or suspects have been identified in either fire. But some speculate that it was the target of someone who wanted to put a commercial development on the prime spot in midtown Atlanta.

Visitors see the house as it looked when the author lived there, including the lime-green living room in her apartment with doily-covered velvet sofas, dark-wood furniture, and a tiny table and portable typewriter. It was there that Mitchell wrote up to 60 versions of each chapter.

Organizers hope to clarify some parts of her life. Though many said her novel portrayed blacks in an unfavorable light, she paid for the medical school education of 50 black students at Morehouse College and stood alongside Atlanta Police Chief Herbert Jenkins when he integrated the department. "Much of this story has not been told," Ms. Taylor says.

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