The columns of Columns Drive once supported the tallest building in Atlanta.
Thanks to the efforts of two Sandy Springs kindred spirits, those columns have, until recently, occupied a place of prestige in downtown Atlanta.
Columns Drive is just to the northwest of Sandy Springs, across the Chattahoochee River off Johnson Ferry Road in east Cobb County. The story of how the columns came to be there dates back to 1892.
It begins with the completion of the old Equitable Building on the corner of Pryor Street and Edgewood Avenue downtown that year (the current Equitable structure is nearby at 100 Peachtree St.). It was the first modern office building in Atlanta and the tallest in Atlanta. It was built by the East Atlanta Land Co., which was headed by Joel Hurt, according to www.HistoryAtlanta.com.
Designed by noted Chicago architecture firm Burnham and Root, the Beaux Arts building had 18 Corinthian columns supporting it. In 1913, it became the Trust Co. of Georgia building. The Trust Co. was the forerunner of SunTrust Banks. The iconic building was demolished in 1971, having outlived its usefulness.
However, real estate developer Fred Brown saw the columns were in peril and saved several of them, moving them to his new residential development, which he called The Columns, that same year. According to an email from former District 6 Sandy Springs City Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny, who then worked for Equitable Real Estate Management, eight of the columns had been moved to Columns Drive on less than a quarter of an acre near the Atlanta Country Club’s golf course.
Someone approached Equitable in the late 1990s explaining a tax lien had been placed on the property and against the columns, which were considered personal property. The intent, it is believed, was the property would be conveyed to a homeowner’s association, but that never happened and taxes went unpaid for many years on the small piece of land. It was not maintained either. By the time Equitable went out to inspect the columns, they were covered in kudzu.
According to McEnerny, it was a convoluted mess to save them given the tax situation. The building was financed by Equitable Life Assurance Society, the forerunner of today’s Equitable, and eventually the Equitable prevailed. The neighborhood, which had grown accustomed to them, was not happy when they were finally removed, though Equitable only took five of the eight.
Until December, the columns were in front of the new Equitable building. They surrounded a MARTA air duct, which was McEnerny’s doing. But when the new Equitable building's new owner recently decided to renovate the building, the columns were moved to the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead and will remain there at least until the project is completed.
I drove down Columns Drive to see what became of the three that were left behind. If they are there, they are so shrouded in overgrowth as to not be seen.
The other hero of our story is Marthalyn Jillson, who at 91 recalled the fight to save the columns in a letter to the Neighbor Newspapers. It was her husband Floyd Jillson, a photographer with another local newspaper, who ensured the columns made it to the modern era. He saw them being thrown away during the demolition and took pictures for the paper, no doubt raising awareness and probably embarrassing the parent company a bit.
Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.