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DESTINATION: GEORGIA

Buckhead, Atlanta's Belle

Stately mansions and exclusive shops for the well-heeled impress by day, but this part of town becomes a raucous, rocking neighborhood at night

November 26, 2000|JEFFREY SELIN | Jeffrey Selin is a freelance writer in Atlanta

ATLANTA — It doesn't roll quite as trippingly off the tongue, but Buckhead is the Beverly Hills of the South--by day, at least.

About four miles north of downtown, Atlanta's nicest neighborhood is a virtual city within a city, with high-rises and posh hotels to match ritzy residential enclaves that put Tara to shame. The Georgia governor's mansion is here, as are country clubs with waiting lists seemingly as long as the fairways.

Buckhead is a community with two distinct personas. In the daylight hours, thick canopies of trees shade streets. Carefully tended gardens show off perennial colors with manicured precision. After a hard day of work, professionals retire to the elegant dining rooms or sidewalk cafes.

But by night, Buckhead reveals its wild side. It transforms into Party Central, where new money rolls in to rave till dawn. Women dress to the nines; men marinate in cheap cologne. Seemingly every college student in Georgia comes to grind, laugh and scream in the streets. There's enough action to keep nearly every tourist intrigued, if slightly off kilter.

Although this dichotomy alone probably isn't enough to entice a cross-country visit, those who come through town for other reasons--business, family, pleasure--often are pleasantly surprised by this peach of a neighborhood.

After a year in Maui, I recently ended up in Atlanta to finish some writing and regroup before going abroad. When friends from Hawaii announced that they planned to visit, I wanted to show off all facets of Buckhead's personality.

So one Friday in October, I set out to become familiar with the place I knew mostly from Tom Wolfe's 1998 novel "A Man in Full," which sketched the social and political life of Atlanta in much the same way "The Bonfire of the Vanities" did for New York. I wanted to be a proper host (the South demands no less), and I was curious about how well a metro hamlet can maintain its heritage and hospitality. In Buckhead's case, the answer is "Nicely, thank you."

As Rodeo Drive is to Beverly Hills and Fifth Avenue is to Manhattan, so is Peachtree Road to Atlanta. Old-school Atlantans follow the maxim, "Invest in Coca-Cola and property on Peachtree." Maybe that's why dozens of roads in Atlanta are named Peachtree. But only one Peachtree has six lanes surrounded by high-end hotels, shops, restaurants, pubs and office buildings, and that's the one I drove to one crisp morning.

My route took me to the historical core of Buckhead, where Roswell, West Paces Ferry and Peachtree roads intersect. It was near this spot in the late 1830s, as legend has it, that Henry Irby built a combination tavern and grocery store where he hung the head of a large buck killed in the nearby forest. Henry called the area Irbyville, but it soon took the name Buckhead. These days, a statue of a buck sits with a storybook on his lap, surrounded by other woodland critters in a grass-and-cobblestone sliver of a park between the busy streets.

For gourmets, the view south from here is a little like looking into Alice's rabbit hole. Dubbed "Atlanta's Dining Room," it's home to many of Buckhead's eating and drinking establishments--restaurants generally on the west side, bars and clubs on the east. There's plenty of construction visible too, especially high-rise condos and apartments, each trying to outshine neighboring digs that have attracted part-time celebrity residents such as Elton John.

First, though, I wanted to see the old part of town, so I took West Paces Ferry Road to the Atlanta History Center, less than a mile away. It has permanent exhibits on Native Americans, the Civil War, folk art, the growth of modern-day Atlanta, even golf legend Bobby Jones. (For an online glimpse, go to http://www.atlhist.org.)

In back, an outdoor walking tour details the Tullie Smith Farm, circa 1845, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors pass small fields of crops, the smokehouse, the barn and fenced-in sheep. The little farmhouse shows how early Atlantans survived without CNN and Coca-Cola.

The walking tour leads to the archives building, repository for books, journals, photos, videos and other chronicles of Southern and Atlanta history. The tour usually continues to the Swan House, a 1920s Italianate mansion designed by beloved Atlantan architect Philip Trammell Shutze. His collection of Chinese and European pottery and porcelain is displayed with American and English period furniture. Unfortunately, the house was closed for a monthlong renovation when I was there.

I walked the little dirt trail around gardens, gazebos and a creek, then drove down the road to 391 W. Paces Ferry Road, the home of Gov. Roy Barnes. The governor was not to be seen, nor was the interior of the mansion. Free 30-minute tours, the guard said, are conducted 10 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday. (I returned the next week for a tour of the home, which contains an impressive collection of 19th century furnishings.)

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