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A Southern classic

Antebellum charm and the exuberance of university life blend alluringly in Athens, Ga.

June 15, 2003|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Athens, Ga. — They've just unleashed the dawgs on the streets of this college town -- 36 fanciful fiberglass bulldogs that will be permanent works of public art in and around the historic downtown and on the campus of the University of Georgia, home of the Georgia Bulldogs.

The colorful canines include the Elvis-themed "Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dawg," a green amphibidawg titled "I Thought You Said Bullfrog" and a toga-clad Caesar Dawgustus.

Chicago had its cows, Seattle its pigs. In Athens it had to be bulldogs -- spelled dawgs in these parts. After all, this is the home of Uga (that's ugh-uh) VI, the university's white English bulldog mascot.

The dawgs, painted by Athens artists, are a pedestrian-friendly visitor attraction. There were some concerns -- unjustified, as it turned out -- that the mold for these dawgs was made by Yankees in Chicago. "The main thing," says Julie Walters, co-chairwoman of "We Let the Dogs Out," a charity fund-raiser sponsored by the Athens-Oconee Junior Woman's Club, "was getting the jowls right."

With or without dawgs, Athens, 65 miles northeast of Atlanta, is a lively city anchored by the 605-acre main university campus. Restaurants, coffee bars and music clubs abound. A downtown guide lists 45 restaurants and 39 other venues as "taverns/entertainment," so it's not surprising that the city spawned rock bands R.E.M., the B-52s and Widespread Panic.

My infatuation with Athens began on a balmy Tuesday night in mid-May after I'd checked in at the Foundry Park Inn & Spa, a nicely refurbished former Ramada Inn a few blocks from the town's center.

Having just flown from L.A. to Atlanta and made the 90-minute drive to Athens, I decided on dinner in the brick-walled patio of the inn's Athens Steam Co. Pub, in a former foundry. As I ate Cuban chicken, black beans and plantains -- all pretty good -- a quartet played classic jazz under the stars. Not a table was empty.

Just across Dougherty Street from the inn is the Athens Welcome Center, in the restored 1820 Federal-style Church-Waddel-Brumby House, the city's oldest residence.

The hourlong Classic City Tour by minivan ($20) begins here at 2 p.m. daily. Well, almost daily. When I stopped by, a crestfallen staffer said the van was ailing and suggested I take the self-guided 1.4-mile downtown walking tour.

Right off, I happened upon a free street concert by a local middle school orchestra that was giving its all for a curb-sitting audience, very homey and small-town. Athens has a small-town ambience, although the exact population is hard to pin down. In 1990, 125-square-mile Athens-Clarke County voted to become one entity. The county population is 105,000, including 32,000 UGA students, and Athens is the county seat -- "The Best Seat in the South," it calls itself.

The day was cool, with a few sprinkles, and I walked for several hours, taking in the Beaux Arts City Hall, with its "Torchlighter" sculpture commemorating Athens' role as a venue for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It was in UGA's 86,000-seat Sanford Stadium that the U.S. women's soccer team bested China for the gold medal.

A city of graceful style

Strolling through the iron arch that leads to the north campus and its lovely Greek Revival chapel, I saw some students actually walk around rather than under the landmark. Legend has it that those who walk under it will not graduate.

Athens, named for the city in Greece, has a plethora of Greek columns on its buildings, including the 1941 WPA-built post office, the 1913 Athens-Clarke County courthouse, the 1855 First Presbyterian Church and the 1843 Taylor-Grady house, which has 13 Doric columns, thought to symbolize the original 13 Colonies. A marble statue of Athena stands outside the Classic Center, which houses a 2,000-seat theater.

I was intrigued by the giant vegetable patch mural, so I stopped for lunch at the Last Resort Grill, once a 1960s music club where such notables as Jimmy Buffett played. (The story goes that there were once three lending institutions down the street, and those turned down for a loan could try the bar as a last resort.) Ordering crab cakes (good) and iced tea, I was asked -- as I would be many times here in the South -- if I wanted my tea sweet.

At "Hot Corner," an early hub of black business at Washington and Hull streets, stands the restored 1910 Morton Theater. A woman at the ticket office agreed to show me around if I would return when she got off-duty. This onetime black vaudeville theater is in a building constructed by Monroe Bowers Morton, the son of a white father and a slave mother. Morton ultimately became U.S. postmaster for Athens. Building tenants once included black doctors and dentists and an undertaker. It's said that Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Cab Calloway played the Morton.

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