De-Extinction: Historical Fiction is a Woolly Mammoth

The other day the kids and I watched a video on a PBS-funded YouTube channel called “It’s Okay to Be Smart.” The episode focused on the possibility of resurrecting long-extinct species by Jurassic-Parking the DNA of preserved tissue, but instead of velociraptors they looked at Woolly Mammoths.

The video discusses the challenge of resurrecting lost species through the process of cloning. True cloning requires DNA but DNA degrades over time, even when preserved in ice.  Creating a clone requires all of the DNA.  Not 25% or 50%, you need 100% of the genetic information to recreate a creature.  The host of the video used a lovely analogy which really appealed to me, given the metaphorical leap I’m about to take:

“Imagine the genome as a huge book. If you lose every tenth word, would you still be able to read the story?”

The video goes on to explain that in order to resurrect a mammoth we would need to fill the gaps in the DNA with something else that’s close enough to be compatible. In this case, an elephant.  The way I picture it is like building a scaffolding out of mammoth bits and filling in structural supports and details with elephant bits where needed. In some areas you may have a significant amount mammoth DNA and require very little elephant.  In other areas you may need to rely almost entirely on elephant.  The gaps aren’t evenly distributed.  The front legs might be mostly mammoth.  The rear legs might be mostly elephant.  But it all lives together as one animal.

This raises a question.  Even if you use an absolute minimum of elephant DNA, can you call the resulting animal a mammoth?  Like some kind of modern day Ship of Theseus exercise, how much mammoth is needed for the mammoth to be a mammoth?

Imagine you’re writing a historical fiction, or perhaps a literary biography about someone from the distant past.  Hopefully you’ve chosen to do a little research, or better yet a LOT of research.  Imagine you’ve found original sources of historic records, primary documents of events and transactions, and let’s say you can account for a significant portion of your subject’s life.  Can you use this information to de-extinct them?

If you research long enough, will the person you recreate be a mammoth, or is that an impossibility?  Will you inevitably need to fill gaps with elephantine extrapolations?  How many of your mammoth’s DNA gaps can you replace with elephant DNA before the resulting work is no longer a mammoth at all?

This isn’t exactly an innovative question, but I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating it lately.

“As soon as something dies, its DNA starts to fall apart.”

The instant we die, our histories start to fall apart.  The truth as we know it, the conversations we had, the private thoughts we never shared, the emotions that drove our decisions, all of that becomes gaps in our mammoth DNA.  If we’re lucky we’ll leave records behind that can be used to piece our stories back together when we’re gone.  If we’re not lucky, well, we’ll disappear. We’ll become shadows at best, remembered for a handful of events, but otherwise gone.  If those events go undocumented, eventually they’ll disappear, too. Our historical DNA will degrade to nothing, and our scaffolding will collapse.

If some enterprising storyteller discovers our stories after we’re gone, maybe they can piece together enough, through diligence and commitment, to nearly de-extinct us.  But the operative word is nearly.  We will never fully be revived as mammoths.  The very moment present becomes past the integrity of the mammoth starts to degrade. In that instant we start the process of becoming mammoth-elephant hybrids.

“Hacking elephant genes could give us something that looks like a mammoth, but would it be a mammoth or just an elephant wearing a disguise?”

As I research my current subject I think of de-extinction more frequently than is probably useful.  I feel the heavy weight of responsibility to capture facts as facts.  Facts are objective, permanent.  I have a scaffolding of facts.  Facts are my mammoth.  But between the facts I have to fill in with… what, exactly?  Truth?  Truth and fact are not the same.  Truth is subjective, extrapolated from facts.  Truth is what I believe happened, based on everything I’ve learned.  Truth is my best guess, but even if delivered with integrity, it’s not the same as fact.  Truth is my elephant.

When you’re working with someone else’s mammoth scaffolding, you’re the one who chooses the bits of elephant to fill the gaps on their behalf.  I don’t know what my subject felt, who he spoke to, what thoughts drove his decisions.  I don’t know his truth.  I know facts, I know what he did and when he did it and where he went and how he got there.  I know what he said when he wrote it down.  I know what others said about him.  But everything in between is elephant. It’s my version of the truth, not his.

Before I came across the mammoth-elephant analogy, I called this fragility of history “whalers on the moon.”  This phrase is a reference to the second episode of “Futurama,” in which the main characters visit Earth’s moon, which has become a tacky theme park. They ride through a parody of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disney World.  Herky-jerky, merrily cavorting robots sing a song that supposedly tells the story of how the Moon was first visited by man.  But rather than telling the story of the Apollo landings, they present an insane hodgepodge of historical references that claims pirate-style pioneers hunted whales on the moon.

This absurd scene is a commentary about how quickly history gets twisted and misrepresented once it’s no longer the present.  As soon as a moment is gone, fact and truth get all muddled together, and the truth of it becomes subject to interpretation.  And that interpretation can become misinterpretation, and that misinterpretation can become the new truth.  “Whalers on the moon” is about the way we blindly accept the history that’s presented to us, and how in the end truth is subjective, malleable, changeable, and it’s up to us to decide whether we care enough to distinguish it from fact.

So maybe you decide to write historical fiction or a literary biography.  Maybe you set out to de-extinct a woolly mammoth but end up using so much elephant that the true mammoth is fundamentally lost.  And maybe your account of events goes unchallenged.  Your elephant goes unscrutinized.  And then you become the writer who whalers-on-the-moons the woolly mammoth into the mash of fact and fiction you created, and the real woolly mammoth is forgotten forever.

Does it matter?

As I work on my current project, which strains and struggles to remain more literary biography than biographical fiction, I think about mammoths and elephants and whalers on the moon.  Every time I set up the scaffolding of fact that I can document and footnote and support with source material, I’m keenly aware of the cross-supports of elephant that I’m forced to add.  I’m okay with some elephant.  It’s necessary, and as long as I’m thoughtful and respectful of the elephant parts I use, I don’t feel particularly conflicted about it. But every time I add a bit more elephant I worry about whether I’m penning the lyrics to whalers on the moon.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  Maybe we have to be okay with the knowledge that we can never de-extinct a true mammoth.  If it has fur and tusks and a trunk maybe the difference between a mammoth and a mammoth-elephant hybrid is academic. Maybe it doesn’t matter if history becomes whalers on the moon.  The mammoths sure aren’t complaining.

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Here we see a fine example of the majestic woolly mammoth with its best friend, the dodo bird.

Story Time: The Death of The Merry Widow

Back around the year 1900, within a span of about 10-15 years on either side of the turn of the century, automobiles roared into existence and rapidly evolved from a twee plaything of the wealthy to an essential part of daily life throughout the industrialized world. Prior to 1895 most Americans had never seen an automobile in action. After 1905 nearly everyone knew about these amazing machines. The span of time between “get a horse!” and “prices as low as $300!” was surprisingly short.

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1901 advertisement for the Locomobile steam car. Tiller steering, anyone?

We all know that Henry Ford’s Model T changed the auto industry in 1908 and made car ownership feasible for the middle class. We don’t often hear about the cultural elements that laid the groundwork for the Model T’s market dominance.  In our mind’s eye we see prim, old-timey men with excellent posture, wearing derbies and suits, puttering around in little open-top carriages.  We picture flickering black-and-white film reels of sped-up characters cranking engines and stumbling as their machines roll off without them. We think of the punchlines of slapstick comedy that Buster Keaton perfected, making every subsequent car joke until present day derivative of his mastery.

The Model T raises vague memories of elementary school lessons in the concepts of mass production and assembly line efficiency, and high school economics chapters on the economy of scale. We don’t think of the speed of the Model T’s predecessors.  We don’t think of horsepower.  We don’t think of feats of engineering and record-setting and beasts of unparalleled power. But that was exactly the environment that gave rise to the Model T.

At the turn of the century automobiles were bespoke machines, assembled by hand and extremely expensive. It was the Brass Era, when luxurious horseless carriages had all-brass trimmings, tufted-leather seats, horsehair-stuffed benches, and lacquered wooden frames. The top models were crafted to be the best, sold to the wealthiest members of society, and often over-engineered for speed and performance. This limited the acceptance of the car in the broader culture, as manufacturers didn’t bother targeting anyone but the devastatingly wealthy. Growth of the American auto market was initially slow as a result.

Europe took to the introduction of cars before America caught on. It was the establishment of road racing as a sport in Europe that lit the fire beneath America’s boiler (steamer puns, ha!).  Europeans set speed records again and again, establishing names and fame and accruing bragging rights that American auto manufacturers couldn’t compete with.  This didn’t sit well with some of the offspring of the wealthy families of the Gilded Age.  Men like William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. looked across the ocean and wondered why the US couldn’t compete.  These men brought racing to our shores and established the first road races in the early days of the 1900s.

Enter Henry Ford and the Ford 999.

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Barney Oldfield and Henry Ford

Henry Ford acquired the capital to establish his automobile manufacturing business by winning a race against fellow car manufacturer Alexander Winton in a 26hp model of Ford’s own design in 1901.  His first business broke up due to disagreement with his partner, and in the aftermath of that breakup he invested $5k (over $100k in 2017 dollars) in the development of a pair of speed machines known interchangeably as the 999. Cited inconsistently as anywhere between 70 and 100hp, this stripped-down speed demon was steerable by a handlebar-style tiller, something like a mountain bike.

When the car failed to start at its debut race in 1902 Ford sold the 999 to a young man named Barney Oldfield for $800. Oldfield was a bicycle racer and had previously only tried a gasoline-powered bike before tackling the 999.  He learned to drive on Ford’s machine and won his first race the very same day.  Oldfield went on to become one of the the most famous early race car drivers, a record setter and the first man to ever drive a car over 60mph. His most famous car was the “Blitzen Benz.”

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Oldfield and his mechanician. During the early days of racing a driver needed a mechanician to monitor gauges, perform repairs on the fly, and call out road hazards while the driver gave his full attention to wrestling unresponsive steering mechanisms over rough roads and tight turns at high speeds.

But hang on, I’m not actually here to tell you about Henry Ford and the Ford 999.  I want to share a lesser known story about a Pope-Toledo known as “The Merry Widow,” whose ignoble history I’ve pieced together through a number of original sources dating back to 1909.

As I mentioned, Willie K. Vanderbilt was one of the wealthy young men whose taste for luxury and love of automobiles combined with a natural jingoism to establish American auto racing. In his first effort to legitimize the sport he created the Vanderbilt Cup road race in 1904.  This nearly-annual race that took place over unpaved roadways on Long Island quickly cemented the automobile’s place in American culture. It was here that auto manufacturers vied for placement, to establish their names among the best for speed and reliability. The 1904 race was won by a French Panhard, followed by a French Clement-Bayard, and an American Pope-Toledo.  And oh yes, there’s film footage.

The 1905 Vanderbilt Cup race was attended by more than 100,000 people, which made it the largest sporting event in U.S. history to date. A French car took the win again. The closest American placement went to a Locomobile, which came in third.  American brands were desperate for a win.

Here’s some more footage because it’s absolutely amazing to watch.

This next one shows how absurd and disastrous the steering was during those days. Check out 17:53 for an impressive accident and 22:55 for a frightening one.  At 24:00 the footage shows a dead driver being carried away from an accident.

In 1906 the French won the Vanderbilt Cup again, and in the race’s aftermath Willie K. and his rich friends established the American Highway Association and built the Long Island Motor Parkway, the first road built explicitly for automobile use.

In 1908 Americans got their win. A Locomobile known as “Old 16” piloted by big-name driver George Robertson took the cup for the very first time. Americans had established that they could compete with French and Italian brands and the race world exploded with entrants who fought to take titles and set as many records as possible.

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Old 16 crosses the finish line at the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup road race

By 1909 racing had embraced the concept of the “stock-car,” which usually stipulated that the entrants had to be models which were up for sale to the general public with a minimum number of models already manufactured.  The stipulation could vary from race to race, and many races included events for both stock cars and specialized racers. While some drivers owned their vehicles, oftentimes manufacturers would enter races themselves and hire established drivers prior to race day to pilot their machines to victory.

The list of names one encounters when reading about this period in American history contains familiar ones, like Louis Chevrolet, who drove a Buick in what seems like the punchline of an ironic joke in hindsight. Names like Fiat and Renault still exist, but others like Christie, Isotta, Stearns, Simplex, Apperson, Matheson, Marmon, and Pope-Toledo, just to name a few, have faded from common memory. But during their day they were hot contenders for racing titles and highly sought-after by wealthy car enthusiasts.

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An ad for Toledo, prior to its acquisition by Pope.  In 2017 dollars that competitor price range works out to about $200k on the bottom end, nearly $300k on the top end.  The least expensive Toledo offering listed, the 12hp model, works out to about $50k. Even if you ignore the red herring of competitor prices, this was not a car for the everyday man.

Pope-Toledo started out as the Pope Motor Car Company. Pope struggled to compete in a hot automobile market and attempted to diversify into a number of lines by acquiring other brands.  They offered the Pope-Hartford, Pope-Robinson, Pope-Tribune, Pope-Waverly, and Pope-Toledo.  The Pope-Toledo was the most expensive of its lines, and was marketed exclusively to the very wealthy, especially those who had a need for speed.

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But come on. This is an undeniably gorgeous car, is it not? Notice the right-hand drive. Until the Model T dominated the market with its left-hand drive, there was no standard. Right or left, wheel or tiller, steering was up to the manufacturer and the preference of the driver.

The Pope-Toledo brand was well-respected and the quality of fabrication was undeniable, but there just weren’t enough rich playboys to go around. Unable to keep up with the exponentially expanding field of competitors, Albert Pope filed for bankruptcy in 1907 and passed away in 1909. His company limped along for a few more years after his death before closing its doors.  It just wasn’t cost effective to produce the way they produced when Ford was cranking out mass-marketed affordable models. But they tried their hardest to make their name, and in 1909 they built a beast of a car that became known as “The Merry Widow.”

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Photos of the Merry Widow are few and far between.

Profiled in an article in the Atlanta Constitution on July 2, 1909, this vehicle was built especially for the Vanderbilt Cup race but for some reason never appeared in a Vanderbilt Cup line-up.  Instead the Pope Motor Car Company gave the car to Asa Candler, Jr., a wealthy and well-known amateur driver from Atlanta, Georgia. That same month Candler kicked off an ambitious project to build the Atlanta Speedway and hold record-breaking races by November of that year. This Pope-Toledo, valued between $10-35k, was gifted to him as a thank-you for his efforts to support auto racing.  Now, let’s split the difference on that valuation and call it $25k.  In 2017 dollars that works out to more than $600k.  That’s an expensive racer.  Pope wasn’t kidding around, they wanted a win and they wanted it now.

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Atlanta’s Trophy

At 136hp, this four-cylinder powerhouse was called a “two-mile-a-minute car” by the press.  Its tank held 36 gallons of gasoline and could go 500 miles without fueling up (for the curious, that’s a gas efficiency of about 13.8 mpg).  Described as “nearly all engine” the chassis was stripped down to the essentials. It weighed 2,202 lbs, of which the engine accounted for 1800 lbs.  Painted a color known as “French gray,” one fanciful writer described it as a “graveyard rabbit,” just one of the many grim phrases used to describe this vehicle during its short life.  The exhaust pipes that emerged from the side of the hood were described as sounding like a Gatling gun when driven at high speeds.  Guaranteed to reach 125mph, Pope’s test driver clocked in at 127mph during its maiden drive and claimed it hadn’t topped out yet.

Allow me to put this car into context. Some of the biggest names in racing were lined up for the first Atlanta Speedway event in November of 1909.  They brought their biggest and baddest cars.  In reviewing the list of entrants, only three of the competing cars approached the 136hp Pope-Toledo. None exceed it.

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Strang’s Fiat, Oldfield’s Benz, and Christie’s Christie are The Merry Widow’s closest competitors in terms of horsepower. Some historic sources list Louis Strang’s Fiat as a 200hp machine, but others record it as 120hp. I haven’t determined yet which is accurate.

Notice you don’t see The Merry Widow in that line-up.  This is where her story gets fun.

The 1909 Atlanta race was open to professional drivers only, with the exception of one amateur event.  This meant Candler couldn’t drive his own car in the big races.  And although he wasn’t averse to driving fast (in my research I’ve seen him described as “reckless,” “fearless,” and “one of the worst” to ride with) I’m not sure he would have wanted to drive in this race.  Wealthy men who owned showy race cars liked to hire big names to drive on their behalf.  It was what one did, when one had the means.  This meant the President of the Atlanta Speedway had to find someone to drive his car or he wouldn’t be represented at the event.  God forbid.

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One story says Candler tricked a well-known baseball team manager into taking a spin around the track with him. When they finished the manager declared he would rather walk back to the train station in downtown Atlanta than get in the car with Candler again.

During an exhibition race on October 23, 1909, which was intended to drum up press for the November event, Candler hired a young man named Louis Cliquot to drive The Merry Widow in a speed trial. Cliquot was a rookie, totally unknown to the racing world.  If you go searching for his racing record you will come up nearly empty-handed. As it turns out Louis Cliquot was actually a local Atlanta kid named Florence Michael who had chosen Louis Cliquot as his alias. I have only found a single record of Louis Cliquot competing outside of the 1909 Atlanta event.  In 1910 he drove a Knox, led for zero laps, and dropped out due to a broken crankshaft. And then his racing career was over.

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The first line-up of big names at the October 23 exhibition race. Interestingly, I don’t see The Merry Widow here even though she was definitely taken out at least once for a speed trial.

Candler hired this young man, a novice in the racing world, to drive his most powerful car at the exhibition race.  I’m making a point of this because The Merry Widow enjoyed a fairly unpleasant reputation among sports journalists who covered the auto racing beat.  Driven to purple prose, writers described the car as ornery, temperamental, spiteful, and my favorite description, “a car of ill-repute and worse manners.” Many drivers had passed on the opportunity to drive it, preferring not to run afoul of its fury. But young Cliquot was keen to establish his name in the racing world, and the invincibility of youth probably played a part in his willingness to take on the beast. Fortunately the exhibition went off without a hitch and Cliquot drove the Pope-Toledo without incident, although he kept it well below the two-mile-a-minute mark.

Then the November “Auto Week” arrived.  On the first day of the five-day event Louis Cliquot went into the Pope-Toledo’s garage at the track and hand-cranked the engine.  These were the days of turning a rod beneath the radiator on the front of the car, that classic mechanism we’ve all seen in old cartoons.  Cliquot went to crank the engine, when suddenly it backfired and kicked back, wrenching the crank into a reverse rotation and fracturing his arm in three places.  Cliquot was out, not to race again until May of 1910, and then never again.

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“Wide track, plenteous entries, generous attendance.”

Candler was back to having no driver, and this would not stand.  He approached Charles L. Basle, one of the two Renault drivers, and asked if he would take on the Merry Widow. Mind you, these were professional drivers, so this request came with a paycheck. Given the last-minute urgency and Candler’s reputation for playing fast and loose with his money, it was likely a hefty offer.  Basle worked on the engine for a day, trying to tune it up to racing condition.  In those days race cars went down in the blink of an eye, setting records one second, rattling to broken bits the next. Frequent tune-ups were part of the game.  Basle put some time in but ultimately decided to politely decline.

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Basle in his Renault in 1908

He passed the opportunity over to Hugh Judson “Juddy” Kilpatrick, who had arrived with the Hotchkiss that he’d driven in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup race.  Unfortunately for Kilpatrick the Hotchkiss was dead on arrival and refused to be resurrected. This left Kilpatrick without a car, and without a chance at any of the prize money, much less the cup. He was a racer of great renown, having set the straight-away record at Long Island at 37 seconds for a mile, but now he was out of the running.  Candler agreed to let him drive the Pope-Toledo if Kilpatrick was willing to take it on.

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Kilpatrick and his Hotchkiss at the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race

Kilpatrick took a look under the hood and tinkered around to see what he could do. Walter Christie approached Kilpatrick and advised him not to drive it.  He said it was too dangerous, that its speed was greater than the cylinders could stand.  Christie was an auto manufacturer as well as a racer, so he knew machines.  And he knew 100+hp machines, having brought one himself to the races. His own racer had been speed tested by Barney Oldfield, who later played up its dangerous performance, dubbing it the “Killer Christie.” It’s telling that Walter Christie was willing to get behind the wheel of the Killer Christie but advised Kilpatrick to give The Merry Widow a pass. Kilpatrick disregarded his warning and agreed to pilot the Pope-Toledo for Thursday’s events.

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Walter Christie, in no way dressed appropriately for racing, in his 1909 racer. More about his racer and Barney Oldfield’s performance driving it in exhibitions can be found here.

On day four of the five-day event Kilpatrick got the Pope-Toledo up and running. Before the long day of races began he requested a chance to take it around the track and get a feel for it before vying for a win in the 50-mile free-for-all.  At 2 miles per lap, his chosen race would require 25 laps without major incident. A test drive was a fair ask. He and his mechanician, Roland B. Church, climbed in and set off on their first circuit.

He quickly got The Merry Widow up over a mile a minute. Walter Christie manned the stopwatch and clocked her at 85mph as she went into the turn at the south end of the track and accelerated into the back stretch.  That was when something went wrong.

As Kilpatrick and Church flew into the back stretch the engine blew a piston and two cylinders ejected through the hood of the car, shooting high into the air and blowing the hood off. Kilpatrick reached for the clutch but found it frozen.  The engine ignited in a 20-foot sheet of flame as the car veered uncontrollably to the outer fence, where the banked track dropped off sharply on the other side. The fence took the blow and redirected the car back onto the track but the impact bucked Kilpatrick and Church free. Without so much as a safety belt there was nothing to hold them secure, so they flew an estimated 150 feet, over the fence, and down into the ditch on the other side where a pile of brush took the brunt of their fall.

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Banked turn with outer fence visible. Photographed at an exhibition race.

The car “turned turtle” by hurling itself onto its side before tumbling over and over until it came to rest in the middle of the track.  Then, as one writer of the day described it, “it burst into flame out of spite.”

The Atlanta Speedway featured a state-of-the-art track surface, developed in response to an accident at the Indianapolis Speedway’s first race where chunks of asphalt broke apart, resulting in the death of a driver (this was just one of five deaths that occurred at that event). Atlanta’s track was built on a substrate of red clay, topped with Augusta chirt and coated in a special oil to bind the road surface together.  Unfortunately for The Merry Widow, Asa Candler, Jr., and the 40,000 race attendees, this special asphaltum was flammable.  The Merry Widow burned furiously for over an hour before crews could extinguish the flame and safely remove her from the track.  They hurled the charred hulk of iron and steel over the fence and then moved on with the day’s events.

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The broken fence and the unrecognizable heap that was The Merry Widow.

Kilpatrick and Church were fine, incidentally.  Although they were tossed more than 150 feet over the bank and into a ditch, they both walked away from the accident.  On-scene emergency crews found Church climbing back up the bank to the track, laughing and without a scratch on him.  Kilpatrick had a few minor cuts and bruises as well as burns on the right side of his face where the flame had blown back from the engine. His right eyelid was burned, and due to concern over the possibility of losing his sight, he was rushed to the hospital. Christie visited him in the hospital later, and Kilpatrick reportedly said to him, “You were right, Walter, I sure was lucky.” Christie responded, “You bet you were.”  Kilpatrick fully recovered from his injuries.  The carcass of The Merry Widow was unceremoniously disposed of and never rebuilt. Out, out, brief candle.

As a post-script to The Merry Widow’s story I should mention day five of the races.  Now that The Merry Widow was dead, Atlanta Speedway President Asa Candler, Jr. was left without a car to compete. So he did what any wealthy car enthusiast with more pride and money than sense would do. He approached the driver with the best performance over the past four days and offered to buy his car.  That driver happened to be George Robertson, the very same driver who bagged the first American win in Old 16 at the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup.

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Drivers during that time required powerful upper bodies and beefy arms in order to wrestle with steering at high speeds.

Robertson had showed up to the Atlanta races with a red 90hp Fiat (sometimes reported as 60hp, but less consistently so) and set impressive times in event after event.  He had the most solidly winning machine on the track at that point. On Friday morning, the last day of the event, Candler approached Robertson and offered to buy his Fiat right then and there.  That would make Robertson his driver, and give him the best chance for a win in the hotly anticipated 200-mile race. Robertson accepted and the line-up was set.

Robertson was the favorite to win, and for 163 miles he held the lead.  Then the Fiat’s chain gave way and the car ground to a halt.  He did his best to perform a fast repair and get back into the race but he was unable regain the lead.  Impressively, he came in second in spite of the breakdown, but the win went to L. A. Disbrow in his Rainier.  In third and fourth place both Renaults put in solid times, emerging from the five-day event with the best demonstration of reliability.  Ray Harroun in a Marmon was a distant 5th, and only did that well because every other car dropped out.

Louis Strang’s oil pump broke.  Louis Chevrolet’s Buick had a total breakdown of its transmission.  Both of the Chalmers-Detroit cars were out at the start.  The Apperton threw a spring.  In the end only 5 finished the race out of the 11 that started.

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Speed merchants and pals: George Robertson, Walter Christie, Louis Strang (Christie’s nephew, incidentally) and Barney Oldfield.

And where was Barney Oldfield in all of this?  It turns out his Benz was outclassed from day 1.  Unable to beat the big Fiat, he sat most of the races out.  Resigned to his fate, Oldfield told reporters, “Louis Strang has the fastest car in the world at present.”

What Oldfield did with his free time at the track during those five days and the drama that erupted in the months that followed is a story for another day.

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Asa Candler, Jr., President of the Atlanta Speedway and Edward M. Durant, Secretary, before the drama of 1910.

Let’s Talk About Stendhal Syndrome

Stendhal Syndrome describes a set of hysteria-like symptoms that a person may feel when exposed to a piece of art that they deem significant or stimulating in some way.  Symptoms may include rapid heartbeat, light-headedness, and vertigo.  Somewhat like trypophobia, the fear of holes that everyone on the Internet swears they have (don’t google it, you’ll regret it), it’s a phenomenon that undoubtedly exists but isn’t considered a disorder by any official medical organization.

But it is a real phenomenon.  If you’ve ever gasped at a piece of art or described it as “breathtaking” you’ve stood at the fringe edge of a Stendhal Syndrome experience.  I’ve experienced it plenty of times, but nothing gives me the sensation more than photos of the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Like this one:

And this one:

And literally every photo on this page.

This phenomenal temple makes me dizzy.  It makes my heart race. It gives me a fluttery feeling in the… well I can only explain the location as the Sacral Chakra.  I get a sensation that’s similar to the one I get when standing in a very high location and the fear of heights kicks in.  It’s an adrenaline-fueled rush of elation and I’m simultaneously compelled to stare at it and look away.

I believe everyone has the capacity to experience Stendhal Syndrome.  If you haven’t experienced it, you haven’t yet found your special stimulus.  But it’s out there.  Humans have a universally irrational response to beauty, one that exists well outside of the bounds of pragmatic necessity.  We all have it, it’s just a matter of degrees.

I’m never more aware of my physical self, of my innate meat-ness, than when I’m looking at these photos.  That, to me, is what Stendhal Syndrome is.  It’s something that is so stimulating to the visual cortex that it overwhelms the non-corporeal space of the imagination and spills over into the physical realm, into the meat-ness of the body.  Like synesthesia or deja vu, the brain misroutes the signal and the body becomes a thinking organism from head to toe. In the throes of the physical response, the body thinks. The body sees.

I’ve never been able to tap into this sensation without exposure to a stimulus.  I simply can’t.  It’s not voluntary, it can’t be induced. But when a stimulating sight enters my visual space, the overflow into the physical space is immediate.

It’s a sensation I love.  I have a few known aesthetics or combined qualities that can trigger it, and I’ll admit that I seek them out. I enjoy the mental electric shock, the synaptic panic that momentarily turns every muscle fiber into an honorary optic nerve. It’s a flash of full-body thinking, full-body seeing.

One of the fundamental qualities that triggers it is geometrical complexity, as evidenced by the temple above.  This quality combined with dim lighting and quiet isolation create a surefire trigger.  The idea of an intricately appointed palace where no one is present to appreciate its complexity gives me that sacral chakra shiver.  Scenes like the one in Yubaba’s suite in Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant film “Spirited Away” go right to my sweet spot:

And virtually every photo of the famous House on the Rock in Wisconsin triggers the sensation.  I will be visiting the House on the Rock in May and my hope is that the visual complexity of this bizarre, overstimulating place will have me resonating in the cognitive overdrive of Stenhal Syndrome.

A good encounter with a Stendhal-inducing experience can leave my imagination vibrating like a tuning fork for days or even weeks.  And like rainwater slowly filtering through the soil to fill an aquifer, these experiences fill my creative reservoir.

In “Princess Mononoke,” another Miyazaki masterpiece, the following line appears:

I’ve come to see with eyes unclouded by hate.

I often think of this line when seeking out a Stendhall-eqsue experience.  But in my version the line is incomplete.  I’ve come to see with eyes unclouded by….. what?  Unclouded by expectations?  Unclouded by reality?  Unclouded by the security of normality?  Maybe there is no end to my version.  I’ve come to see with unclouded eyes.

That’s what I hope to do when I arrive in Wisconsin.  I hope to have an experience that I can enter with unclouded eyes.  I hope to see.  If I’m lucky, what I see will rattle my imagination and set off a physical response, and I’ll catch a hint of that tantalizing sensation of full-body thinking from head to toe.

If I can catch that hint, no matter how fleeting, the trip will have been worth it.

And if I can reach the end of my life and say “I’ve seen it all, there is no more to see,” it will have been a life well lived.

Brain-Ache: The Passion Problem

When I started this blog my goal was to occasionally post items of personal interest, the strange and unexpected rabbit holes that I find myself going down now and again.  Some topics recur, such as nuclear energy and accidents.  I have a fascination with stepwells that often sends me into hours of searching through photo galleries and amateur videos.  Underground cities are like catnip to me. And although I’m skeptical of all paranormal phenomena, I consume everything I can find about the unexplained, like numbers stations. I have a bad habit of listening to recordings late at night when my imagination gets away from me. Once you pick up a mystery, how can you put it down? This is what I intended to blog about.

I am intensely fascinated by the dynasty of China’s Emperor Qin, which means I search for new archeological information about his buried tomb more frequently than researchers can report findings. I spend too much time reading about fictional monsters, in particular those imagined by H. P. Lovecraft and Dan Simmons’ Shrike from the Hyperion Cantos.  And my love of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky runs so deep that it practically permeates my blood, and searches for fan depictions of the beast sometimes dominate my browser history.

Recently I turned to the internet to look up the etymology of the word “okay” and ended up spending an entire weekend reading about Victorian-era slang.

It doesn’t take much to send me down a rabbit hole.  I may spot a photo, say an image of Luna Park in Sydney, Australia.  A thought pops into my head: How many recreational places use a motif of a giant face? Turns out there are a lot. Whoops, it’s 2 a.m. and I have to be up in 4 hours.

And God help me, once I found out she existed, how was I supposed to resist spending three days researching the origin and evolution of Laffing Sal?  Trust that that little escapade ended with me logged into my eBay account, looking for an original 78 rpm record of the Laffing Sal recording. Because that’s how I do.

The problem with passion is that it can become all-consuming.  I describe myself as an “all in,” personality.  When I fixate on something fascinating it becomes all I can think about, and doing anything other than acquiring knowledge burns like fire. It fills my brain to excess.

When I’m on a research bender I experience physical symptoms, exhilaration and the adrenaline rush of discovery, a literal high.  But I also experience headaches and nausea when I don’t give myself breaks. I become quite literally sick of my interests.

Writing is a flavor of this passion problem.  Rather than inputting information, writing is an intense exercise of outputting information.  But it’s just as all-consuming and it comes with its own highs and lows that manifest as physical sensations. When research and writing coincide, it can feel simultaneously like riding a roller coaster and coming down with the flu.

This is the quandary I find myself in now.  My previous post about Briarcliff Mansion contained just a tiny fraction of the information I’ve gathered so far in my research into the Candler family. I went looking for a small answer and fell down a rabbit hole so deep that I don’t know when I’ll climb out. I’m supersaturated with the subject and still uncovering new details every day. I’ve visited locations and walked properties and compiled endless notes and made phone calls to strangers who understandably pause in bewilderment when I explain my reason for calling. It’s a bit like a fever that hasn’t broken yet, and I feel both energized and poisoned by it.

I’m a fan of the work of genius monologuist Spalding Gray. In his performance titled Monster in a Box about his struggles while attempting to write his first novel, he says the following:

“And finally I did get down to the writing. I got down to it and it was awful. I don’t know why I’d romanticized it. It’s disgusting. Writing is like a disease, it is a disease. It steals your body from you.” – Spalding Gray

I often think about his description of writing as a disease that steals your body from you. I can’t say I disagree. The feverish pitch of research in the relentless pursuit of “accuracy,” whatever subjective criteria defines it, is both gratifying and toxic. I have overdosed on the minutiae of history. But then I sit down to write and the minutiae contaminating my brain makes the difference between fiction that feels like fiction and fiction that feels real. The brain-ache is an essential part of my process.

Binge research-writing is the compulsion to go all-in, to consume beyond capacity, and doing so produces a lovely flush of reward hormones when the urge is satisfied. The aftermath is sometimes filled with awkward, self-conscious, even embarrassed self-reflection as I realize how many hours my family and friends have spent listening to me drone on and on. Did I consume all of that? Yes. Am I going to do it again? Yes.

So where does that leave this blog? In limbo, perhaps, but certainly a future exists. Right now as I struggle to turn historical records into story I can think of nothing else, and all other interests cease to catch my attention. When I’m done I’ll be well and truly done, and in the meantime I’ll keep feathering the throttle, trying to maintain the balance between the thrill and the agony of an all-consuming passion.

Asa Candler Jr: the Man, the Myth, the Mansion

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…
– Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

If you’re from the Atlanta area, you’ve probably heard about the crumbling, abandoned, and possibly haunted Briarcliff Mansion, aka “Candler Mansion,” near the campus of Emory University.

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Briarcliff, shown in 2012.  Source: Wikipedia

Boarded up and accessible only by permit, used as a shooting location for Netflix’s Stranger Things and the CW’s Vampire Diaries, the enormous house now hovers on the brink of annihilation as Emory University decides the fate of the property.  In 2016 a proposal to turn it into a boutique hotel gained traction, but renovations are proceeding slowly.

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Briarcliff, shown in 1953.  Source: Georgia State University Library

Briarcliff is a relic of old Atlanta and is home to as many rumors as actual amenities.  Built in the ’20s, sold to the state in the ’40s, used as a mental health hospital from the ’60s to the late ’90s, and then abandoned to the elements around the turn of the century, Briarcliff’s history is long and convoluted.

At first glance the property seems like an anomaly, a huge estate that still hints at its past as an ostentatious show home, plopped in the middle of a bustling suburb.  But a bit of digging into Briarcliff’s past reveals the truth: it’s not an anomaly.  It’s simply the largest member of a family of similarly fated homes.

To understand how Briarcliff Mansion ended up in its current state of disrepair, one must understand its original owner, his family, and the homes they built.

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Asa Candler Jr. and family. Source: Emory University Archives

Briarcliff Mansion is a former estate home in the Druid Hills neighborhood east of Midtown Atlanta.  Druid Hills is known for its exceptional urban planning designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, as well as a collection of designer homes that were built by wealthy families in the early 1900s.  One of the businessmen who helped make Druid Hills what it is today was Asa Griggs Candler, founder of Coca Cola and primary financier of the Druid Hills land development. In a way Druid Hills is the neighborhood Coke built. In 1902 the Candlers began what would become a 20-year mansion boom, and when they were done they left behind a legacy of 1910s and 1920s architecture, palace-like estates with all of the trappings of old royalty.

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Back row L-R: Charles Howard, Asa Jr.  Front row L-R: William, Asa Sr. (father), Walter, Lucy, and Lucy Elizabeth (mother). Source: US Library of Congress

Asa Sr. had five children, four boys and one girl.  In order of birth: Charles Howard (1878–1957), Asa Jr. (1880–1953), Lucy (1882–1962), Walter (1885–1967), and William (1890-1936).

The Candler family came from humble beginnings, but Asa Sr. developed a taste for large homes early in his success.  When his business first took off he moved his family from their one-story farmhouse in Edgewood to a “modest” 14-room clapboard house at 1069 Seaboard Avenue, Atlanta.  Life was good, but when the big money started rolling in he desired bigger and better things.

Callan Castle (1902-1904), Inman Park

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Callan Castle ( completed 1904) as it stands today.  Source: Wikipedia

Asa Sr.’s first mansion wasn’t built in Druid Hills. It was built in Inman Park, a planned community where wealthy families clustered together in elaborately designed homes.  Side note: one of the Candler family’s neighbors was Ernest Woodruff.  Remember the name Ernest Woodruff, it will come up again later.

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Ernest Woodruff’s Inman Park home as it stands today. Source: Old Georgia Homes

Located at 145 Elizabeth Street NE, Callan Castle was designed by George Murphy in the Beaux Arts Style.  It is 14,000 sq feet and features a 2-story pedimented portico, a bowling alley, and a steam room.  Some sources claim that the inner courtyard was inspired by Biltmore Estate, a property known as “Americas largest home,” which was completed by the Vanderbilt family just 7 years before Callan Castle broke ground.

The family lived here for six years.  Then the property changed hands and over the decades it fell into disrepair, a common theme among most of the Candler houses.  In 2011 a Roswell-based home builder spent a year restoring the property, with special attention paid to the original design.  Everything from roof to floor was refurbished using materials that closely matched the existing structure.  Today the home is occupied and has an estimated value of $1.4mm.

Sons Charles Howard, Asa Jr., and Walter all built houses in the Inman Park neighborhood during that time, all within walking distance of their Papa’s home.  Charles Howard’s house still stands at the corner of Elizabeth St. and Waverly Way.

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Charles Howard Candler’s first home. Personal photo taken during the 2017 Inman Park Tour of Homes.

Sidebar 1: The Development of Druid Hills (1908)

In the 1890s a land developer by the name of Joel Hurt devised a plan with his brother-in-law Ernest Woodruff to develop the Druid Hills area into a premier planned community on the outskirts of downtown Atlanta.  He had just completed the Inman Park neighborhood, and for this project he reached out to famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the plan in 1893.  In 1908 Hurt and Woodruff sold the plan to key investor Asa Candler Sr. for $500k ($12mm in 2017).  Development was completed by Olmsted’s sons, who also designed Atlanta’s largest green space, Piedmont Park.  Joel Hurt’s house still stands directly across Euclid Ave from Callan Castle.

The Goose (1910-1911), Druid Hills

In 1910 Asa Sr. began relocation efforts to transition from Inman Park to Druid Hills by building a new house known as “The Goose.”  One source refers to it impersonally as “Land Lot 241 of the 15th District of Dekalb County, Georgia, being Lot 3, Block 9, Druid Hills,” but the site’s proper street address is 1449 South Ponce de Leon Ave.  Photos of The Goose are hard to come by.  Documentation is slim and the property’s current owners have made none publicly available.   In 2009 The Goose was victim to a fire, and although an arson investigation took place, news reports and online records have been scrubbed of information about the event.

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The Goose (completed 1911) as it stood in 2009 after the fire, the only photo I can find of the main house.  Source: Architecture Tourist

The Goose was built by Asa Sr. as a gift for his daughter Lucy and her husband Bill Owens. After Bill Owens’ death by influenza Lucy moved back in with her parents at Callan Castle.  Asa Sr. held ownership of The Goose until he sold it to Lucy in 1916. Size, unknown. Style, unknown. Some sources speak of an extensive farm and formal English garden in the back, as well as a separate carriage house with an apartment above it, where a full-time chauffeur lived.  I can find no background on the property’s name, although one could speculate that “goose” is often paired as a rhyming nickname with “Lucy” (one source claims her childhood nickname was “sweet fish,” so that theory may be far-fetched).  After Asa Sr. and Lucy Elizabeth moved to their next home The Goose held too many painful memories for Lucy.  She sold the property so she could move on from the pain of loss.

The house has had several owners since then, and even spent a few years as a daycare center, when the name evolved to “The Mother Goose House.”  The property is currently owned by a private school which occupies multiple buildings on the site.  In 2012 they rebuilt with the intention of preserving some of the visual elements of the original structure, including the large curved porch, but the house’s history is slowly disappearing.

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The Goose’s Carriage House as it appeared in the 1970s.  Source: Paidiea School

One of the best accounts of The Goose’s history was captured in a November 2009 newsletter that was published by the property’s current owners.  The newsletter is no longer hosted on the school’s site, but thanks to the Wayback Machine I was able to pull it and fill in some of the gaps. Read more history via screen captures here: page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4

Sidebar 2: Emory College (1914)

Bishop Warren Candler, Asa Sr.’s brother and graduate of Emory College in Oxford, GA, dedicated his life to the Methodist Episcopal Church South.  He served on the Board of Trustees at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, which was a Methodist institution at the time.  In 1910 a power shift at the university occurred, which resulted in Bishop Candler losing influence over the school.  Following an unsuccessful lawsuit to regain control, he decided to leave Vanderbilt and focus on advancing the status of his alma mater by moving it from Oxford to Atlanta, where it could grow into an institution to rival Vanderbilt.  In 1914 Bishop Candler convinced his brother Asa Sr. to provide a $1mm endowment (approx $24mm in 2017) to facilitate the move, an investment that mirrored the $1mm endowment that Cornelius Vanderbilt provided to establish Vanderbilt University.  Asa Sr. also donated some of the Druid Hills land development for use as Emory’s campus.  Architect Henry Hornbostel was hired to design many of Emory’s original buildings.

The Lemon Pie House (1916), Druid Hills

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The Lemon Pie House (completed 1916) as it stands today as the St. John Chrysostom Melkite Catholic Church.  Source: Greg Williams, Flickr

In 1916 Asa Sr. won election as Atlanta’s 41st mayor, resulting in the transition of power that put Coca Cola’s fate in his children’s hands.  This was also the year that he and Lucy Elizabeth moved into the Lemon Pie House at 1428 Ponce de Leon Ave., directly across the street from The Goose.  Most sources refer to this house simply as Candler Mansion, a confusing designation since modern usage equates Candler Mansion with Briarcliff.  At first I thought this was the only mansion without an estate name, but then I found several independent sources referring to it as “The Lemon Pie” house, likely earning its name from the gold brick and white marble exterior.  Built at a cost of $210k (S4.6mm in 2017) by Reid and Shutze, this 17,000 sq ft neo-classical Greek revival mansion was the most extravagant Candler home to date.  It featured a bowling alley, greenhouses, and 5 bedrooms that opened onto a glass-topped central court, the design of which was inspired by the silent movie The Last Days of Pompeii.  View the film in its entirety here.  Read more about the home’s opulent features here.

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The court as it stands today.  Some pillars were removed to make room for church pews.  Religious elements were added by the current occupants.

Also included in this house was the first of three in-home pipe organs to appear in a Candler mansion.  During the Gilded Age (1870-1900) the practice of installing extravagant custom-built pipe organs in personal residences rose in popularity among the wealthy.  George Vanderbilt intended to have one installed in his Biltmore home, but the plans faltered until well after his death. Asa Sr. commissioned a large pipe organ from the Aeolian Company which was the brand de rigueur for residential organs in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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An illustrated postcard from the mansion’s early days.  In general the postcard artists during this period were generous in their depiction of scale and landscaping.

Asa Sr. lived out the rest of his life at the Lemon Pie House.  After his death the property changed hands, stood empty for years, and declined in maintenance.  During the ’40s it served as a boarding house, and at one point it was slated to become a state house or war memorial.  In 1955 the property was purchased by the Greek Melkite Catholic community and was retrofitted to accommodate parishioners.  The property now stands mostly intact, with many of its original architectural details unchanged.

Sidebar 3: Asa Sr leaves Coca Cola (1916)

Asa Sr. and Lucy Elizabeth moved out of Callan Castle and into their new home at 1428 Ponce de Leon Avenue in 1916.  That same year Asa Sr. stepped down as head of Coca Cola and installed his oldest son Charles Howard as the company’s second president.

Howard had been groomed for this role, acting as company vice president since 1906, and in archived correspondences Howard’s eagerness to fulfill his father’s expectations is apparent.  He was a nervous man, pushed by his father to run various parts of the company including Coca Cola’s New York office, a move that made him quite miserable.  But his dedication was unquestionable, and as he demonstrated his competence he earned his father’s trust as an adviser.

Callanwolde (1917-1921), Druid Hills

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Callanwolde (completed 1921) as it stands today.  Source: Wikipedia

Now president of Coca Cola, Howard went to work building his legacy in the form of a Gothic Tudor home designed by Henry Hornbostel, the same architect who designed Emory. At 27,000 sq ft it was the largest of the Candler homes to date, and featured a bowling alley, greenhouses, and an Aeolian organ with 3,742 pipes distributed among four separate chambers that were hidden throughout the house.  The mansion was a full 10,000 sq ft larger than his father’s home, the property was 10 acres larger than his father’s property, and by all accounts the organ was larger and more elaborately constructed than his father’s organ.  Howard had rewarded his own hard work with a palatial home that stood in a class of its own. He resided at Callanwolde until his death in 1957.

Located at 980 Briarcliff Rd, NE, Callanwolde almost faced the same fate as Briarcliff Mansion, and the fate the Lemon Pie House narrowly escaped.  In 1959 Howard’s widow donated the estate to Emory University, which subsequently sold the property to the First Christian Church.  Maintenance declined, but in 1971 the community rallied to acquire the property and preserve its legacy, rather than lose it to decay or developers.  Callanwolde is now a non-profit community arts center and event hall.  Every December visitors can tour the house and hear visiting performers play the Aeolian organ, which was restored to working order.  A unique experience that I have personally enjoyed, the tone of the organ changes as you walk through the house and pass beneath the various chambers.  Detailed pierced tracery conceals the pipework in the two main chambers.  False ceiling panels conceal the third and fourth chambers.  Read more about Callanwolde’s organ here.

Rest Haven (1918), Druid Hills

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Rest Haven (1918) as it stands today. Source: Druid Hills Tour of Homes

Rest Haven belonged to William, the youngest of the Candler clan.  Located at 940 Springdale Rd in Druid Hills and designed by Reid and Hentz, it’s the only Candler property to have remained a single family home with no periods of abandonment or disrepair.  The home lacks some of the more gregarious amenities enjoyed by his father and older brothers, but it still retains its oak paneling, tigerwood fireplace mantle, and granite foundation that was recycled from the original govenor’s mansion. Most notable about the house is its coordination with the visual aesthetic of the surrounding neighborhood.  William didn’t build a monument to himself, he fit right in among his neighbors in a home that reflected the community’s architectural features and color schemes.

According to various sources, William was not interested in spending his inheritance on a showboat mansion.  His passions were fast cars and real estate development, so he chose to build small (relatively speaking) and keep the bulk of his money available for property speculation.

One of his best known investments was the Biltmore Hotel and Apartments (1924), an enormous development in Midtown Atlanta with a mixed reputation as a gorgeous example of 1920s architecture and a failed property.  William threw his inheritance behind the Biltmore project, but when the stock market crash drove housing prices through the floor poor William washed out.  He eventually sold Rest Haven and moved into the Biltmore as a resident.  These days the Biltmore lives on as mixed-use office space, and only two historic ballrooms remain. Restored and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, here’s hoping it never falls into decline again.

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The Biltmore (completed 1924) as it stands today.  Source: Wikipedia

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The Biltmore Imperial (L) and Georgian (R) ballrooms.  Source: Novare Events

Interestingly, Atlanta’s Biltmore is in no way associated with the Vanderbilt Biltmore Estate.  The building took its name from the property management company Bowman-Biltmore, which used the name to invoke the prestige of Biltmore Estate in spite of its lack of connection.

Sidebar 4: The Coca Cola Buy-Out (1919)

When he stepped down as head of Coca Cola, Asa Sr. divided up his interests, giving half to his wife and distributing the other half among his five children.  Some accounts note that, true to his thrifty nature, he deducted any money that they had borrowed from him from their inheritance.  Asa Jr.’s debt was the greatest, at $100k ($1.3mm in 2017).

In 1919 a team of investors led by Ernest Woodruff, the Candler’s former neighbor from Inman Park, made a handsome offer to the five siblings.  Having spent their inheritances wildly, the five Candler offspring agreed sell their holdings in the business their father had poured his life into.  This purchase made Woodruff and co. the majority shareholders, and just like that the company was no longer in Candler hands.  Howard continued on as president for the next few years until he was replaced by Ernest’s son, Robert Woodruff.

Sidebar 5: The Early Homes of Buddie Candler

To put it mildly, Asa Jr. did not enjoy the same trust and responsibility that his father bestowed upon his older brother.

Known as Buddie or Bud to friends and family, Asa Jr was described as “fun loving” by some, “rambunctious” by others, and “eccentric” by most.  While Howard went to New York City to drive East Coast sales and operations, Asa Sr. deployed his namesake to Los Angeles to serve the West Coast.  Unlike his brother, Asa Jr. floundered.  Sources drawn on correspondences claim Howard placed the blame directly on Asa Jr. for stagnant Coca Cola sales in California.  Asa Jr. felt his older brother didn’t understand the unique challenges he faced as both seller and distributor to potential clients.  In truth, Asa Jr. was distracted by temptation and fell in with a bad crowd.  He spent much of his time in California visiting pool halls, drinking, and partying.

By all accounts, Howard and Asa Jr.’s personalities clashed.  While Asa Jr. was upbeat, bubbly, and fun loving, Howard was serious, even dour.  Although Asa Sr. received correspondences from both, he placed his trust in Howard’s judgement and decided to remove his second son from the family business and move him home to run a newly acquired cotton mill just outside of Atlanta.  It was far enough from the city to avoid temptation, but close enough to keep an eye on him.  The message was clear, Buddie was not to follow in his father’s footsteps.

The Boarding House Years

When he was 8 years old, Asa Jr. was sent away to Cartersville, GA, to attend an all-girls school called the West End Institute that was run by his Aunt Florence.  He lived at the boarding house next door to the school and went home for summers and Christmases. When he left Cartersville he enrolled at Emory College in Oxford, GA, and lived with his Uncle Warren, then president of the college.  Although no record of physical address exists for Warren during this time, local Oxford historians agree that sufficient real estate and related records exist to confirm that he resided at the President’s House, now known as the Dean’s House, near campus.  After a falling out with their uncle, Asa Jr. and his brother Howard were kicked out and took up residence in one of the four boarding houses that served Oxford’s student body.

Following graduation Asa Jr. was quickly sent out of state to Los Angeles, CA, to manage the West Coast office with his older cousin Samuel.  Archived Los Angeles directories show his address as the Hotel Johnson, a boarding house on Fourth St. near the intersection of Fourth and Main, right next door to the opulent Hotel Westminster and just a half block from the Van Nuys Hotel.  Of the three, only the Van Nuys remains, currently named the Barclay Hotel.  When Asa Jr. came home in 1899 and moved to Hartwell, GA, he resided in a boarding house for approximately one year.  In a letter to his sister from that time he wrote:

“…I am here now to stay. There is no way to get me away except for the mill to go to pieces, and if it were to do that my reputation would be lost. So I will have to make myself a little home up here and I intend to do it just as soon as I can.  I am tired of boarding houses, having lived at them ever since I was eight years old.”
– Source: The Candler Papers collection at Emory University

Soon after that letter was written Asa Jr. married his first wife, Helen, and they settled down in their first home.

The Candler-Linder House (1900), Hartwell, GA

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Candler-Linder House (estimated 1900) as of 2016. Source: Hartwell Downtown Development Authority.

An archived application for registry as a National Historic Place cites Asa Jr.’s first Georgia home as a 1900 construction. Purchased by Asa Sr., the house was occupied by Buddie until 1906.  He married his first wife while living in Hartwell and became a father there.  He lost his first-born son and namesake, Asa III, to illness in this house.  On February 10, 2017 the city of Hartwell Downtown Development Authority  chose to tear down the Candler-Linder house in spite of community efforts to save the property. It had simply decayed beyond salvation and posed a danger and insurance risk to anyone visiting the property.  Unfortunately this makes Briarcliff the only remaining residence of Asa Candler Jr. that is still standing.

I had an opportunity to visit the site of the Candler-Linder house in early March of 2017.   The Hartwell DDA generously permitted me to walk the cleared site, where I found a piece of scrap from the house where the foundation originally was located.  I was also invited to sort through the salvaged woodwork, as well as handle some of the original hardware.  In July I purchased a wood-grain enameled porcelain doorknob from the DDA’s Candler-Linder salvage auction. It had been painted over but I was able to gently restore it to its original condition. Both items would have been moderately priced during their day, certainly not representative of the extravagant decor their owner would install in future homes.

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Fragment of an iron fireplace surround, likely original to the structure.  Too damaged and small for salvage.  US quarter included for scale.

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Enameled porcelain doorknob from the original structure.  Plenty of door knobs in this style can be found relatively inexpensively on eBay.

Jackson St. Residence (1906), Fourth Ward

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The site of Asa Jr’s first Atlanta home as it stands today. Source: Google Street Maps.

In 1906 Asa Sr. gave up on the Hartwell cotton mill and brought Buddie home.  While some records claim Asa Jr. made a mess of things at the mill, Asa Jr.’s correspondences place the blame on the mill’s manager, who gambled with company funds.  The truth lies somewhere in the interpretation of subjective historic accounts.  When Buddie moved home he lived briefly in the Fourth Ward (now Old Fourth Ward) in a house on Jackson St. between Angier Ave. and Pine St. This house no longer exists, likely having been burned in the great 1917 Atlanta fire. Historic Atlanta directories place the house’s location at the northern edge of Parkway-Angier Park.

Euclid Ave. Residence (1907), Inman Park

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Walter’s house stood at 192 Euclid Ave. and Asa Jr’s house stood at 220 Euclid Ave.  Source: Google Street View, locations identified via the 1908 Atlanta Directory and the 1911 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Inman Park.

Buddie and his family occupied the Jackson St. house from 1906 to 1907, then moved to their Inman Park home, where they lived from 1907 to 1910. Asa Jr. and his younger brother Walter lived two houses apart, and unfortunately both were torn down in the 1960s as part of a plan to build a road from Inman Park and surrounding areas to the I75/85 connector.  Conservation efforts managed to halt the roadwork but not before 500 residences were destroyed, including the middle two Candler boys’ former homes.

UPDATE 7/19/17: I found a photo and floorpan of the Inman Park home in an archived 1908 issue of the Atlanta Georgian newspaper.  The architect, George Murphy, is the same one who designed and built Callan Castle, as well as the Candler Building in downtown Atlanta.  To the right of the photo you can just make out the vent on top of an outbuilding, which was likely part of the garage area where he housed 6 automobiles.

Asa Jr Inman Park Home

In June of 1911 Buddie’s clan moved out to what Asa Sr described as a “ramshackle” farmhouse on Williamsville Rd. in Dekalb County.  He named the property Briarcliff Farm, presumably after his favorite car, the Lozier Briarcliff, in which he set several speed records during this time period. Eventually the road that fronted the property took the name Briarcliff as well.  And when he received his share of his inheritance in 1919, Asa Jr. put into motion his long-held plan to build a palatial home to dwarf all others.  Which brings us to Briarcliff Mansion.

Briarcliff Mansion (1921-1922, 1925), Druid Hills

Described by some as a man with big ideas but no follow-through, Asa Jr. had dabbled in various businesses and real estate investments ever since his father brought him home to Atlanta.  Now flush with cash from the buy-out, Asa Jr. went to work on his own estate.

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Briarcliff (completed 1925) in 2012. Source: Wikipedia

At its completion first in 1922 and again in 1925 Briarcliff Mansion stood out as the largest and most extravagant of the Candler properties, although you wouldn’t know it to look at it today.  Today it stands empty, boarded up and slowly rotting as decades of deferred maintenance take their toll.  The surrounding property was carved up by the state and Emory University into utilitarian units, and the pools were filled in long ago.  But at its beginning it was an ostentatious home, a shining example of family one-upmanship that Asa Jr. seemed to thrive on.

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Side view from the home’s earliest days, showing the landscaping and greenhouses.

Designed and built by Frazier and Bodin, the property included two enormous pools, one of which was open to the public and served Coca Cola products.  A 1,700 sq ft music room which he named DeOvies Hall was added in 1925, housing the 8th largest Aeolian pipe organ in the world.  The greenhouses and surrounding gardens teemed with rare exotic plants gathered from around the country and across the globe.  Although damaged and overgrown, the greenhouses still stand behind the abandoned mansion.  The property also included servant quarters, tennis courts, a golf course, stables, and landscape lighting throughout the grounds so the gardens could be enjoyed at night. This last feature was particularly extravagant at the time.

In 1932 Asa Jr. expanded his vision by adding a menagerie of exotic animals, which included six elephants named Coca, Cola, Pause, Refreshes, Refreshing, and Delicious.  That’s right, Asa Jr had a personal zoo.  Later, after a neighbor sued Asa Jr for damages when an escaped baboon stole and ate $60 out of her purse, he agreed to close his menagerie and donate the animals to Atlanta’s zoo, and later was forced to put his organ up for sale.

The organ was gifted to Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga, thanks to the efforts of Bishop Arthur J Moore, who convinced both the school and the Methodist church to accept the gift.  The instrument was incomplete when it arrived, since the pipes from the solarium went to the Florence Candler Chapel at Westview Cemetery, where they remain in inoperable condition today.  It is believed but unconfirmed that some of the pipes also went to a private owner in South Carolina.  Of the remaining parts, the echo organ was water damaged and the school had to discard 10 ranks.  A new console came with the organ but parts of the old console were included.  The original value in 1924 was estimated at $92,354 ($1.3MM in 2017).  In its disassembled state PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated its value in 1950 at $50,000 ($505,000 in 2017).  The remaining instrument components were functional in 1958 when the building that houses it was complete, and Buddie’s second wife Florence attended the dedication.  Family friend and organist Virgil Fox performed at the event.  Sometime later the organ fell into disrepair and a minor restoration effort took place in 1986.  In 2008-2009 a significant restoration effort took place and the organ was rededicated and renamed as the Goodwin-Candler-Panoz organ.

Read a long list of Briarcliff’s other amenities here

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Artist’s depiction of one of the pools

Buddie lived at Briarcliff until 1948, when mounting expenses and declining personal funds made the property too costly to keep.  He sold his mansion and moved into the top floor of the Briarcliff Hotel and Apartments, his counterpart to William’s Biltmore project.  He remained at that property until his death in January, 1953.

In June, 1953, final photographs of Briarcliff were captured before the property was renovated and converted into an alcoholism treatment center, a fitting end given Asa Jr’s lifelong struggle with alcohol.

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Briarcliff’s music room in 1953.  The organ’s guts had been sold off at this point, but the console at the right side of the photo remained. Source: Georgia State Archives

Rainbow Terrace (1922), Druid Hills

Back to the rest of the mansions.  Lucy Candler lived with her family at the Lemon Pie House until she remarried in 1920.  According to some sources her new husband built her next house as a gift for his bride.  Others cite Asa Sr. as the financier, and say the house was built as a present for the newlyweds.  They named the home Rainbow Terrace, supposedly chosen to reflect Lucy’s fun-loving, colorful personality.  Parting ways with her family’s Tudor/Gothic/Classical Revival preferences, they hired architect G. Lloyd Preacher to design the mansion in a Spanish-Mediterranean style at 1610 Ponce de Leon Avenue.  The same architect designed Atlanta City Hall.

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Rainbow Terrace (completed 1922) in 2014.  Source: Curbed Atlanta

At 12,000 sq ft Rainbow terrace had its own list of amenities such as a swimming pool, tennis courts and gardens, as well as a playhouse which was designed to look like a smaller version of the main house.  In 1943 Lucy’s husband was shot by a burglar and died in the library.  A man was eventually convicted for the crime but many sources question the evidence of his guilt.  Like the other Candler properties Rainbow Terrace entered a period of uncertainty, and during this time maintenance declined.  The property was eventually purchased by a developer who divided the main house into condominium units and built additional units around the perimeter.  The complex is now known as Lullwater Estate, an inaccurate and confusing name given the existence of her younger brother Walter’s mansion.

Lullwater House (1925), Emory University

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Lullwater House (completed 1925) as it stands today.  Source: The Emory Wheel

At 11,000 sq ft, Walter’s Tudor-Gothic Revival home was designed by Ivey and Crook as an English country manor.  The quarried stone exterior and central turret were intended to evoke a medieval castle aesthetic. An extravagance-loving alcoholic in his own right, Walter must have been cut from the same cloth as his older brother Asa Jr. He completed his home just as Buddie was adding his three-story music hall, but instead of installing a bountiful list of amenities, Walter built a horse race track where he focused much of his passion.  The stones for the home’s exterior were taken from the surrounding property, and quite a bit of landscaping was required to make the natural surroundings accessible to guests.

Located at 1463 Clifton Rd NE and surrounded by 154 acres of Lullwater preserve on the edge of Emory’s campus, Lullwater House is now utilized as the residence of every sitting Emory University president. When Walter gifted the house to Emory he was unable to move his vast collection of furnishings with him.  As a result, the home still contains many of Walter’s personal possessions.  The surrounding land became a nature preserve that is accessible by Emory students and staff.  Walking paths take visitors right up to Lullwater house, and wind through the woods to the site of the original 1920s powerhouse. Sadly, Walter’s beloved racetrack no longer exists.

As with Callanwolde, I had the pleasure of touring Lullwater Estate in the spring of 2017. The construction utilizes interesting visual techniques to create the sense of greater scale, such as roof shingles that are larger at the bottom and smaller at the top, so they appear to recede into the distance more than they actually do.  While all of the houses feature the Candler family crest, Walter peppered the exterior and interior with the symbol, more than the Lemon Pie House, Callanwolde and Briarcliff.  My favorite part of the tour was the stop in Walter’s personal bathroom, where a specially plumbed shower featured a half-dozen shower-heads.  This was an extraordinary luxury during the early 1920s, and I found it a testament to the stories of his self-indulgent personality that he only went that far in his own dedicated space. His wife’s and guest bathrooms featured standard bath fixtures.

Sidebar 4: Glenridge Hall (1929) and Rhododendron Hall (1934)

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Glenridge Hall (completed 1929) in 2012. Source: W. Daniel Anderson

While the houses listed so far include all of the in-town homes of the Candler family, there are two more estates that must be included in the list, if only for their shared provenance.

In 1929 Thomas K. Glenn built a home well outside of the city in Sandy Springs, GA.  Sandy Springs is now a busy suburb of Atlanta, but at the time it was far out in the wilderness, and the estate was meant to be a country home, a getaway from the rigors of city life.  Designed by Sam Inman Cooper (as in Inman Park), the 14,000 sq ft Tudor Revival house was said by Thomas’ family to be his effort rival Callanwolde.  Why would Thomas K. Glenn want to compete with Callanwolde?  Thomas’s sister was Flora Harper Glenn Candler, Charles Howard’s wife.  Poor Howard had his biological brother and his brother-in-law gunning for him in the mansion game.

Interesting note, Thomas Glenn made his money in Atlanta Steel, a company that he was put in charge of after its acquisition by Ernest Woodruff, the same man who went on to architect the deal that took Coca Cola out of the Candler family’s hands.

Sadly, in 2015 Glennridge Hall was sold by one of Thomas’ descendants and the home was demolished.  Although several proposals were submitted to use the house as an event hall and arts center similar to Callanwolde, Glenn’s descendant chose to sell the property to a developer who replaced the grand old estate with apartments.  Some of the land will be developed into a Mercedes corporate headquarters.  While most of the Candler mansion legacies have been preserved, sometimes money outweighs the value of history.

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Rhododendron Hall (completed 1934) as it stands today.  Source: Atlanta Magazine

Samuel Candler Dobbs, Asa Sr.’s cousin and third president of Coca Cola, built Rhododendron Hall for his son in the suburb now known as Buckhead.  Designed by Sam Inman Cooper, this 15,000 sq ft Tudor Revival home features 11 bedrooms, a pool, and tennis courts.  Located at 65 Valley Road, Tuxedo Park, it has enjoyed a long life in an elite neighborhood that the wealthy still consider high status.

Back to Briarcliff’s Buddie

By all accounts, Asa Jr. was an eccentric man.  That’s the word I’ve seen again and again as I’ve researched Briarcliff’s history, eccentric. It’s a mild but pointed word, a kind way to describe someone unpredictable in a society where money equals power.  I’m reminded of a scene from the movie Speed where Dennis Hopper’s character describes himself similarly.  “Crazy?  No, poor people are crazy, Jack.  I’m eccentric.”

Indeed.

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Asa Candler Jr. in 1909, aged 29

Biographers cite correspondences and interviews with those who knew Asa Jr., describing a bright and fun-loving man who descended into alcoholism and moodiness.  Some accounts claim that he would throw enormous parties in the music hall, and rather than join the festivities he would drink and glower from his master bedroom balcony, which overlooked the room.

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Asa Candler Jr. age 47 (1927, estimate). Source: archived eBay auction

His competitiveness with his family asserted itself again and again, sometimes in the form of philanthropy, sometimes in the form of social events. When Lucy’s oldest daughter was introduced as a debutante via an elaborate cotillion, Asa Jr. threw his oldest daughter an even more elaborate debut, one that filled the house with exotic plants and drove the journalists covering the event to purple prose.

In his 20s he was a car enthusiast who convinced his father to sink millions into the construction of the Atlanta Speedway, which failed within the first season of races.  He later became an aviation enthusiast who threw financial backing behind Atlanta’s air field, now the Hartsfield Jackson Airport, which occupies the land formerly covered by the Atlanta Speedway.  For history buffs Candler Field Museum in Williamson, GA offers a recreation of the ’20s and ’30s era of flight in the Atlanta area.

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Asa Candler Jr. portrait, undated. Source: Wikitree

Later in life he became the owner and financier of Westview Cemetery, one of the largest nonprofit cemeteries in the United States.  In this role he was responsible for the elaborately designed Westview Abbey, yet another example of Candler-inspired opulence and old world aesthetic in the suburbs of Atlanta, Ga.  Is it any surprise that the man behind the grandiose Briarcliff Mansion ensured that Westview Mausoleum was the largest structure of its kind? Discover more about Westview Cemetery here.  I highly recommend a visit to the Abbey, partly to marvel at the beauty of its construction, and partly to put its aesthetic into context with the other properties.  While there you may visit the chapel where the silenced organ pipes from Briarcliff Mansion’s solarium reside.

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Westview Mausoleum and Chapel. Source: Westviewcemetery.com

Buddie lived his life for the sake of superlatives. Everything he did was the biggest, the fastest, the best, demonstrating again and again that his sense of achievement was derived by his ability to supersede those who came before him. His final superlative may have been the construction of what he claimed was the world’s largest trophy room, in which he displayed taxidermied animals that he had personally shot all over the globe.  After his death many of those specimens found their way into Fernbank Science Center’s collection.

I have personally visited the taxidermy collection and observed interesting patterns that are consistent with the way in which he pursued other passions throughout his life.  He couldn’t shoot just one specimen when seven, eight, or even fifteen would do.  The breadth of the collection is one thing.  The redundancy of some of the specimens beyond what would be necessary for scientific study is something else entirely.

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Partial view of the taxidermy collection at Fernbank Science Center, Atlanta.

Over the decades following his death the surrounding Briarcliff property was transformed from sprawling lush gardens to inpatient housing for the mentally disturbed.  Tunnels were dug beneath the grounds to transport maximum security patients to and from the outbuilding units.  The largest structure, the Georgia Mental Health Institute, served as a major location for the first season of the Netflix series Stranger Things.

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GMHI exterior. Personal photo from February 2015

In 2015 I visited Briarcliff Mansion with a friend, fellow Atlanta-based author A. K. Anderson, and we had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the property.  We stayed outside with the exception of the pool house, which we explored thoroughly.  We then explored the outpatient buildings and the courtyards of the Institute.  The outpatient buildings have since been torn down, but the mansion and the Institute still stand.

At the time I had no idea that this encounter with Atlanta history would lead me on a journey two years later to uncover its story, as well as the stories of its brother and sister properties.  I’ve tapped countless resources for details, only a fraction of which I shared in this post.  Resources include the Atlanta History Center archives, the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System, the Georgia State Archives (including one archivist who helped guide me to valuable land records), the Emory University Archives, the Hartwell Downtown Development Authority (who permitted me to view and handle some of the salvaged architectural features of the Candler-Linder House), the Wesleyan College music department staff, Historic Dekalb County, an Illustrated History by Vivian Price, and Candler biographies including Asa Griggs Candler by C.H. Candler via the Georgia State Archives,  God’s Capitalist: Asa Candler by Kathryn W. Kemp, The Real Ones: Four Generations of the First Family of Coca Cola by Elizabeth Candler Graham and Ralph Roberts, and the exceptionally well researched and written Formula for Fortune: How Asa Candler Discovered Coca Cola and Turned it into the Wealth His Children Enjoyed by Ann Uhry Abrams.  I highly recommend Ms. Abrams book to anyone interested in understanding the Candler family dynamics,  although many of Buddie’s most entertaining misadventures are not accounted for in this book, or any single book I can find.

If you would like to know more about the life of Asa Candler Jr. or if you would like some assistance in your own research, please feel free to comment or ask questions below. If you made it this far, I hope it was worth the journey. Thanks for reading.

Floating in a Bubble in the Deep Blue Sea

I’ve been reading about submarines again.
Cold war submarines.
Nuclear submarines.
Submarines from around the world.

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Soviet Typhoon class submarine in dry dock.

As is typical when I fixate on a topic, the interest is born out of a primal fear.  Submarines terrify me.  They trigger a sense of claustrophobia and a loss of free will, and the thought of touring the ocean inside of one fills my chest with a fluttery panic.  They also trigger my favorite worst type of fear: submechanophobia.  That is, an irrational fear of submerged man-made objects.  Lordy, I can’t stand a sunken ship.  Not a frigate, a schooner, nor a sloop.  Hell, I once sucked in a lungful of water while snorkeling when I panicked at the sight of a sunken rowboat in less than 7 feet of water.

The fear of shipwrecks makes sense on some level, because a ship doesn’t go down unless something terrible happened. I’ve long had an irrational fear of the entirety of Lake Superior because I once sailed over the location where the Edmund Fitzgerald went down.  Side note to would-be tour guides: never tell a 7-year-old that the body of water you’re currently sailing upon “never gives up her dead.”  Nightmares for years.

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A submarine, however, is meant to be submerged.  It thrives in the water, and can go for weeks at a time without surfacing.  Which means it could sink without anyone on the surface witnessing the event.  While catastrophic failure during combat is probably the more likely grim ending, the scenario that grips my imagination is the slow death of a foundering vessel in deep water, beyond rescue, with drowning or suffocating as the only options.

In August of 2000, Russian Oscar-class submarine the Kursk suffered an immense internal explosion that sank the boat and killed everyone in compartments one through five, where the nuclear reactor was housed.  Twenty-three crew members in compartments six through nine survived the initial blast and took refuge in the ninth compartment to wait for rescue.  According to the investigation it is likely that they survived for six hours before a flash fire consumed the remaining oxygen in the compartment and killed them all.  Six hours of huddling in a tiny bubble of air at the bottom of the sea.  Unfortunately, due to a disabled rescue beacon the Russian navy didn’t start rescue operations until it was too late.  By the time they started looking, the crew was already gone.

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The recovered wreckage of the Kursk

Grim doesn’t begin to describe it.  I find myself returning to the subject of the Kursk and thinking about that bubble at the bottom of the ocean. The universal truth about bubbles is that they all eventually pop.  Maybe that’s why the very idea of submarines unnerves me.  Even bubbles with pressure hulls can eventually pop.

Most recently I’ve been reading about the Soviet Typhoon-class vessels that operated through the Cold War.  Typhoons were largest subs ever built at 570 feet in length and 48,000 tons submerged.  It’s the class that inspired the movie “The Hunt for Red October,” which incidentally is one of my favorite films.  Careful, Ryan, some things in here don’t react well to bullets.

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The last remaining Typhoon was decommissioned in 2012, which means I no longer need to lie in bed in a cold sweat, imagining a bubble the size of a football field sailing silently through the cold, dark waters of open ocean.

During its heyday the Typhoon class was featured in Soviet propaganda as a symbol of naval dominance, a war machine to end all war machines that included never before seen comforts in its relatively expansive quarters.  The recreational areas alone were a measure beyond any in competing submarine classes.

The feature that captured my attention the most, and that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, is the swimming pool.  The link at the top of this post shows a series of photos taken inside of a decommissioned Typhoon, including a photo of the grim little tub of brown water that served as the crew’s recreational pool.  It features prominently in the film linked above as well.

It was a tiny pool, barely large enough to stretch out, certainly not enough to do laps.  But the crew enjoyed the opportunity to swim when time permitted.  I think about those men, floating in a bath of water, floating inside of a pressurized bubble, floating in the vastness of the ocean.  The recursive sequence of water-air-water (and air again if they held their breath and dove) fascinates me.  It’s like a matryoshka doll of alternating life and death.

It occurred to me that the most ironic death I can think of would have to be drowning in that pool.

Drowning in a puddle in a bubble in the deep blue sea.

So I’ve been reading about submarines again, reading technical specs and records of lost boats, wondering at the audacity of mankind to ride in the bellies of our own sea monsters.  We don’t need myths of leviathans of the deep to terrify our imaginations.  We created our own.

Life Among the Crumbling Decay

I’m not sure what it is about inhabited decaying structures that captures my imagination.  Every time I go searching (which I do frequently) I find more examples of failed infrastructure and condemned building sites where poor and disenfranchised people have taken over and turned unlivable conditions into homes and places of business.  The juxtaposition between the familiar objects of active daily life and the repellent decay of stagnant water and collapsing structures creates a tension in my brain that can only be eased by projecting my own existence into the scene.  I find myself returning again and again to bookmarked photoblogs of urban explorers who enter modern ruins and find signs of life in unlikely places.  I imagine another juxtaposition: the hopelessness that drives people underground to live in unimaginably hazardous conditions versus the will to live that enables humans to endure unthinkable places and even call them home.

This Vice.com photoblog is one example that I find compelling.  As the story goes, in 1969 Chairman Mao ordered the construction of a network of underground tunnels beneath Beijing that could house the city’s population in the event of a nuclear attack.  Incomplete, abandoned, and nearly inaccessible, the tunnels have decayed in silence beneath the city’s streets for nearly 50 years.  The sequence of photos shared shows a series of claustrophobic rooms and corridors, some filled with garbage, some flooded with filthy water.  Still, some Beijing residents have found their way in and carved out living space in the inhospitable conditions.  The blogger’s captions lack empathy for what the absent residents must endure day to day, but the photos speak for themselves.

Source: Chairman Mao’s Underground City at Vice.com
http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/chairman-maos-underground-city

Is Fukushima a Threat to North America?

Fukushima is in the news again, thanks to a report that noted an increase in radiation levels in Canadian sockeye salmon. The report also noted that due to the slow movement of the plume, we still haven’t seen peak contamination at our shores. The result of this report has been a rise in public anxiety, as seen in social media and google search trends. The report sounds scary. Should we all give up fish for the foreseeable future? Should west coasters move inland? Will cancer levels rise?

As laymen, the key when discussing radiation contamination risk is to think in relative terms rather than absolute. Major media outlets don’t always provide context, such as exposure thresholds or how the results compare to background radiation. When a report says levels are “much higher than expected,” the necessary context is 1) what was expected, and 2) how much is “much higher”? Much higher but still near background radiation does not necessarily mean greater risk.

Knowledge can keep the panic at bay. When news of the Fukushima accident hit in 2011, Californians panicked and rushed out to buy potassium iodine supplements in anticipation of rising levels of Iodine-131. But as this new report shows, effects of the radiation plume are still below safety thresholds, and the snails-pace of its progression means any run on supplements was premature. Unnecessary, even. As it turns out, as of August 2016 no iodine isotopes have been detected in west coast fish samples [1].

Fear of radiation comes mostly from fear of the unknown. When news sources leave you with too many unknowns, look for more information. Try these informative links:

Explore InFORM Monitoring Data
http://www.ourradioactiveocean.org/

As a side note, the last time Fukushima trended in the news was around this time of year in 2013 [2]. Maybe this new information has less to do with changing risk and more to do with media cycles.

Sources:
[1] https://fukushimainform.ca/2016/08/11…
[2] https://www.google.com/trends/explore…

The Great Arch of Chernobyl

Nice, brief summary of the new safe confinement project that reached a significant milestone this week.

“The great steel arch that has been inched into place over the blackened and crumbling ‘sarcophagus’ containing the radioactive carcass of Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4 is an extraordinary feat of human ingenuity. Resembling a vast, gleaming hangar, it was designed to withstand extreme temperatures, tornadoes and corrosion for at least a century, and it had to be built far from the toxic reactor and then slid, all 32,000 tons of it, into place.”

Read more at nytimes.com

Wall City, a Novel by S. H. Butler

Available now at Amazon.com, free to Kindle Unlimited users.

Visit the listing page to preview the first chapter.

When Deven’s best friend Chuck convinces him to steal an exotic pet jaguar and sneak into the squalid slum of Wall City for cool illegal implants, he expects the night to go badly. He expects filth, crime, and radiation from the nearby nuclear disaster site. Chuck says they can handle it. Deven believes him. But when they wake up hours later deep within the dregs of Wall City with their faces butchered, the big cat missing, and all of their money gone, they know they’re in trouble. Unable to afford desperately needed medical care without their money, they follow a string of leads deep into the lawless, irradiated district in the hopes of recovering what was stolen. Along the way they uncover a mafia power struggle, a cult of nuclear contamination, and a radioactive artifact buried deep within the dead reactor core that promises both immortality and death.