History 101: Petit Science Center

A Diverse Location

History_101Opened in March 2010, the Parker H. Petit Science Center is a high-tech, 350,000-square-foot building that is home to advances in research and learning, attracting educators from a wide array of disciplines, ranging from biology to nursing.

Before construction on the center could begin at the corner of Decatur Street and Piedmont Avenue, officials researched the archaeological significance of the site as part of required impact studies and found that its history over the past century reflects Atlanta’s ever-changing nature.

Before the Civil War, Decatur Avenue was lined with a few homes. Miraculously, some of the houses survived the burning of Atlanta in 1864, though houses and businesses east of there were incinerated.

As Atlanta was rebuilt, the block changed into a commercial and industrial district in the late 19th century, serving as the home for the Atlanta Foundry and the Atlanta Wagon and Timber Company.

Into the early 20th century, the location east of downtown was described as “the home of humanity as it is,” in a 1913 article in Journal Magazine. It was a diverse area that included transplanted whites from rural north Georgia, Jews and African-Americans – prompting one writer to call the area “the melting pot of Dixie.” The neighborhood was home to blacksmiths, wagon makers, grocers and horse salesmen.

The Atlanta Police Department headquarters and the local jail would eventually be located near the site, where the buildings would remain until the 1990s.

Just before the 1960 presidential election, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested while trying to desegregate the lunch counter at the downtown Rich’s Department Store and was booked into the jail on the block where the science center now stands.