Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A cartographic comparison of Atlanta, from post-confederate reconstruction to postmodern boom-town
In 1864, General Sherman of the Union ordered his troops to burn Atlanta to the ground, sparing only churches and hospitals along their way to Savannah. Upon the completion of the Civil War, reconstruction efforts began throughout the south. With the State Capitol moved to Atlanta in 1868 and a significantly improved transportation infrastructure taking hold in the 1870s, Atlanta began a period of substantial growth that continues to this day.
An 1871 panoramic map of Atlanta, via the Library of Congress, shows how much more growth and density the city could accommodate within its street grid and reassembled rail infrastructure. A current "birds-eye" view of Atlanta via Bing maps shows just how much the city has changed, 147 years after having to start essentially from scratch.
Once part of the simple gird system, the area bounded by Fulton St., Pryor St., Fraser St., and Memorial Drive is now an intimidating mishmash of elevated highways that serve as a barrier between downtown and the neighborhoods immediately south.
Sometimes things don't change much at all. A smokestack on the northeast corner of this intersection on the edge of downtown has merely been moved to the southwest corner.
This individual block, in what is still a mostly residential part of Atlanta, hasn't evolved much either.
Some of the most drastic of changes center around Peachtree Center. Touching the highway, massive hotel and office complexes dominate these blocks-soaring at heights likely unimaginable in 1871.
Just a couple blocks west, you get a view of Georgia-Pacific Center where the theater that premiered Gone With the Wind (which of course dramatized the burning of Atlanta) once stood.
Once a hilly, underdeveloped, rail-oriented section of town, this site now hosts Phillips Arena and the CNN world headquarters (ample parking as well).
Serving as an important rail center in 1871, the intersection of Alabama and Forsyth still does, hosting MARTA's Five Points Station, a central hub of Atlanta's subway system.
Much of Atlanta's prominent landmarks today are sizable remnants from its explosive growth of the latter half of the 20th century. As the maps help us see, however, the city's path toward its current form evolved around the basic foundation it laid for itself after the Civil War.