The Ugliest Corner in Atlanta

Exit 41, 285 South, East Side, Memorial

The Memorial Drive exit on the East Side Loop is home to the most astoundingly horrifying collection of government buildings in the entire city. On every corner there stands an architectural abomination that both highlights and provides justification for the excessively gloomy mood that permeates this section of Memorial Dr. Once a proud thoroughfare, Memorial Drive these days has descended into the sort of chaos and dysfunction that is so commonly on display in Atlanta. This corner is a perfect example of the way that bad architecture integrates with car-centric street design to create a place that is not only hard on the eyes, but also pathologically hostile toward pedestrians. This is a place built for rapidly moving cars. People need not apply.

The architect was also on the team that designed the Death Star

Back in the day, when America believed in architectural standards.

Rising from the rocky ledge that forms the natural incline of the Memorial Drive exit is the Dekalb County Jail, towering above the highway like an architectural drawing from the earliest days of the Galactic Empire. Granted this building is a jail so it should hardly be expected to look all warm and cuddly, but this place seems to take forbidding to a wholly unnecessary level. For reference, see the below photo of the Gonzalez County Courthouse and Jail. There was a time in this nation’s history when even jails were expected to be grand architectural gestures. The Dekalb County Courthouse is a grand architectural gesture as well, but the gesture seems to be more of the one fingered variety. I imagine this is exactly what the Ministry of Love from 1984 looks like. If you lean in closely you can even hear Winston Smith screaming. “I love you, Big Brother!”

Why, Bobby, why?

Opposite the Dekalb County Jail is the Robert T. “Bobby” Burgess Building, who, based on the terrifying two-tone Brutalist facade given his namesake building, must have been a sociopathic dictator. That’s the only explanation I can think of for so naming such an awful building. You can’t see it in the picture, but the Bobby B. Building sits alone on an island of cement with no readily apparent avenue for approach. It’s like someone built the building for the sole purpose of taking up space and giving the inmates of the Dekalb County Jail something truly punishing to look at during their stay.

For the record, Bobby Burgess was apparently a Dekalb County Police Chief, which certainly warrants the naming of a building. I just don’t know why it had to be so damn ugly.

Notice the convenient parking lot adjacent to the main building. As if the empty parking lot in front isn't sufficient.

Nestled in the monochrome bosom of the Dekalb County Jail is the Dekalb County Juvenile Center, which has the dubious distinction of being both sort of nice looking but all the more horrifying because of it. The fact that the county of Dekalb spent the money for nice architectural details on this building, but set it directly in the shadow of the monstrosity behind it, tells me that the city officials who approved this either don’t understand basic architectural principles, or they have a wicked sick sense of humor. I’m sure the teenagers detained in there feel really uplifted by the mock-classical columns and the wide steps. Or maybe they look beyond the building at the slit-window horror of the Big Boy jail behind it, and see the columns for what they are, fancy dressing on a broken glass conveyor belt of cradle to grave captivity. Slavery is Freedom, my friends. Duh.

Perhaps they were trying to make people want to pay their taxes even less...

And last but not least is the Dekalb County Tax Commissioner Building, named for the supremely unlucky Claudia G. Lawson. Buildings like this make me think the Tea Partiers have a point about the capriciousness of government. I don’t care that I pay taxes to the government, or that those taxes are sometimes spent on things that I will never use, but to think tax money was spent on this overblown mobile home of a public building makes me want to do one of those freaky walks from Monty Python in protest. I don’t know what Ms. Lawson did to deserve this, but I imagine it had to involve puppies and all sorts of horribleness. I don’t have enough space to list the things wrong with this building, but for starters it looks more like it was designed to feed cattle. It sits in a sea of parking that is excessive and precludes that no one can comfortably walk to the building. The sad shrubs out front even look bored. This is lazy utilitarian architecture of the highest order, and for that (and only that) this is an exceedingly special building. I hope it’s preserved for future generations to marvel at the inane brutality of 21st Century American cultural life.

So, what have we learned from today? That Dekalb County needs to fire whatever architectural firm keeps winning their bids.

6 thoughts on “The Ugliest Corner in Atlanta

  1. The Burgess Building originally housed the (then new) county jail, Public Safety (Fire & Police), Magistrates and Recorders (Traffic) Courts, most of which have been moved to other buildings. R.T. Burgess was a career police officer with DeKalb County for decades, working his way up from patrolman to Chief of Police, with a brief stint as interim Public Safety Director following the tenure of F. D. Hand and then Burgess returned to being Chief of Police when Thomas Brown took over as PSD. The similar building across from it on Camp Circle housed the Juvenile Courts and Detention Center for quite some time, then was used as a an annex for the jail until the new jail was finished.

    As for the current tax commissioner’s building, it began life as a Treasure Island; after TI closed the building was eventually taken over and converted to one of the original Home Depot locations. After Home Depot moved out, the county obtained the property and converted it to office space for use by the Tax Commissioner’s office.

    If one considers the costs of building and maintaining such wonderful architectural edifices as the article’s author would seem to prefer, I think the taxpayers of DeKalb County have been better served through the economy of recycling and re-purposing of these buildings.

    The very fact that the article refers to the area in question being part of the city of Atlanta shows gross ignorance; the USPS ZIPCode is Decatur 30032 and the land is situated in unincorporated DeKalb County. Also: to attack someone’s character because a building is named after them is so mean and petty that one wonders at the writer’s credentials; the building was named afetr Chief Burgess after his retirement.

    N.B.: Robert T. Burgess died last night and those who knew him regard his passing with great sadness.

    Before another of this type of article is published someone will do a little research and fact-checking rather than spout claims and observations based on little more than trite posturing.

    D.L. Reynolds (Lt., Retired)
    DeKalb County PD

    • Lt. Ret. Reynolds,
      I want to sincerely offer my condolences on the passing of Mr, Burgess. I, of course, did not know the man nor that he had passed, but I believe he must have been a wonderful person, worthy of respect and love. My heart goes out to those who have lost someone they cared about and loved. I have maintained this blog if for no other reason than my desire to see the built environment accessible to all people regardless of their socio-economic status. I may be sarcastic in tone, but the goals of the site come from a very human-oriented place, and so it very much pains me that my article would be in a position to hurt anyone who did not have it coming in a professional sense. I apologize.

      However, I wrote this article well over 3 years ago, and meant no direct offense to Mr. Burgess. I made it clear I did not know who he was (though I did mention that he was a police chief, which was certainly worthy of having a building named after him), and though I used an acerbically sarcastic tone in the article, I do not believe I said anything directly antagonistic or hurtful toward the man, Robert Burgess. I was referring to the building upon which his name is hung, and I stand by my impression of the building and the other buildings it shares a corner with.

      You are correct that this corner lies outside of the city of Atlanta, but keep in mind this website is devoted to the Atlanta metropolitan area, as such I use a broader, colloquial definition of what constitutes “Atlanta.”

      With regard to the tax and cost implications of maintaining “good” buildings versus the hideous architectural examples on display at this corner, I would suggest that you take a closer look at the facts: these cement and steel, pre-fabricated monstrosities are easily as costly to maintain over time (since they often start to fall apart after 30 years without huge capital expenditures). How much did it cost to repurpose these buildings and what is the cost of maintaining them? In addition, the 6 lane highway that separates the jail and Burgess building from the Tax Commissioner office is a gigantic drain on tax resources of the county of Dekalb. Given that a large majority of the people of Dekalb County who must use these buildings do not own cars and must use public transit or their feet to get to them, I feel it is a huge slap in the face that this corner is so obviously hostile to pedestrians. Building better, sturdier buildings that reflect the purpose and lofty ideals of county governance, and placing them in areas where the citizenry can more easily access them is not only cheaper in the long run, but far more congruent with the mission of government than simply repurposing ugly commercial real estate and running a 6 lane highway through the heart of the very space that needs to be used.

      That was the point I was trying to make, and I believe it was clear my frustration was with the architects and county bureaucrats who OK’d the layout and design of the buildings and this corner, not with the people whose names are on the buildings. I’ve re-read this article and believe I was clear on that, but I would like to re-state it here: I did not mean any offense to Mr. Burgess’ character. I am sad that he has passed and that you came across this article at such an unfortunate time.

      Thank you for commenting, and I will gladly keep your comment posted here as a testament to Mr. Burgess’ life and career and the history of these buildings, as unfortunate as I may find them.

      Virgil

      • Thank you for your kind words.

        By way of explanation of my post: Your statement in the article that, ‘Opposite the Dekalb County Jail is the Robert T. “Bobby” Burgess Building, who, based on the terrifying two-tone Brutalist facade given his namesake building, must have been a sociopathic dictator.’ is what got my dander up.

        You see, Chief Burgess was never about fancy buildings; he was about his subordinates, the mission, and the people of DeKalb County, and any intimation to the contrary rises to the level of “fighten’ words” to those of us that knew him.

        Like any strong leader he could be an intimidating and fearsome presence at times. He also appreciated having people around him who could speak truth to power when needed.

        Yes, the buildings have seen much better days and are not the most attractive in the area, but they served their purpose well – and then some – like old warriors, earned the grudging respect of many who called it their second home, for that is truly what it was: the gathering point for an extended family under the guidance of Bobby Burgess.

        Was Bobby Burgess a saint? By no means! But he was a leader, a friend, a stern taskmaster, a gentle guiding hand… and so much more.

        From the rooftop helipad (2 choppers, the first one obtained with savings stamps donated by citizens, believe it or not!) to the basement offices where Chief Burgess held sway, the building that bears his name was a place where lay the awesome and protective power of the DeKalb County Police Department, Bobby’s greatest love.

        And when that old, ugly, worn out building crumbles to the ground, there will be some of us who will shed a tear or two in remembrance of days and friends long past.

        Please think of such as us when you next write about a building. The outside may not be much to admire, but the spirit and the soul might be much stronger than you can ever know.

        DLR

      • Thanks for understanding. I was considering just taking the post down, since it’s old and seems counter-productive to get people upset. I didn’t because I wanted to preserve what you and your colleagues had written about Mr. Burgess.

        I stand by my interpretation of the building and (especially) the surrounding area, but I can certainly appreciate an emotional connection to less than beautiful buildings because of what occurred in them and the relationships forged.

        I do want to highlight that much of my problem is less with the building and more with the building’s relationship to the street and the other buildings in the area. From a pedestrian stand point that corner is a terrifying place to be, and since so many of the people that have to visit the tax commissioner, jail, and juvenile detention center visit it by foot or public transit, it seems cruel to have developed the area to be so ridiculously auto-centric.

        Thanks again for your loving remembrance of Mr. Burgess and feel free to post any other memories or thoughts you’d like.

        Virgil

  2. We love Bobby Burgess !! He was a good strong man. I think he should have a new building .. And every street around the old dkpd should be named after him . I trusted him with my life and he never let me down … But we all know he’s the wrong color ( to pale skin) to get a new building or road or a nice park named in his Honor..

    • We love Bobby Burgess !! He was a good strong man. I think he should have a new building .. And every street around the old dkpd should be named after him . I trusted him with my life and he never let me down … But we all know he’s the wrong color ( to pale skin) to get a new building or road or a nice park named in his Honor..

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