Out of ranch
I volunteered for the DeKalb History Center during this year’s Decatur Arts Festival.
I sat behind a long table stacked with pamphlets about the History Center, which is located inside the historic DeKalb Courthouse on the Square.
My primary duty for the History Center involved fielding questions from festival attendees. The two most frequent answers I gave were, “The bathroom is over there” and “Sorry, the ranch house exhibit won’t open until this fall.”
I answered the ranch house question quite a bit. The upcoming exhibit already has some early buzz.
But before I get to that, I’d be remiss if I didn’t brag about the historic courthouse a bit. After all, I am a volunteer ambassador now and I have certain responsibilities that go along with my unpaid title.
If you’ll allow me. Ahem.
Hey, have you heard about our wonderful historic courthouse?!
The historic DeKalb Courthouse faces Ponce De Leon Avenue and is the front porch of the Decatur Square. It’s an academic-looking building that’s used for weddings and other events, in addition to serving as the History Center’s headquarters.
People often mistake the historic courthouse for the actual DeKalb County Courthouse, a different building located behind the History Center. The actual courthouse features institutional modern architecture and serves as DeKalb’s Superior Court.
I understand why people would confuse the two courthouses. When people visiting Decatur see the modern courthouse, they see another drab gray building.
When they see the historic courthouse on the Square, they see a welcome mat made of granite and marble.
The old courthouse on the Square did serve as the county’s Superior Court until 1967. I personally envy the criminals tried there. They had a wonderful venue. I can think of no finer place to be found guilty of a felony.
It’s a beautiful place to wed as well. The white columns lend legitimacy to any event. You can learn more about facility rentals at the History Center website.
As I sat at the historic courthouse giving bathroom directions to our antsy guests, I was struck by the frequency of the ranch house question. Exhibits Coordinator Karen Chance explained to our guests that the program for the Arts Festival contained an unfortunate error.
The ranch house exhibit isn’t open yet, she told them. The guests frowned a little and promised they’d return when it’s ready.
The exhibit is still a work in progress, but has potential to match the premature interest.
During a lull, Karen escorted me into a little side room needled by sunlight. The courthouse walls hummed with the sound of a blues band playing in the gazebo on the Square.
Ranch houses aren’t necessarily the first things that spring to mind when someone brings up the topic of Georgia history. Atlanta holds numerous battlefields from the Civil War. American Indians and the Civil Rights movement also feature prominently.
Karen said the upcoming exhibit provides history lovers with something different than a recounting of Georgia’s wars and struggles.
“It doesn’t always have to be Civil War to be history,” she said.
Ranch houses became prominent during the post-World War II boom, when old farms were divided into lots, sold and transformed into the first suburbs. The architecture reflects the attitude of the baby boomer years, simple designs mass produced over and over. They’re compact one-level structures still present in older neighborhoods.
Their place in history might mystify some. Many people who have bought the ranch homes in metro Atlanta have modified them or demolished them, replacing them with what we lovingly refer to as McMansions.
A McMansion is definitely bigger and more expensive than a ranch house, but also lacks its charm.
I find a ranch home’s coziness makes it feel unpretentious and democratic. Sometimes corny, yes. But still kind of endearing.
Karen showed me one room centered on the primary medium for selling the mass-produced home concept to the masses: television. The ranch house living room gave us the inkling of what was to come, a future where you wouldn’t have to leave the couch in front of the TV for anything except the bathroom.
The bathroom is over there.
Karen said that she thought the ranch houses were boring when she was a child. As she’s grown up, she’s come to appreciate their place in history.
They were the homes of an optimistic era reinforced with the fear of communists taking the good life away from us.
After Karen gave me the TV dinner tour, I began to understand why people are so interested in the exhibit. I’d bet good money that more than a few of the folks asking us about it had grown up in a ranch house.
They were living history and they didn’t even know it.
I’ll let you know when I get more concrete details about the opening date for this exhibit. Karen needs some volunteers and donations to pull this thing off. If you can lend a hand, please give her a call.