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In sites and sound, history lives in Macon, Ga.
Macon is home to so many buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, you'd need 77 hours to visit each for just one minute -- driving and gazing time not included.
"We have nearly 5,000 structures in all 11 historic districts" on the National Register, said Josh Rogers, executive director of the Historic Macon Foundation. "And another 5,000 are eligible."
To help you avoid rushing from address to address, I suggest two less-frantic approaches to touring the Georgia city 84 miles south of Atlanta: Pick one historic district and rummage around inside its borders. Or explore the city by theme. You can choose music (or artist), architecture, soul food, even Oprah. Yes, the wildly popular host earned her own multi-stop tour after a 2007 taping here, though she has not yet been granted a plaque.
Here are two sample itineraries.
Magical history tour
Among the city's 11 historic districts, Historic Macon has an unfair advantage. The 95-acre area contains the largest concentration of National Register buildings (more than 1,200) as well as such storied institutions as the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the Tubman African American Museum. There are also shops, restaurants, nightspots and a historic hotel -- listed on the register, of course.
Founded in 1823, the well-preserved city still displays its early wealth, which was generated by cotton, banking and the railroad. To flaunt their riches, showy residents built grand homes in architectural styles popular at the time: Greek Revival, neoclassical, Italianate, etc. "There was huge money," said Maryel Battin, former director of the Historic Macon Foundation. "It was keeping up with the Joneses."
Most of the properties are private, but a few are open for tours, including the Cannonball House, the only structure in town to be wounded during the Civil War (by a Union missile shot across the Ocmulgee River), and the Sidney Lanier Cottage, birthplace of the poet who channeled a river in "Song of the Chattahoochee."
The diva in the 'hood is the Hay House, an Italian Renaissance Revival mansion that had a star turn in the A&E series "America's Castles." "This house was well before its time, with indoor plumbing, gas lighting, speaking tubes, indoor bathrooms and built-in closets," said guide Jessie Banks, who led our group through a portion of the seven-level, 24-room house. "And then, of course, having been built for $100,000 in 1859, that says a lot."
The house tours don't stop when the sun goes down and the docents go home. In fact, one tour can't really start until the natural light is switched off.
About 15 years ago, the city created Lights on Macon, an illumination tour in the hilltop neighborhood of Intown, which overlooks downtown. The self-guided excursion features 30 houses that are theatrically lit for better viewing. (About 30 more will be added this spring.) Carefully positioned spotlights hit on unique design features, such as a sunburst in the gable of a late Victorian and the 30-foot Doric columns on a classic Greek Revival.
Signs on front lawns designate the stops along the route. As with any walking tour, visitors should be mindful of private property, but taking a closer peek at a door frieze or a stained-glass window won't set off neighborhood watch alarms.
"If you live on College Avenue, you are pretty much accustomed to someone coming up your walkway," said Battin, who owns a Queen Anne home with a Romanesque porch. "We've had people walking around in the dark with flashlights."
Now, Macon lights the way.
A little Southern music
Macon describes itself as the "song and soul of the South." For the most part, its songs and souls belong to Otis Redding, Little Richard and the Allman Brothers Band, musicians who all struggled and succeeded here.
Little Richard, now the goodwill ambassador of Macon, and Otis Redding, whose wife and two of four children still live here, were raised in the town. The Allmans, transplants from Florida, formed their band and made their first recording in Macon.
"The Allman Brothers really created a new genre of music," said E.J. Devokaitis, curator of the Big House, the band's former residence that opened as a museum in December. "It was born and nurtured here."
The rockers' connection to Macon was through Phil Walden, who ran Capricorn Records on Cotton Avenue and signed the Allmans in 1969, releasing Southern rock into the world. (The Georgia Trust listed the recording studio as one of its top 10 imperiled sites of 2010.) The musicians first shacked up in an apartment at 309 College St. "There were 10 of us living there," said Red Dog, a 33-year ABB roadie whom I met over a plate of soul food at the legendary H&H Restaurant. "We didn't have anything but mattresses, a trip light, a stereo and a Coke machine filled with Pabst and Bud. Ah, those were fun days."
A mushroom imprint in the sidewalk out front memorializes those good times.
In 1970, the musicians -- Duane and Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley and his wife, and others -- moved to the Big House, a Tudor-style home in the historic district of Vineville. Its most recent residents were road manager Kirk West and his wife, who set aside two ground-level rooms as an homage to the Allmans and to accommodate the countless pilgrims who showed up at their doorstep unannounced.
"During our 14 years living in the house, we probably had 20,000 to 25,000 people knock on our door," said West, who spearheaded the museum project. "We had drunken high school kids coming from 30 miles away, and a couple from Canada showed up on their honeymoon. We put them in Duane's room."
The house is much more organized now, with set hours and no more sleepovers. Thousands of artifacts cover the walls and floors and fill glass cases, including Duane's amp, a pool table owned by then-married Gregg and Cher, and a note written by guitarist Dickey Betts: "I wrote Ramblin' Man in Berry Oakley's kitchen at about four in the morning. Everyone had gone to sleep, but I was sitting up."
On the staircase landing to the second floor, a display of photos shows the many faces and emotions that inhabited the house. The one of Oakley sitting on the front steps was taken the day after Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident not far from their home. Just over a year later, Oakley would meet a similar fate.
The musicians are buried in nearby Rose Hill Cemetery, an appropriate resting place. In the early years, the band members would wander down to the cemetery high on magic mushroom tea and find inspiration for their music. (Sample single: "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," whose grave lies near the river.) The men's tombstones sit side by side, with two sculpted angels watching over their remains.