Atlanta’s Rodney Cook Sr. Park has been in construction for several years to honor 300 years of Georgia peacemakers and the role of Atlanta in the civil-rights movement. The late Mr. Cook was a businessman and Republican politician who actively supported the movement “when it counted,” earning him a cross burned by the KKK on his lawn. His son, Rodney Mims Cook Jr., has high hopes that Cook Peace Park can be finished with the classical statuary, buildings, acropolis, monumental column and other features that would have pleased his father (who died in 2013).
“When it counted” is the phrase used by architecture critic Catesby Leigh in his article “Monumental Ambitions,” in City Journal (but not yet online). As built so far, Cook Park sits on 18 vacant acres in Vine City, a neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, W.E.B. DuBois and Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, lived – all of whom have or will have statues in the park. A statue of the late Rep. John Lewis went up not long ago and one of Andrew Young has just been unveiled; statues of other luminaries are planned, including a shrine for Nobel peace laureates with ties to Georgia, including MLK, of course, along with Jimmy Carter, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama. A 115-foot column is planned with a 20-foot statue atop of Tomochichi, the Yamacraw chief who welcomed, c.1733, colonial founder James Oglethorpe to what would become Georgia. A statue of Cook Sr. would sit on the column’s pedestal housing a 10,000-square-foot civil-rights museum and repository for the MLK family library.
Cook Jr. – who hosted me overnight a decade ago when I was in Atlanta to serve on the 2011 Philip Shutze architecture prize jury – sees the park as a celebration Georgia peacemakers, the civil-rights movement and a rebranding of Atlanta and Georgia as an incubator for peace scholarship and diplomatic initiatives. The park would feature a peace institute and pantheon of peace on an acropolis envisioned by Cook in classical raiment.
Cook works to revive classical architecture in Atlanta’s historic capital and elsewhere from his nonprofit National Monuments Foundation, established in 2003 and headquartered atop the city’s Millennium Arch, which he completed in 2008.
But Cook Park is named, in a seeming paradox, for a dead white male. Today’s black leadership in Atlanta, or some of it, has been standoffish toward the park. Although the children of Dr. King’s generation support the park, the head of Atlanta’s NAACP commented, “Statues in a park? Birds poop all over statues.” The park’s Tomochichi statue has suddenly incurred the ire of many Native American activists. In 2020, Atlanta’s city council unanimously approved Cook’s plan, which would serve as a classical overlay on several modernist bridges and railings already built in the park. But city hall has yet to grant him a ground lease.
The very successful “Atlanta Way” of negotiation and compromise over racial issues has given way to woke polarization, newly rejecting the idea that blacks and whites both were involved in the struggle for slavery’s abolition and civil rights for blacks, along with the idea, ignored for decades nationally in deed if not in word, that all men and women should be judged on the basis of character, not skin color. Cook Park is trapped between these two intrinsically uncongenial visions of past and present politics.
In describing Cook Park’s precarious situation, Leigh contrasts its style with that of the Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., erected in homage to victims of lynching in the South. “Hundreds of identical, six-foot, rectangular blocks of rust-tinted steel [hang] from the ceiling” of the memorial’s pavilion, he writes, adding that these features
reinforce anti-monumental trends in commemorative design, and not just in the South. The impact isn’t just limited to what gets built, of course; it also holds for what gets vandalized and removed. Cook’s focus on cultural continuity in public art and architecture is decidedly countercultural.
Cook is what Leigh calls a “monument impresario.” His monuments foundation spent $400,000 on the Tomochichi statue, which awaits final placement on its column while sitting at Cook’s Millennium Gate in Atlanta’s Midtown district. The gate is a triumphal arch originally designed to sit on the far side of the U.S. Capitol, on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Anacostia River. The arch for Washington, D.C., was dropped in the 9/11 tumult. The arch’s entry is flanked by a pair of female figures of Justice and Peace, by Scotland’s Alexander Stoddart. Cook also built the World Athletes’ Monument, on Peachtree Street, to memorialize the 1996 Olympic Games. It features a tholos consisting of a circle of five Doric columns on a base mounted by five nude Atlas figures holding up a bronze globe. It was financed by the current heir to the British throne, served as a gathering place to mourn his first wife Diana’s death, and is often referred to as the Prince of Wales Monument.
The profound dedication of Rodney Mims Cook Jr. to the classical revival in Atlanta and elsewhere deserves an abundance of respect. Such respect was displayed when he was appointed by President Trump to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. President Biden, to his everlasting shame, sacked Cook illegally for no appropriate reason (apparently because he is a classicist) toward the end of March, a year after he sacked four other Trump commissioners, also illegally.
Just another day in Wokeworld, where up is down, down is up, and illegal is the new legal.
Wokeword confounds our art as well as our politics. Leigh’s conclusion to his valuable and comprehensive essay – especially his tracking of commemorative architecture’s descent from the monumental memorial to what he calls the “guilt memorial” – is immediately persuasive:
Rodney Cook’s monumental initiatives are particularly valuable at a time when American civic art is being dumbed down – or worse – by reductive aesthetics and political fanaticism …
Working within a demanding tradition that imposes objective standards of achievement is a tall order. Cook has met the challenge with remarkable success. With his Tomochichi column’s realization, he will have accomplished a monumental trifecta in his hometown – and that would represent a significant feat in the annals of American civic art.
Catesby Leigh’s article in the Spring 2022 edition of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, should be read in its entirety. It will soon be available online, I expect, and I will add that link when it is possible.