Athens Downtown

Athens Downtown (Photo/Reynolds Rogers)

Back in 1785, Georgia’s state legislators made history by chartering the country’s first publicly funded college. But it took almost two decades for the University of Georgia to find a home.

The First Century

In 1801, the trustees selected 633 acres surrounding a hilltop settlement high above the Oconee River. The area’s main village — 10 houses and four shops — was renamed Athens. After five more years, Franklin College, the university’s first building, was completed. To finance the fledgling school, the trustees sold portions of the original acreage. Merchants and plantation owners snapped up property and settled near campus and as a result, Athens grew faster than the college. By 1820, Athens was a bustling textile center, while UGA still operated from its first building (known today as Old College). Unlike other Georgia cities, Athens was spared significant destruction during the Civil War. Grand mansions, spacious warehouses and sturdy storefronts from the early 1800s still stand downtown and in nearby neighborhoods. After the war, Athens boomed. Rural Georgians flocked to its mills in search of work, veterans enrolled in the college and freed slaves opened schools and businesses, creating a strong black middle class.

The Second Century

It was in 1872 — almost a century after the university’s founding — that the college saw its most dramatic changes. A federal land-grant designation expanded the school. Meanwhile, streetcar service fueled development of new residential areas, and Athens became the capital of Clarke County. (The two governments consolidated in 1990.) Growth of the city and university continued in the early 1900s. In the 1950s, the Navy Supply Corps School moved to Athens, where it operated for another half century. Its buildings today house UGA’s Health Sciences Campus. A commitment to preservation was reinforced in 1980 as Athens became an early adopter of the Main Street USA program and focused on preserving the historic structures of downtown. That decade also saw the emergence of a nationally acclaimed music scene, fueled by bands such as Pylon, R.E.M. and The B-52s. The city founders and university trustees might not know what to make of a weekend in today’s Athens, which can draw 93,000 fans to a football game, crowds to 40 music venues and foodies to restaurants and craft breweries. The connection between city and university is particularly strong because most students move off campus after freshman year. Students represent a quarter of the Athens-Clarke County population, and their influence on politics, business and development is significant. While the music and bar scenes earn accolades for Athens as a destination for college students, the city’s appeal does not end after graduation. UGA might have been named the most hipster college in the country by The Huffington Post, but Athens also is a perennial contender on the Forbes list of best places to retire. As you tour UGA, you will find it’s impossible to tell just where campus ends and the city starts, which is precisely why both school and town inspire passion — for four years and far longer.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2019 Visitors Guide

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