Old South melds with new ideas in Macon's College Hill Corridor

May 4, 2015

The Bell House, built in 1855, has 18 massive Corinthian-style columns and is now home to the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings, sometimes referred to as the "Julliard of the South."

Everywhere there are dogs. Big dogs, little dogs, fluffy dogs, and not-so-fluffy dogs, all playing catch with their masters, happily leaping in the air after Frisbees and beach balls, or maybe taking a quick snooze. As one of those confirmed crazy cat ladies, I watch the dogs warily but know they are well-behaved.

Itís a second Sunday in late summer, and Iím at Washington Park in Macon, a small city right smack in the heart of Georgia. The super pet-friendly park is sloped on a magnolia-strewn hillside in a neighborhood dubbed the College Hill Corridor. The music is good, a Southern rock group thatís not too loud is playing, and the atmosphere is festive with plenty of enthusiastic dancing and toe-tapping. At the bottom of the hill scattered with blankets and lawn chairs, a young man appearing to be in his early 20s has one of those giant bubble wands and is sending huge iridescent bubbles into the summer breeze, a simple act that for a moment instantaneously transports me back to childhood.

The concerts are free and draw pups, their masters, non-dog owners, and crazy cat ladies alike from all across Georgia to Washington Park every second Sunday of the month, from April until October. Second Sunday concerts are a pretty big deal in Macon, and most make an evening of it and bring a picnic basket or buy food and wine from local vendors.

The College Hill Corridor is a 2-square mile neighborhood where the Old South melds with new ideas. The Corridor launched from a single idea that first emerged in 2006 as a Senior Capstone project for a small group of graduating Mercer University seniors. Their goal was to transform the area, some of it quite rundown, into a lively destination that connects Mercer, from where I graduated in what seems eons ago, with downtown Maconís business district.

In essence, itís a mashup of hip and historic, with the Corridor linking several historic neighborhoods, those that are resplendent with antebellum homes with the more contemporary ventures of Mercer Village with its melange of restaurants, lofts, live entertainment venues and boutiques. The visit to Macon was my first in a long time, and although the stately red brick of Mercer hasnít changed, everything around it has grown vibrant and busy. I call it the wow factor.

Since the renaissance began, the Corridor has become the Southís newest destination hotspot, but even way before now itís always been known as an axis from which the Southís greatest musicians and writers have spun. Maconís music scene, the one of iconic Southern rock and soul legends ó think the likes of the Allman Brothers, Otis Redding, Little Richard and Wet Willie ó emerged from these tree-lined streets.

While most of the musicians are gone now, moved on or passed on, itís what they left behind that is so fascinating. On College Street, for example, right beside one of the cityís most historic structures known as the Bell House, is a grass lot where once stood a home with a two-room apartment. In that apartment lived Duane Allman and from time to time other members of the Allman Brothers. It was called ó and you have to love this ó the hippie crash pad. The building is long gone but fans still flock to this place marked by a sidewalk etching of a mushroom, the logo of the Allman Brothers.

Ironically enough, the front porch of the Bell House, a Victorian landmark built in 1855, was the setting for the cover of the first Allman Brothers 1969 self-titled debut album "The Allman Brothers Band." The Bell House, with its 18 massive Corinthian-style columns, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is now home to the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings, opened this past spring. In Macon itís called the "Julliard of the South" and comes complete in all its antebellum glory with a performance hall and practice and teaching rooms.

If youíre still on the trail of the Allmans, almost a stoneís throw away is Rose Hill Cemetery, where Duane and fellow band member Berry Oakley, who both died in motorcycle accidents, are interred. And a bit farther from there is the Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House, opened in 2010, appropriately enough located on Highway 41. Fans will get the connection. A portion of the lyrics to "Rambliní Man," one of the Allmansí greatest hits, goes like this: "Lord, I was born a rambliní man. Tryiní to make a liviní and doiní the best I can," and then, "And I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus, rolliní down Highway 41."

The entrance to the still grand three-story Tudor home, where again various members of the band lived including brothers Duane and his brother Gregg, fronts on Highway 41 ó itís also known as Vineville Avenue ó and exits through the back. Just as I was about to round from the parking lot to the front to go in, a shaggy-hair hippie type young man came from the exit, flashing a peace sign at our small group and grinning, "Man, that was totally worth it." I took that as good sign. If you love Southern rock, or really any music, then you really should visit this place thatís become a Mecca-like destination for Allman Brothers pilgrims from all over the world. This is where the band really took off ó "Rambliní Man" was written here ó and is now filled with rare personal artifacts too many to even begin to mention.

Moving back along College Street and other neighborhoods within the Corridor is like taking a step back into another century. General Sherman in his March to the Sea bypassed Macon, so scores of antebellum homes remain, somehow surviving 150-plus years of fricassee-hot and humid Georgia summers. Macon has an incredible 5,500 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, among them the 1853 Greek Revival Cannonball House, which was waywardly struck by a cannonball during the Civil War, and the Sidney Lanier Cottage, built in 1840 and the birthplace of one of the Southís best known poets.

Nearby is the 1859 Italian Renaissance-style Hay House once featured on "Americaís Castles," and the imposing Woodruff House high atop Coleman Hill, one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. Even Mercer University, with its lofty spires and the anchor of the Corridor, dates to 1833. Ask around for dining options, and eventually youíll be directed to the H&H, Maconís most famous soul food restaurant first opened in 1959 by Inez Hill and Louise Hudson.

Inez, who passed away in 2007, was from South Georgia. The story goes that she grew tired of walking behind a mule and plowing fields so she moved to Macon to open a restaurant with Louise. Since then veritable tons of fried chicken, grits, cornbread, okra, tomatoes, corn and collards have been served at the iconic diner, which is in the same block as Capricorn Records, the key player of Southern rock who first recorded the Allman Brothers.

Over time Louise Hudson became simply Mama Louise. Legend, and plenty of truth, holds that the Allmans, who were just getting started as a band, often ate at the restaurant because the food was cheap and Mama Louise gave the long-haired boys extra helpings. She took such good care of them that they asked her if they could call her Mama, and she said that it was all right with her because she was already a mama. Mama Louise still comes in from time to time, dishing out those heaps of fried chicken and pork chops and swapping stories with Allman Brothers fans who still flock to the restaurant.

If soul food doesnít soothe your soul, try the Tic Toc Room. Once known as Miss Anneís Tic Toc, a busy nightclub, itís where Little Richard got his start and then over the years where James Brown and Otis Redding joined in the lineup of singers who passed through to make rock and roll history behind these doors. Now like the Corridor, itís a revived Macon institution where owner Cesare Mammarel serves up favorites including shrimp and grits and steaks.

Another idea that has sprung from the well of revitalization is Maconís system of Little Free Libraries based on the simple concept that anyone can pick up a book and leave another one to share. Seven of the diminutive freestanding book exchanges are scattered across town, including one that looks similar to an old English police station and another at Macon Dog Park that is a doppelganger to Snoopy and Woodstockís "Peanuts" doghouse.

And that takes the story back to the dogs again. Beautiful parks dot the Corridor, including Washington Park, Tattnall Square Park and Colemanís Hill, but the place to be is Macon Dog Park, a fully fenced park for unleashing the hounds and mingling with other dog fanciers. Featuring "Yappy Hour" every third Thursday with music and drinks, itís the yappiest place in the College Hill Corridor.

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GETTING THERE

Atlantaís Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is about 80 miles north of Macon and offers service through all major carriers.

WHERE TO STAY

The 1842 Inn, 353 College St., Macon, 478-741-1842, www.1842inn.com. A historic bed-and-breakfast inn built in 1842, with individually decorated rooms, antiques, lush gardens and wraparound verandahs. From $189 to $230 per night.

WHERE TO EAT

Dovetail, 543 Cherry St., Macon, 478-238-2693, www.DovetailMacon.com. Award-winning farm to table Southern dining. Entrees from $14.

Margaritaís Mexican Grill, 1602 Montpelier Ave., Macon, 478-254-7707, www.MargaritasMexicanGrill.com. Tacos, salads, burritos, quesadillas and more, from $5.95.

Downtown Grill, 562 Mulberry St. Lane, Macon, 478-955-5664, www.MaconDowntownGrill.com. An English steakhouse fine-dining experience. Entrees from $13.95.

Francarís Wings, 1365 Linden Ave., Macon, 478-741-3338, www.FrancarsWings.com. Serving lunch and dinner and offering 39 sauces in a casual atmosphere. Entrees from $4.99.

INFORMATION AND WHAT TO DO

College Hill Corridor Alliance, 478-301-2008, www.CollegeHillMacon.com.

Rock Candy Tours Offers "rock and stroll" tours through Maconís music heritage. 478-955-5997, www.RockCandyTours.com

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