A springtime stroll through LaGrange packs a major cultural punch

Posted · Add Comment

Lee Cathey LaGrange Square at Night

About an hour south of Atlanta on I-85, LaGrange, Georgia, packs a major cultural punch with its unique history, architectural gems and a creative scene to boot.

The South is full of small towns with quaint shops surrounding a central square, but this one is unique. Its breathtaking fountain and downtown lighting – which twinkles like fairies in the leaves of manicured trees, filled with colorful buds, are visually pleasing; but, there is much more to LaGrange than meets the eye. The east side of the square is known as the Horace King block, built by the celebrated architect and bridge-builder who began his trade while still under the bonds of slavery. King, who was eventually buried in LaGrange, is renowned for eye-catching construction projects all over Georgia and Alabama, including a collection of covered bridges. Today, the Cochran Gallery occupies one of the spaces in the block King built. Owners Wes and Missy Cochran have been collecting art for more than 40 years, and own the largest private collection of Andy Warhol screen prints in the country. With around 70 pieces, the collection is often on the road and displayed in museums throughout America, but the Cochrans are always quick to point out that LaGrange is its home. When one piece was included in a show at the High Museum, ownership was attributed by the museum to “Wes and Missy Cochran of Atlanta”; to the museum’s chagrin, the Cochrans insisted their city of residence be corrected. Both from longtime-local families, the Cochrans wear LaGrange like a badge; Missy’s family has owned the building housing the gallery for more than a century. The Cochran Gallery is also home to their collection of African American works on paper, numbering over 400 pieces, the centerpiece of their complete collection of more than 700 works of art. Says Wes Cochran, “The key to art collecting is to build a library. Anyone can do it.”

Continue to satisfy your inner artist with a short walk to the LaGrange Art Museum. A testament to creative reuse, the museum is housed in the Victorian former courthouse and county jail, and is known as one of Georgia’s best regional art museums. Another cultural pillar of the community is the LaGrange Symphony Orchestra, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015. One of the state’s best professional orchestras, the LaGrange Symphony Orchestra also welcomed a new conductor and musical director, Richard Pryor, in 2015. Pryor had previously led the Emory Youth Orchestra, had two pieces commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and has conducted all over the world. The LSO has a five-concert subscription season from October to April.

LaGrange is a city for all seasons, but its architectural grand dames are never more beautiful than when they are decked out in spring flowers. These historic gems have been lovingly preserved since they were spared from the Union Army’s fiery 1865 March to the Sea due to the tenacity of an all-female militia calling themselves the Nancy Harts who marched out to greet a force of more than 2,000 troops, themselves numbering some 40 rifle-wielding ladies in hoopskirts. But these ladies were no novices – they had been drilling weekly for the last two years of the war in preparation to defend their homes from being burned as so many other towns had been. When Colonel Oscar LaGrange (named coincidentally) marched his troops into town in mid-April, the Nancies met them at LaGrange College and agreed to shoulder their arms if the Federals would spare LaGrange’s homes. Although many public buildings with strategic importance were razed, most of LaGrange’s homes were left unscathed and many still line the picturesque sidewalks of the town today.

A springtime visit to LaGrange would never be complete without a stop at the Hills and Dales Estate, the former Callaway home and meticulously-maintained historic garden just outside of downtown. The formal boxwood garden was originally laid out in the early 1830s when the property was owned by Micklebery and Nancy Ferrell. When their daughter Sarah inherited the land, she expanded her mother’s garden, and opened it to the public for the citizens of LaGrange to enjoy. She maintained the gardens herself until her death in 1903. In 1911, textile magnate Fuller E. Callaway purchased the property where he remembered playing as a boy. He commissioned a grand home to complement Sarah’s gardens and in 1916, the family moved into their new home, called Hills and Dales. Callaway son Cason would move to Pine Mountain, Georgia, where he would found Callaway Gardens. Son Fuller Jr. inherited Hills and Dales and raised his family there, his wife Alice lovingly caring for its famous garden as had her mother-in-law Ida and Sarah and Nancy Ferrell before her. Since Alice’s death in 1998, the property has been maintained as a historic house museum and garden, and one of the finest examples of preservation in the South, with the mansion celebrating its centennial anniversary this year.