Were it not for the tops of skyscrapers visible over the trees, you'd never know you were in the heart of Atlanta.
For decades, the 12-acre compound known as the Goat Farm has been one of the city's best-kept secrets, a private, rustic compound where roosters strut, goats graze and artists collaborate in an idyllic, almost communal environment. More recently, its red brick buildings — some of which are slowly deteriorating — have become a hot venue for under-the-radar concerts, art happenings, and film and photography shoots.
"You're not gonna find a place like this in New York or Chicago," says Mark Field DiNatale, whose Fresh Roots Farm occupies a small corner of the property. "And the people here made it what it is. This place has a charm to it, some sort of spirit that you don't find in the rest of Atlanta."
On July 15, however, after years of unsuccessful attempts by deep-pocketed developers to buy the property, the Westside compound near the Atlanta Water Works was finally sold — for the reported price of $7 million, according to Real Estate Rooster, an industry newsletter.
But even though its intown location and proximity to the Beltline makes it an obvious choice for the next condo block or subdivision, its new owner, Hallister Development, which specializes in renovating historic properties, says it plans to preserve and even boost the property's status as an arts-friendly community.
If the company keeps its pledge, the Goat Farm could help cement the Westside's reputation as Atlanta's burgeoning Left Bank, a haven for working artists and creative businesses.
The complex was built in 1889 on what was then considered the outskirts of Atlanta by New Jersey industrialist Edward Van Winkle as a cotton-gin factory. In 1912, the Murray Company of Texas bought out Van Winkle and expanded the campus. During World War II, the Westside plant cranked out munitions. At its peak, the property contained more than 15 buildings.
It was the late Robert Haywood, who bought the site in the early '70s, who helped the Goat Farm earn its quirky and mysterious reputation. Former tenants and real estate brokers remember the ex-Army Ranger and Georgia Tech graduate as a drawling, likeable character who fiercely guarded his property — and, by extension, the privacy of the up-and-coming sculptors, musicians, painters and photographers who flocked to its studio spaces.
Stories of Haywood's eccentric behavior abound: pedaling around the compound wearing a gold hard hat, khaki shorts and boots; buying goats to control kudzu; and scaring off inquisitive developers and gawkers with the threat of gunfire.
Over the years, some of Atlanta's biggest real-estate developers tried to buy the property but were rebuffed by Haywood, who died in December of last year at 79.
"He couldn't let it go," said Helen Durant, a painter who's rented studio space in different buildings throughout the complex since the mid-1990s.
When Hallister signed a contract with Haywood's family to purchase the land in March 2008, the property was a ghost town, largely vacant because a previous developer who held the contract didn't want to bother with tenants.
The new owners began rehabbing spaces and clearing out junk that filled the various buildings. Thanks to word-of-mouth and ads posted in coffee shops promoting work studios, tenants started filling the more than 100 studio spaces. The result is an intimate community of artists who gather for drinks or to play pool in a common room and who come together for open-air movie screenings in a gutted warehouse building.
While the current real estate market isn't conducive to large-scale developments, that hasn't stopped Hallister from considering potential uses for the property and its buildings, many of which are protected by the National Register of Historic Places.
Anthony Harper, a Hallister partner who's on a first-name basis with the artists as he leads prospective tenants on tours of the property, says he wants to maintain the artsy vibe while planning a mixed-use development that would include restaurant, retail and gallery space, and possibly residential units.
"Our plans for the property are to use it to push culture forward through comprehensive support of the arts," Harper says.
As if providing a sanctuary for artists wasn't enough, Harper hopes eventually to adopt something of a co-op model, using a portion of the company's profits to create grants for tenants and artists throughout Atlanta. Describing his potential plans for the Goat Farm, he sounds more like a new-age conceptualist than a hard-boiled developer: "a three-story non-soil-based vertical farm with a market and restaurant attached, a shipping-container village of creative studios, and an organized curriculum of classes for creative-related skills that might not be offered at more traditional institutions."