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This house is on fire

The Margaret Mitchell House wants to be the heart of the South's literary community, but does its racial stigma stand in the way?

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Consider the Margaret Mitchell House as a symbol for the city of Atlanta. Both have risen from devastating fires to become something much greater than they were before. Both have been caught in the crossfire between developers and preservationists, relics of the Old South pitted against New South progress. And both are now struggling with their own identities, striving to prove that they are more than just apathetic yokels, that high culture does exist in the South, that the sins of slavery and segregation really can be forgiven.

By now the story of Mary Rose Taylor's efforts to preserve the crumbling apartment building where Margaret Mitchell wrote much of Gone With the Wind has ascended past the realm of anecdote and into local folklore. The fight to save the house -- first from the wrecking ball, and later from two fires -- has been cast in increasingly mythic terms, with Taylor herself alluding to the phoenix rising from flames as a symbol for both the house and the city itself. Some writers have drawn parallels between Taylor and Mitchell -- both journalists, both Catholic, both passionate mid-life philanthropists. Others see Taylor as a sort of modern Scarlett O'Hara -- albeit with Melanie Hamilton's grace -- who has dug her heels in with an "I will not be hungry again" resolve.

That comparison might not be too far from the truth. After almost five years of operation, the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum has firmly established itself as a hot tourist destination. With more than 50,000 visitors yearly, it would seem that Taylor's dream has come true. House restored, shrine built, end of story.

Not entirely.

What many Atlantans probably don't realize is that Taylor and her supporters are not done yet -- far from it, in fact.

With its new programming arm, the Center for Southern Literature, the Margaret Mitchell House is emerging as a literary crossroads, a cultural center as well as a roundtable for discussing the city's racial rift. Events at the house -- ranging from author meet-and-greets to panel discussions -- have taken on a certain town hall quality, with folks speaking openly on subjects that, traditionally, Atlantans just don't talk about.

It's either extremely ironic or astoundingly appropriate that this type of dialogue is taking place under the auspices of Mitchell's name. Though a champion of racial integration and a secret donor to Morehouse, the author in some circles still symbolizes the Old South's glorification of slavery, a shadow that almost prevented the house from being restored in the first place.

The nonprofit institution is making strides to get past its divisive image -- co-hosting events with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and bringing in a diverse slate of speakers. But Taylor and her backers face a city sometimes embarrassed to address its own racial history and a community not known for its love of literature. To Taylor, those two issues are inexorably linked.

"I think race makes everything very complicated in Atlanta," she says. "Therefore literature and the embrace of literature takes on that sort of complexity. I think Atlanta is not comfortable with controversy. And literature provokes. Really good literature can be purposefully controversial."

At 4:59 a.m. on the morning of May 12, 1996, the Atlanta Fire Department responded to a call at 1069 McMillian St., a few blocks off Northside Drive. The fire, some speculate, was set as a diversion because 20 minutes later, firefighters were dispatched to the corner of 10th and Peachtree streets. The Margaret Mitchell House was burning again -- just 40 days shy of its renovation being complete. A similar blaze had erupted in 1994. Both were ignited by flammable liquids poured on an upper floor of the house.

Taylor is convinced the fires had nothing to do with race and everything to do with real estate. The former news reporter for WXIA says her sources have assured her that the arsonist will never be caught because there were so many middlemen involved.

"They said the reason the house was burned was because someone wanted to build a large luxury hotel," she says. "What makes that so plausible is not only the credibility of my sources, but also the fact that the day after the fire, I had three offers on the property, for in excess of twice what we'd paid for it."

Journalistic curiosity turned Taylor's attention to the dilapidated house in 1987, after another restoration group had disbanded its efforts.

The three-story apartment building the author called "The Dump" (a moniker Mitchell applied to several of her residences) was known as the Crescent Apartments when Mitchell and husband John Marsh moved there in 1925. The couple lived in Apartment No. 1 until 1932, during which time the former Atlanta Journal reporter quietly wrote most of Gone With the Wind.

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