By Henry Bryant
If you saw the 2016 Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures”, you saw a little bit of East Atlanta, but may not have known it. The film was shot in Atlanta with various buildings around town standing in for early NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, at that time known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) facilities in other parts of the country at the dawn of the U.S. space program. In the movie, hallways, classrooms and restrooms at the old East Atlanta High School appeared as the offices of the African American female numbers crunchers. Little had been known of the story of these heroes for the space race until now. East Atlanta High School, located on Mary Dell Avenue, between Bouldercrest Drive and Fayetteville Road, saw its first students in the fall of 1959. That made its architectural details perfect for the period sets in the film, depicting these human computers before there were the electronic computers of today.
East Atlanta High School was built to overcome crowding in Murphy High School (now Crim High School) on Clifton Avenue at Memorial Drive. The new school was designed by Thompson & Hancock, Romulus Thompson, architect. Some of the school’s new students also transferred from Grant Park’s Roosevelt High School (now The Roosevelt Apartments). The East Atlanta high school has been closed for three decades, but used as a surplus school and pressed into service as temporary quarters for various area schools that were being rebuilt. More recently it has been rented out to perform various roles as sets or general production in Georgia’s burgeoning film industry.
Originally East Atlanta High had 17 classrooms and included an art room, vocal music and band rooms, science labs, and a military rifle range. It also had physical education fields as well as an auditorium/gymnasium combination. The construction cost was $778,830. It was built on a 22-acre parcel that had been owned by the Hightower family who ran a dairy cow brokerage farm there.
The school’s superstructure was constructed of reinforced concrete with brick and clay tiles forming the exterior walls. Concrete block and glass tile walls were still evident in the interior shots during the building’s recent film role. Immediately before East Atlanta High was built, Archer High School for Negroes was built on the west side near soon to be built I-285, to relieve overcrowding at Booker T. Washington High. Archer was constructed of similar materials and style. As the population had expanded in these baby-boom years, two other high schools were being planned: Walter George High (now South Atlanta High) off Jonesboro Road and Northside (North Atlanta) High near Chastain Park.
East Atlanta High eventually graduated numerous civic and business leaders including city council members Davetta Johnson and Natalyn Mosby Archibong, both of whom have served the East Atlanta district. In the current real estate market the school property should have increased substantially in value. However, there are currently no plans to sell or redevelop the school. Any plans like that should consider the historic preservation tax breaks if East Atlanta becomes a National Register Historic District as current efforts anticipate. Another consideration could be the changing demographics of the city as it looks to annex properties at the edge of its current borders. This might bring renewed interest in using the property for new educational purposes. Meanwhile, who knows what new movie projects might come to our area?