If walls could talk, the ones at Manuel’s Tavern probably wouldn’t shut up.
The venerable watering hole at the corner of North and North Highland Avenues is so barnacled with photos, paintings, signage, memorial plaques and the odd piece of taxidermy that the walls almost seem like another character sitting at the bar spinning yarns over a pint of beer. And here’s the punch line: It’s all coming down as the tavern closes for a remodeling project that will take at least four months. Last call is Sunday, December 27.
Cataloging all this stuff was one of the most daunting jobs facing owner Brian Maloof when he reached a deal last winter to sell the building to a developer who plans to erect a mixed-use mid-rise next door on the site of a surface parking lot. There are thousands of images and objects on the walls of Manuel’s, an accretion of sentiment, history and whimsy that dates back six decades. Maloof, the youngest son of founder Manuel Maloof, feels obligated to make sure that everything is properly accounted for so it can be faithfully reassembled when the establishment reopens late next spring.
“We were planning to walk through the place with a video camera so we could do an inventory,” he says. “We were going to take it down room by room and box it up so we’d know where everything went — and we’re still going to do that. But we feel so much better about it now that Ruth is involved.”
He’s talking about Ruth Dusseault, a photographer and multimedia artist who lives in the neighborhood. She has been visiting Manuel’s with her family for close to 20 years and has always admired some of the vintage photos on display. When she heard that the tavern was going to hit the reset button, she persuaded Maloof to let her undertake an ambitious documentary project. She enlisted specialists from Georgia State University (where she teaches), the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta and the Emory University Center for Digital Scholarship. The team calls its undertaking “Unpacking Manuel’s” and is constructing a website to show its work and invite public participation in telling the stories of Atlanta’s most storied bar.
“It’s like a 60-year art installation in here,” she says on a November morning, as her crew continues the task of photographing the tavern’s vertical surfaces and many nooks and crannies. They started in August, working in weekly sessions that commenced as early as 6 a.m. so they’d be out of the way by the time the doors opened for lunch at 11. The scene sometimes resembled movie shoots, complete with tracks and dollies.
“We’re taking several hundred photos and stitching them together to make a super high-res composite image,” explains Michael Page, a digital cartographer at Emory, as he monitors a GigaPan camera.
They’ve also been shooting 3D pictures of the tavern. The idea is to create a virtual Manuel’s in which web site visitors can navigate through the rooms like a video game and then explore two-dimensional images of the walls, zooming in on selected items and reading the backstory in pop-up boxes. The information will be crowdsourced; Dusseault wants Manuel’s regulars to contribute their knowledge and professors at local colleges to assign their students to research the lore behind the artifacts.
“It’s a great exercise in journalism and history,” she says. “This place is like a giant hyperlink.”
A TROVE OF STORIES ON THE WALLS
If any taproom in Atlanta deserves this kind of attention, it’s Manuel’s. In a city where everything seems to be constantly changing, the granite-faced tavern in Poncey-Highlands is a reassuringly colorful constant.
The most significant artifact in the bar is … the bar. The long mahogany beauty has been in the Maloof family for decades. It comes from the Tip Top Billiard Parlor, a pool hall in downtown Atlanta where Manuel Maloof learned the saloon business from his Lebanese immigrant father, Gibran. Manuel served as a mechanic in the Army Air Corps during World War II and fell in love with British pubs, and with a young British woman who became his wife, Dolly. When he opened his tavern in 1956, in a former storefront delicatessen, he patterned it after the pubs he had enjoyed overseas and had the bar moved from his father’s old pool hall.
“I’ve been hearing for 10 years that I need to put hooks on there for people to hang their purses,” Brian Maloof says. “I’m not going to do it. That’s family furniture. We’ve made our living behind that bar for 80 years.”
His dad envisioned the tavern as a community center where people from all walks of life could unwind and speak their mind over a beer. In the process, Manuel Maloof became celebrated for his opinions and parlayed his notoriety into a political career as the first chief executive officer of DeKalb County and the leader of its Democratic Party.
The central barroom is a shrine to his beliefs and passions. There are portraits of people Manuel admired — Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Ralph McGill — as well as a dense array of dusty beer cans and steins, local sports pennants, bobblehead dolls and other bric-a-brac. On the opposite wall is an eclectic assemblage of oil paintings that include ones of Maloof himself (looking rather melancholy) as well as several female nudes. A stuffed beaver presides over the door to North Highland, positioned near a mobile that tavern lore says was executed by none other than Alexander Calder.
Brian Maloof can’t vouch for that last one. “I’ve been told that it was by Calder, and I’ve been told that it was made by a man in prison for murder.” He enjoys not knowing which is true.
By the time his father died in 2004, Maloof, a former paramedic, had been running the tavern for several years. At 48, he sees himself not just as a businessman but as the keeper of a sacred tradition. When he announced the redevelopment of the tavern last February, he was not surprised that so many people called and emailed with their concerns that the landmark was going to be torn down or buried under new construction or otherwise scrubbed of its gritty character. Manuel’s lovers have never embraced change; someone complains every time a picture is moved or the menu is tweaked.
Maloof addressed their concerns by issuing a statement saying that their fears were unfounded. While the developers, Green Street Properties, would acquire the building, he would still own the business and operate it under a 10-year lease with options to extend the terms. All new construction would occur on the adjacent parking lot, and the tavern would have free parking in the new development and retain its overflow lot across the street.
“We have no intention of building on top of the tavern or behind the tavern,” says Green Street president Katharine Kelley. “We know what this place means to people.”
To underscore the point, the developer intends to apply to have the 108-year-old building that houses Manuel’s added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The tavern, Maloof vows, is going to stay the same. “If customers come back and say, ‘What did you change?’ I’ll be happy.”
A good many of the calls and emails Maloof received had to do with the things on the walls. A policeman’s widow wanted his framed uniform shirt if the bar wasn’t going to rehang it. An artist from Vancouver wanted to make sure that a nude he had painted years before wasn’t going to vanish.
“That nude is interesting,” Maloof says, “because there’s usually a Manuel’s story behind something and there’s usually another story that might be the truth.”
According to gossip, a tavern regular had posed for the painting, leading others at the bar to regard her God-given assets with new appreciation. Alas, she was not the model, and the artist had merely donated the oil to the tavern to get exposure for his work.
The story behind another naked lady is true, however. Another nude hanging in the main barroom was painted by an artist who offered it to Manuel in lieu of a tab he could not pay.
Over the years, as Manuel’s became more of an institution, some people have started to take things off the walls as souvenirs. Maloof particularly laments a signed Elvis Presley photo that left the building. As a result, he’s had to start bolting things in place.
The measures have not entirely stopped the pilfering, especially now that the tavern is going to close for a while.
“I think there’s been some tomb raiding going on,” Dusseault says. “Since we started the project, things have disappeared, but others have appeared. We came in one week and noticed a Donald Trump cartoon we hadn’t seen before. These walls are a living thing.”
Not everything hanging in Manuel’s today is going to be rehung. It can’t, for the simple reason that the remodeled tavern will be smaller and there won’t be as much real estate on the walls.
In its current configuration, the public area of Manuel’s falls into four distinct zones: (1) the central bar, (2) a back bar with two levels of seating, (3) a community meeting room along North Avenue and (4) a main dining room on the other side of the building, with steps leading to a small haunt called the Eagle’s Nest. In the new Manuel’s, the North Avenue room, where President Obama played darts during a visit last spring, will no longer be part of the tavern. Nor will the lower level of the back bar. Green Street Properties will lease both spaces to other businesses.
The rest of the tavern will undergo an extensive renovation, upgrading the kitchen and facilities, and expanding the main dining room to include storage areas and the Eagle’s Nest, which will be lowered to the same level to comply with modern standards for the disabled. In addition, the street between the tavern and the parking lot, Williams Mill Road, will be straightened so that it meets North Highland at a right angle, creating room for a small outdoor seating area.
“Overall, we’re going to lose maybe 25 seats,” Maloof says.
He’s also going to lose an unknown number of objects on the walls. Maloof will make the final decisions about what stays and what goes, with advice from tavern long-timers like Angelo Fuster, a veteran political operative and public relations consultant who first visited Manuel’s as part of an Emory class in 1970.
“There are a lot of neon beer signs in there that don’t have any significance to the history of the bar,” he says. “I’ll be a big advocate for getting rid of some of those.”
The tavern plans to sell some of them, as well as a few tables and chairs that need replacing.
One of the things that will lose its wall space but definitely find a new spot is a bicycle that belonged to Maloof’s older brother, Tommy, who helped run the tavern during the 1980s and ‘90s. He suffered from Crohn’s disease and died young.
“We’ve got his ashes in the main bar,” Maloof says. “Well, part of his ashes.”
Naturally, there’s a story.
It seems that the family scattered Tommy’s cremains in Tallulah Gorge, as he requested, but later discovered that some of him was left in the container. When Manuel died a few years later, the Maloofs decided to place his cremains behind the bar, beneath a portrait of FDR, within sight of the cash register. They already had Tommy’s urn, so they put the patriarch’s ashes in there.
“We didn’t mix them together,” Maloof hastens to add, as if that would have been weird.
Father and son aren’t the only remains at Manuel’s. The ashes of Robert Maloof, who ran the tavern while his older brother pursued his political career, are in a box on the wall. So are the remains of Calvin Fluellen, a popular customer who was the first African-American graduate of the Grady Memorial College of Radiology. His urn is behind a metal cage.
“We were worried that some of his friends were going to have too much to drink,” Maloof explains, “and we didn’t want them taking down his container and going, ‘Let’s say hello to Calvin.’”
There are other memorials: framed uniforms, photographs of the departed, a case containing books and mementoes from the late writer Paul Hemphill, and some 90 memorial plaques like the one that reads:
Thomas Allen Lamar Jr.
An outstanding Emoryite, an able attorney
A great Georgian, and a friend of Manuel
Since summer 1956
When these doors were first opened
“It’s almost like a mausoleum in here,” says Dusseault, who brought in special lighting to shoot the small plaques that many patrons don’t notice because they’re under the lip of bar. Everyone will be able to explore them in detail on the web site.
When the tavern closes for remodeling, the plaques will go into storage with the rest of the stuff, and the urns will go home with Maloof and others. In a few months, it will all return to the new digs and no doubt be joined by more tributes.
“We get requests like that years in advance, and I don’t see any reason not to keep honoring them,” Maloof says. “I don’t think that kind of stuff happens at Chili’s and Applebee’s.”