Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta’s Poncey-Highland neighborhood will be closing soon for a major renovation.
That sparked an effort to archive the landmark bar’s aging interior, including the hundreds of images, plaques and various objects that clutter the walls.
The Neighborhood’s Living Room
“Not much in this room has changed at all since 1956,” said Brian Maloof, the youngest son of Manuel Maloof, who started the bar nearly 60 years ago and who became known for his Democratic politics.
In the narrow room where the tavern began, he points to a painting of a nude just above one of the wooden booths.
“So this picture here, the artist who painted that picture that’s his wife. He would pay off his bar tabs by leaving us paintings,” said Maloof.
He turns to the original bar, which has been in his family since his grandfather owned a bar downtown. Scattered along its side are a dozen or so golden plaques, just above the stools.
“So what those plaques are, that’s where you typically sat as a regular and the year you started coming in and then the unfortunate year of your passing,”he said.
Then Maloof gestures toward another way people remain at Manuel’s after death. Above a doorway, just behind the bar, one of the four urns in the tavern is suspended, belonging to a regular named Calvin Fleullen.
“You see the little metal cage with a 'C' on it, so those are his ashes in there,”Maloof said. “Never heard the man say an unkind word about anybody; he was wonderful.”
Maloof took over Manuel’s after his father died in 2004. Now he’s leading it through a challenging time: Its first big facelift that will require it to be closed for several months and will require all the photos, posters and mementos, which staff and customers have put on the walls over the decades, to come down.
“So this renovation is a little scary,” he said, because “we are essentially all the people that love this place, know this place, I’m messing with their living room, I’m rearranging their furniture in their home. I mean, they think of this place as their home.”
Maloof has taken calls from all around the world, he said, from people who are concerned that their contribution to the walls of Manuel’s Tavern will be lost, or even just moved during the construction.
“’I’ve got a wedding photograph that’s hanging up,’” Maloof said remembering a voicemail from a concerned patron, “'I met my wife there, we got married, and we had our wedding reception there, and I come there twice a week and our picture has been there for 20 years, you’re not moving my picture are you?’”
So when a lecturer at Georgia State University approached Maloof about preserving it all digitally, he was relieved.
A Digital Archive
Ruth Dusseault stands in the North Avenue Room at Manuel’s Tavern with Michael Page, a lecturer with Emory University. They’re using a special camera to take high resolution images of the bar’s interior, particularly its walls.
“The idea really started,” Dusseault said, “because I’m also a resident of the neighborhood, and I’ve been here for about 18 years and every time I’ve come here, I’ve walked around and looked at all the images.”
Dusseault’s idea became “Unpacking Manuel's” involving professors, researchers and artists, from Georgia State, Emory and the Savannah College of Art and Design, who are all part of a group called “Atlanta Studies.” They’re digitally archiving the hundreds of images at Manuel’s exactly as they appear now. And with the help of students, they’re also discovering the stories behind them.
“I’ve been approached by a few history professors, who are actually conceiving the idea of taking a wall and using that for either a whole semester’s work or one big class assignment,” said Dusseault. “And it’s kind of inspired by Wikipedia.”
The final product will be something everyone can access, an interactive website that will allow users to explore Manuel’s virtually.
“And as they see pictures on the walls, they can click on it,” Page said, “and then they get a high resolution photograph of the image to view in their browser but they can also click and get user stories or the story about you know the John F. Kennedy photo or Jimmy Carter, just some of the rich history that’s on the walls of Manuel’s.”
As Page mentioned, many of the objects that fill Manuel’s walls, like the Kennedy portrait enshrined by sports flags ─ speak to its history as a Democratic hangout.
But in the archive, you’ll also be able to see the tavern’s many other connections to the city, as a cop bar, a hub for students and professors, and a meeting place for journalists.
“You’ll come here you’ll see people playing chess, fishing groups, grandmothers for peace ─ they were on the book for next week,” said Dusseault. “It’s truly a public house.”
Sitting at the bar, eating lunch, is another member of the Maloof family, Maloof's oldest brother, Michael Maloof, who is now an attorney. He points to a large black and white photo on the wall.
“That’s my mother and father. That’s when I was about two or three weeks old," Michael Maloof said.
With the digital archive, Brian Maloof and the Manuel’s staff can make sure pictures like that, the old, personal ones, go back in their original place. And Michael Maloof says it’s what his father, Manuel Maloof, would have wanted.
“Oh he’d insist on it. In fact, I remember when Martin Luther King got killed, and we were worried that there were going to be race riots in Atlanta," Michael Maloof said. "In some of the cities their building got burned during that tumultuous time. He said, 'If anything happens, I want all those pictures preserved.' Everything else was insurable and you could keep, but the pictures, that was something different.”
The coming renovation has reminded people in Atlanta of that ─ in a city with so much new development ─ Manuel’s Tavern is something different.