October 26, 2011

A glimpse inside Briarcliff's 'Abandoned Mansion'

A series of photographs of "The Abandoned Mansion," now on display at the ECIT Gallery, capture the stark beauty and desolation of the once-grand, now crumbling Candler Mansion. (Photographs by Brian McGrath Davis)

Haunted? Maybe. Haunting? It is from behind the lens of Brian McGrath Davis, whose photographs of "The Abandoned Mansion" in the ECIT Gallery capture the stark beauty and desolation of the once-grand, now crumbling Candler Mansion.

A documentary photographer and PhD candidate in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, Davis's exhibit is on view through Jan. 6, 2012 on the second floor of the Woodruff Library.

The Candler Mansion on Emory's Briarcliff Campus was once the aristocratic estate of Coca-Cola heir Asa Candler, Jr.  Built in 1920, the home includes a grand ballroom, solarium and gardens, where the eccentric Candler's exotic pets once roamed. Boarded up since the 1990s, the mansion now sits empty, occasionally serving as the backdrop for supernatural film projects.

Davis's mostly black and white, large format photographs reveal peeling paint, tattered curtains, the broken bannister of a grand staircase, an empty hospital bed sitting forgotten in the basement.

"I'm interested in texture, in light and shapes, and quiet space," says Davis. "In each of the images, there is a semblance that somebody was once here, that something was happening here that's not happening any more."

Davis's research interests include memory and place studies. For his dissertation, he is charting the history of the entire Briarcliff Campus and photographing how it stands today.

"Photography is one of those things that invites you to pay attention, to 'look here,'" says Davis.

Now a national historic site, the 42-acre Briarcliff campus has served a variety of functions over the years. Before Emory purchased the property in 1998, it was home to the Georgia Mental Health Institute, connected by a web of underground tunnels.

Davis has been poring through documents in the archives to reconstruct the history of the land, "even way back before the Candlers showed up.  We know this was most likely Creek land that eventually was settled in the late 19th century as Druid Hills was developed," he says.

"Briarcliff is part of Emory's story," he says. Even with a portion of the physical property in disarray, "those buildings still have stories to tell."

Davis, who spent countless hours alone inside the mansion, even at night, says he never felt spooked.

But, he says, "I've known people who have worked on the Briarcliff Campus who are convinced that it's haunted." He adds: "Places carry memories, places carry feeling that changes drastically when you turn a hospital into a business office. In a way, that place is a container of memory … what you see on the surface isn't necessarily what is there."

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