Poor Sense

Nature is curious, and such works may shape,
Which our dull senses easily escape
       —Margaret Cavendish, from “Of Many Worlds in this World”

There is more to 675 Ponce de Leon Avenue than meets the eye. Since 1992, City Hall East has occupied the lot, making use of the former Sears building, built in 1926. In the coming years, the site will transition into a mixed-use development named Ponce Park (there will be a park, possibly a lake). An errand first brought me to the building in 2001. After a minor car accident, I needed the police report. I did not expect to leave intrigued. This place was palpably strange: “a bit touched” comes to mind. I returned the next day to do more looking around. Admittedly, the building’s sheer size (two million square feet) may contribute to its having its own orbit. At the time, I had no inkling of the springs.

Below the asphalt, supposedly curative springs still run alive and well. They have long been redirected into the city’s sewer system. This past February, I toured the building with a local photography group. Emory Morsberger, leading partner behind the Ponce Park redevelopment, explained that nine car-sized sump pumps pull the water away from the building’s base. Morsberger has very high hopes for the cultural, scientific, artistic and humanitarian elements of Ponce Park. He wants to shift the space into not only condos and retail, but a meeting place where creative and progressive thinkers can bounce ideas off of one another, generating a sort of alchemy.

It may well be that the plot at 675 Ponce is a force to be reckoned with. Let’s consider that the springs lend the land a particular power and a capacity for uncommon energy. “Which is what water is—its relation to other things ... the idea of a finite thing having an infinite range of appearance or expression because of its inseparable relation to other things,” as Roni Horn explained her photography project Some Thames. In a PBS interview, Horn elaborates, “Water is a very dependent form. Is completely dependent. Its shape is determined by things not water—whether it’s a river or a glass. So you have this essential material that is entirely dependent on its neighborhood and its neighbors. It’s also an extremely tolerant form, meaning that it’s a solvent for many things.”

Atlanta is a domain of bulldozers and wrecking balls. It tends to be more instantaneous than historical, more impulsive than continuous. This creates a tension and friction. The spring, somewhat timeless, is holding its spiritual and historical ground below Atlanta while above it is an amnesiac city that continually moves outward, swallowing what 20 years ago was rural land and digesting and calcifying it into the outreaches of a 28 county metro area. In contrast, there is no telling how many years that space below the building’s eastern wing has been a reservoir. Since 1992, impounded vehicles and vaults of guns, drugs and other materials confiscated by the Atlanta Police Department have hovered above (perhaps a stone’s throw from, at most no more than a block from) an ancient pool onetime believed to be medicinal.

Too, the building has a history of large gatherings of people. On Sears’ opening day in August 1926, despite rain, 30,000 visitors came and went. Maybe it’s about the combination: not just the springs, but the conglomeration of people above it, and that history of population. The state of mind the people are in would seem to likewise contribute to the presence or lack of some kind of communal spirit.

There can be something spiritual and freeing in the act of browsing, as many people would have done at 675 Ponce in the Sears department store. For me, browsing at a yard sale or library lets a more associative thinking elbow routine thoughts out of the way. Libraries are especially conducive, because they hold more information than could be contained by one person. Similarly, in stores we infiltrate the commercial experience with daydreaming or putting ourselves in something of a trance. Does this process include a necessary distraction? Browsing gives the mind some busywork, and the more urgent thought formation or image comes. It feels like a right and timely stream, synchronous to something. You give your body a task, and a stream of thoughts spills out.

In January Mandie Turner Mitchell posted to the ARTNEWS Listserv an excerpt from Franklin Garrett’s 1954 book Atlanta and the Environs. To orient us to the springs as they were in the late 1800s:

A pioneer settler named Richard C. Todd owned property (Lot 17 of the 14th district) that contained a spring called Yancey spring. Railroad construction dictated that the spring be capped. The springs at 675 Ponce were discovered after Yancey spring was closed up. The railroad camp needed another source of water.

“A party from the camp began to explore the low lying woods and, on the present site of the Sears-Roebuck store, found their goal. At the base of a rather steep and rounded hillside two springs were found, very close together, but of entirely different waters. They were shaded by ancient beech trees, giving to the place a cool and restful atmosphere. The capacity of the two springs was not large; but the water was found to be very cold and of excellent quality. . . . Not long afterward came the surprising discovery of the medicinal and curative value of the water. . . .They gush clear and cool out of a large rock, and what is very curious is that only a slight rocky division of about six inches divides two separate and distinct springs. The one clear water, the other mineral—icy cold... Both springs flow from one rock.”

Also quoted is an S.P. Richards who had hoped to visit the spring on August 1, 1872: “To crown our misery tho’ they were fixing the Spring with masonry and we got no water.”

Incidentally, the chapter mentions that the spring water was particularly helpful for the kidneys. Today as I drove by, I noticed that the first business that one sees after passing City Hall, heading east, is a dialysis clinic at the corner of the Ford Factory building, at 699 Ponce.

May Swenson’s poem “Cardinal Ideograms” represents each cardinal number visually. Here is a sampling that uses the digits of the address of the springs for sequencing:

6 O unrolling / tape of ambiguous length / on which is written the mystery / of everything curly.
7 A step, / detached from its stair.
5 A policeman. Polite. / Wearing visored cap.
Based on this ideogram, I think of each number as an era of 675. 6) the springs; 7) the closing of the Sears building and the building’s idiosyncratic decay; and 5) the City Hall East years. To keep in line with the actual number 675 and not just its digits, the first image of Swenson’s would be multiplied in force by 100 and the second multiplied by ten. One thing I feel about 675 Ponce is that it needs to resist the static, the statuesque. This structure built in the vicinity of a spring needs constant cycling, as with the water cycle and the seasons. The building seems to have an excessive tendency to “run down.” Its dilapidation is striking. It is, to borrow from a 2004 Agnes Scott Dalton Gallery exhibition, a Tender Landscape.

A little over a half mile west of City Hall East, at the Big House on Ponce, Randall Carlson has recently given lectures on The Great Year. Also referred to as a Platonic or Equinoctial year, it comes to about 25,920 of our calendar years and is the time it takes our Earth’s axis to return to the same point in space: a precession of the equinoxes. Within the great year are 12 months of 2,160 years. Carlson discusses the ancient knowledge that during four of these great months, drastic and sudden change is more likely. The transitions into and the cusps between these four great months are especially sensitive times.

Carlson’s 40 years of interdisciplinary studies have focused on fields including geometry, geology, astronomy and mythology. His work is in the tradition of the “Great Work” which explores the potential of restoring a primeval harmony. One topic his lectures have touched on is how ancient people possessed knowledge of the movements of the sun and the many cycles and directions that filter down from our planet’s relationship to it. He laments that humans have lost that knowledge, a day-to-day cosmic consciousness that informed their lives. Similarly, in the most recent Jubilat, poet Peter Gizzi says: “For tens of thousands of years, we moved through space not with maps but by knowing where the sun was, and that star, and that point of that mountain. Which meant that you knew where the most intimate people in your world were—your lover, your ancestors, your children—by the farthest point in space."

The entire landscape has seen human patterns change and our rhythms ramp up. But unlike land and like us, water is mobile. What if bodies of water store the watermarks of societal change? What if Ponce de Leon Springs is a sensitive node in space, just as the transition eras between certain of the great months are vulnerable intersections? Well, there’s a monumental difference in both scale and stability. The special times are very large and pass on, as time is wont to do. The special spaces are by comparison small. This is a result of time springing from a cosmic scale, while our habitable space is, of course, on an earthly scale. In terms of stability: while the landscape may change, its coordinates remain constant. As I see it, both miniatures and greatnesses are relevant here in drawing the ratio and connecting the cosmic clock to livable space. We need to constantly shift between what is within our vision and what is beyond it (whether in the hugeness of planets or the tiny-ness of atoms). People have rounded time up and down to make it apparently amenable. We tailor both time and space to suit us. This leaves us short sighted. Looking past minute-driven schedules and our routine (rutted) paths is important.

Consider how the words in the etymology of certain water- and time-related words overlap and form a circuit. The etymology of “time” directed me to find more at TIDE. Similarly, “tide” nods its head to “time”:

tide, [akin to time, Gk daiesthai to divide]
Sense 1: Obs. A space of time: PERIOD.
Sense 2: the alternate rising and falling of the surface of the ocean and of water bodies (as of gulfs and bays) ...
Second form of second sense: a less marked rising and falling of an inland body of water. Sense 4: a flowing stream: CURRENT
Current has both a water-bound meaning and a time-bound meaning. It is within the water-based definition that 2: “flux of forces”: TREND and 3: a movement of electricity analogous to the flow of a stream of water are cataloged.

The energy and electricity at Ponce de Leon Springs/Sears Building/City Hall East/Ponce Park is real, whether or not we know what to make of it.


Garrett, Franklin. Atlanta and the Environs: A Chronicle of Its People and Events. volume 1; pp.881-3. New York, Lewis Historical Publishing Company; 1954.

PBS Art:21 Interview with Roni Horn

Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, 1969, Springfield, Massachussetts: “tide” and “time” etymologies.

To read more about Emory Morsberger’s plans for the site, see John F. Sugg’s: “Resurgens Renaissance” and poncepark.com (which contains a history page with photographs).