Atlanta Studies archives Manuel's relics before renovations

Your favorite old photos and street signs are coming down from Manuel's walls"

When Manuel's Tavern owner Brian Maloof took down a foggy blue oil painting from the wall of Manuel's Tavern, none of his employees knew its backstory. A few days later, Maloof answered his phone to a call from a concerned elderly woman.

"Turns out that was an oil painting recreation of the first daylight bombing of Berlin in World War II," he says. "Her husband is listed beside the picture as one of the casualties."

Maloof had the painting hung back on the wall later that afternoon. The episode was a reminder that the mementos, souvenirs, and memorabilia filling nearly every inch of the legendary Poncey-Highland watering hole have a story and often a personal connection.

In January, the nearly 60-year-old pub will shut its doors for three months for renovations. During the process, some decades-old decorations will be temporarily taken down. Maloof has allowed a team of academics to document the tavern with high-tech methods to maintain the history that lines the pub's walls.

"It's going to change a little bit," Maloof says. "It's causing some fear for customers; as if somebody's going into their home and rearranging the furniture."

The property Manuel's sits on and the adjacent parking lot will soon be bought by Green Street Properties. The tavern will maintain 90 parking spaces in the mixed-use residential complex that's slated to replace the parking lot.

When the tavern's soon-to-be landlord (the bar will remain family owned) decided to renovate, Maloof scrambled for ideas to preserve his father's legacy and the history that covers Manuel's walls. Then Ruth Dusseault walked into the tavern over the summer.

"It was a godsend when Ruth approached us," Maloof says of the Georgia State University lecturer and head of Unpacking Manuel's, an organization aimed at preserving Manuel's photos and documents in an informative, digital medium.

Dusseault assembled a coalition of volunteers from Atlanta Studies, a group of local professors and scholars that holds quarterly presentations of local wonky topics. Maloof calls the effort to immortalize Manuel's items "Google Maps meets Ancestry.com meets Wikipedia." The result will be a clickable archive of each memento and relic's history.

The recording process is tedious. While the restaurant is closed, Dusseault and the volunteer team assemble tracks parallel to the wall they plan to archive and set up studio lights. The team then slowly rolls a high-definition camera along the tracks, snapping shots of the tavern walls. The images will be patched together to create a comprehensive map of each wall.

Photographing a single wall face can take up to four hours of shooting, says Atlanta Studies Editor Sarah Melton, one of the volunteers. "Some of the pictures on the walls need to be cleaned off because there's 30 years of dust on them," she says.

That dust won't be archived but it is indicative of the times and trials that Maloof and Dusseault are determined to memorialize.

"The walls of Manuel's Tavern have slowly evolved into a record of established political breadth where generations of cops, soldiers, and politicians have gathered to eat pork chops in a neighborhood occupied by immigrants, hippies, and punks," Dusseault says.

Although the historic Maloof family portraits and street signs of old will be returned to the same spots, Dusseault also plans to use this replication to research the origins of the bar's memorabilia. She and other Atlanta professors will soon be assigning college students to dig into the roots of Manuel's and its decorations. The photography should be finished before the renovations, Dusseault says, but the research is expected to go on for years. Dusseault says Unpacking Manuel's strives to maintain historical and cultural constancy of the tavern while taking the community's concerns into account. She understands why some people initially felt concerned about the renovations. To alter Manuel's is to "mess with our identity," she says.

Maloof says Manuel's will be recognizable after renovations — the main bar won't even be lifted from the floor. The owner says he's "fighting like hell" to keep his late father's booth near the entrance, where the bar's namesake used to oversee all the tavern's happenings. But he understands structural oddities could alter his plans.

Around April, he says, patrons will walk back in and see all the subtle nuances they've come to know. "We're keeping all the same tables, all the same crappy chairs, all the same artwork," Maloof says. "It's gonna be Manuel's."

And men and women who have drifted in and out of the bar over the decades and who may not know the history behind the weird Zell Miller portrait — or who just miss how it looked with some dust — will be able peruse the digital time capsule Dusseault and her team are creating.

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