Cover Story: Pine Lake

1930s Summer Cottages Morph Into Haven For Creativity

Mimi Woods is calling it quits. Since moving to Pine Lake (pop. 850), she's been as much a fixture at the town's first Saturday pancake breakfast as batter, griddles and a tranquil lake view. But no one expected tears last month when the septuagenarian hung up her spatula. Sentimentality was never her thing.

When Woods moved to Pine Lake nearly a decade ago, a quiet retirement was a long time coming. In the 1950s, she studied journalism and, after graduating, worked for a travel magazine. As her family expanded, a journalist's salary proved too meager. She became a legal assistant. Shortly after the birth of her fourth child, her husband unexpectedly died from a blood condition. She remarried, had two more kids, discovered ceramics, bought her own kiln, and got divorced.

At age 63, when Woods decided to retire, she sought a quiet place where she could hone the creative skills she put on hold for so long. Pine Lake, 13 miles east of Atlanta but a world away from the city's hustle, seemed perfect.

Obscured by woodsy terrain and painted in countless vibrant hues, Pine Lake's bungalows sit on misshapen lots extending from the village's only entrance, on Rockbridge Road. Many cottages are accessorized with ornaments and funky found objects. Within walking distance of the homes is the community's prized centerpiece, a 12-acre lake. Grassy paths surround its waters, creating an almost palpable serenity.

In the 1930s, the town was built as a summer retreat for wealthy Atlantans, complete with a pint-sized beach for sunbathing, swimming and fishing. Those activities are still popular, though the type of resident has changed.

Artists in search of isolation and families craving the simple life have discovered a tiny town aesthetically frozen in the past and untouched by metro Atlanta's strip-mall sprawl.

Richard Cecil is one such artist. Cecil has the whiskery beard of an old-fashioned train conductor. In Pine Lake's six-page artists' directory, he's listed as a painter and sculptor with a neoclassical touch. "My style is that of the Renaissance masters," he says. "It's just a shame I don't happen to be living in the same era." The artist also remodels homes, resuscitating plots of junk into one-of-a-kind cottages. His vision is to create a 15-home, Hobbit-esque village in a yet-to-be determined parcel of woods. The archetype for one of those Hobbit homes is currently under construction in Pine Lake. Beyond its columned doorway, a color theme runs from turquoise to maroon to taupe, with discarded barn shudders gracing the front and a performing stage set up in the back.

Cecil's own home skirts the line between artist's sanctuary and manic collector's storage shed. The house overflows with paintings, sculptures, antiques and other collectibles - on the walls, on the floor or dangling mid-air.

Between Cecil's kitchen and living room is a cupboard stacked with handmade ceramics. In a stack of bowls on the top shelf, the corner of a Polaroid peaks out. Its dull color - and the voluptuous pin-up girl in the frame - firmly date the snapshot as a mid-century relic. Lying on the couch in lingerie, a woman with wavy brown hair flowing past the navy straps of her top gazes at her bare thighs. She looks timid, uncomfortable with the attention from the camera. The woman in the photo is Mimi Woods. She's Cecil's mother.

Before jumping to Oedipal conclusions about Richard, keep in mind that he's an artist, and the subject in the photograph is a pristine female form, captured in a past era.

Woods moved to Pine Lake nine years ago, in part to be closer to her son - and in part to keep to herself. But keeping to oneself can be increasingly impossible in Pine Lake. In a modern-day Mayberry, everybody knows everybody.

Instead, Woods earned a reputation as a town granny, and in many ways the label fit. At her last pancake breakfast, wearing a red sweater with her small features framed by gray curls, Woods epitomized the image of television-cast grandmother. Her baking prowess only pads the stereotype. Woods' cooking is legendary in Pine Lake, and it's a rarity to find her oven at a temperature below 350 degrees. "You have a new baby in this town," she says, "and you get a cheesecake."

Outside of being renowned for her cheesecakes, Woods assumed other town responsibilities, including sitting on the City Council. Seldom was she without a firm opinion on a town matter. "She'll give you the shirt off your back," Pine Lake resident Lisa Hudson says of Woods, "then she'll tell you how to wear it."

But now she's ready to move on. Woods is leaving Pine Lake for Cocoa Beach, Fla., following a lifelong dream. She will be the head chef at a café four men are opening in her name: Grand Mimi Coco Café.

On most metro Atlanta streets, a moving truck is a community's first sign that a neighbor is leaving. Not so in Pine Lake, where everyone knew of Woods' pending departure months ahead of time.

"She irreplaceable," says resident and musician Didi Voigt. "She was completely selfless in giving to this town."

?Fact Box
?Averaging $149,131 in 2004, up from $124,080 in 2002; a 20 percent increase.
?Average rental: $675 for a two-bedroom duplex within walking distance of the lake.

?Rockbridge Elementary
?Stone Mountain Middle
?Stone Mountain High

?White: 22 percent
?African-American: 73 percent
?Asian: 4 percent

?The BeachHouse: A cabin on the lake that hosts monthly performances ranging from string bands to art fairs. Located at the end of Pine Lake Drive.
?Pine Lake: The 12-acre lake and beach offer swimming, fishing and sunbathing.
?Stone Mountain Park: Only minutes from Pine Lake, Stone Mountain Park includes hiking trails, canoe rentals, a water park and golf course.

?The Roti Place: Serving West Indian food, with a full bar attached. 4634 Rockbridge Road.
?Geegaws Eatery: Also a gallery and music venue, this deli-style café offers such wholesome ingredients as tomatillo pesto, curry mayonnaise and wheatberry bread. 4600 Rockbridge Road.
?Magnolia Restaurant: One of the best “Old South” buffets around, including catfish, fried green tomatoes and lemon chess pie. 5459 E. Mountain St.

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