By Howard Pousner
Many a Stone Mountain Park visitor refers to the expansive green space that rolls out under the famed mountainside carving of the Confederate heroes as the Laser Lawn because it is indeed the setting for the largest draw at Georgia’s biggest attraction, the Lasershow Spectacular.
But the area’s real name is the Memorial Lawn, and after a $4.1 million restoration project, the commemorative aspect will be much easier to appreciate when the laser show starts its nightly summerlong run beginning Saturday. For that matter, the laser show will be easier to enjoy as well.
In essence, the lawn has been returned to as pristine a state as possible, close to the design called for in the master plan when the park was created 52 years ago.
Laser show sound and light towers have been razed, with updated production equipment tucked into the bordering woods on each side. Ditto concession stands, replaced by a restaurant with a take-away food porch in the expanded access area linking the Crossroads attraction with the Memorial Lawn. There are three other areas where food carts can be set up during events, then rolled from sight. Walkways have been widened, with cracked concrete aggregate replaced by pavers.
The 13 granite-sided terraces commemorating the Confederate states that bracket both sides of the lawn have been restored, and trees and other vegetation that obscured the view of “the Rock” removed.
“Incremental creep — that’s really what happened with the lawn,” said Stone Mountain Memorial Association CEO Curtis Branscome, referring to both the man-made and more natural obstructions that pushed in over the years.
“The person in charge of construction here was telling me that one day [long ago], he was told to go out and build a concession stand on the lawn, and in a week’s time he put a concession stand on the lawn,” Branscome added, giving an example of how the lawn got the creeps. “And that worked, so then they put one on the other side.”
That didn’t count the six production towers added in the 1990s, complete with blatantly faux granite siding, to bring surround sound to the laser show, or the police station plopped on the lawn to handle the 1 million drawn to the spectacular each year.
All that was removed, as was creep of another sort: 150 volunteer trees, some as tall as 30 feet, that edged onto the lawn from both sides.
“About a year ago some [staff and board members] came out here, looked around and said, ‘You know, this is ugly. This is not what we want,’ ”Branscome said one recent sunny morning from the plaza behind Memorial Hall as bulldozers and earth movers crawled on the lawn below.
The Memorial Association hired the Atlanta firm Robert and Co., which had written the park’s original master plan, to bring back the lawn. Funding for this and other recent improvements to the center of the 3,200-acre park has come from park revenues.
The lawn project wasn’t just about removal; it was also about updating. The nearly 200 new lights are all LED fixtures, consuming less energy and creating less light pollution. For the first time, the lights are tied into generators that will automatically crank up during power loss.
The sound should be sharper as well. “More audio-inclined guests will recognize — and the general public probably will as well — the improved sound,” said Paul Creasy of the project management firm Full Spectrum.
Of course the heart of the matter is the 800-foot-long lawn (which is 200 to 380 feet wide in different places) itself. Some 35,000 square feet of Bermuda turf was sodded.
After more than 15 years at an attraction that draws 4 million yearly, Branscome is enough of a realist to know that it will be hard to keep the lawn in prime condition with 1 million visitors trodding across it, picnicking on blankets and watching the laser show.
“We’re probably going to be a notch below pristine,” he acknowledged. “I don’t know what that notch below pristine is called, but by the end of the summer we know we’ll have to work on it again. It’s a continuing project but we’re committed to it.
“This right here is the heart of the park,” he added, “and it should be pretty.”
Memorial Lawn restoration by the numbers
78,000 square feet of pavers added for walkways and terraces
115,000 cubic feet of dirt moved for walkways and terraces
4 miles of electrical wire added
225,000 square feet of lawn surface
163 LED light bollards installed along walkways and terraces
Nightly through Aug. 8 starting Saturday. After Aug. 8, Saturdays only through Oct. 31, plus Labor Day weekend (Sept. 4-6).
>The 45-minute show features neon lasers that create characters, stories and graphics projected on more than 1 million square feet of the mountainside. Lasers and fireworks are set to a musical score including tunes by artists from Otis Redding and Elvis Presley to R.E.M. and OutKast. The fireworks finale Saturday through Monday of Memorial Day weekend will pay tribute to each branch of the military.
>Free (with $10 parking admission per vehicle). Complimentary Adventure Passes for active military and veterans, with discounts for their families, Saturday-Monday with valid military ID. New this year: two Terrace Rental Packages. Snack Pack includes reserved chair on terrace, unlimited popcorn and beverages ($10). Dinner Pack includes reserved chair/table, casual dinner and a beverage ($15). 770-498-5690, stonemountainpark.com.