ATLANTA – Fifty years ago, a group of 106 influential cultural and civic leaders from Atlanta traveled to Europe to visit famous museums and demonstrate the ascendant southern city's commitment to culture.
The Atlanta area's population in 1962 had recently hit a million people, but political and business leaders worried the growth wouldn't continue if the city didn't improve its museums and venues for theater and music. The city's cultural development would be altered forever by the trip, but in ways that had to do more with its tragic end.
The group was on its way home June 3 when its chartered Air France plane crashed on takeoff at Orly Field in Paris, killing all but two flight attendants. It was the worst single plane crash at the time.
"The community was just in shock," said Joe Bankoff, outgoing president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. "I mean, to lose over 100 people in a moment was just unbelievable. But to lose such a cross section of Atlanta was particularly important."
On the flight were artists, company leaders, the first woman elected to the city's school board and other leaders. Among the sights on their packed agenda were the Louvre in Paris, the Coliseum in Rome and London Bridge.
Out of the city's grief grew a sense that something needed to be done to memorialize them, to improve on its tiny art museum in an old house and struggling art school.
"These people were heads of companies in Atlanta. They were the wives who did a lot of the volunteer work at the art association," said Susan Lowance, who had traveled with the group but had decided to stay in Europe longer to visit friends.
She believes the development of the arts center is a fitting tribute to her travel companions.
"These were people who had a stake in what was going to happen, and what happened was wonderful," Lowance said.
Atlanta is now home to a world-class art museum that has collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Louvre, a Grammy-winning symphony orchestra and other top-notch cultural institutions.
Several business leaders led the efforts to create a permanent home for the arts. They wanted to honor the dead, but also shared the belief that to attract big business they needed to have big arts.
"It was about doing something that would put Atlanta on the map, and that vision was driven really by people who were not themselves passionate about the arts," said Bankoff, who retired as head of the arts center Thursday.
The idea was to create a single entity that would house all major art forms. It led to the establishment of Atlanta Arts Alliance and the Memorial Arts Center — now named the Woodruff Arts Center, after former Coca-Cola president and major donor Robert Woodruff.
The groundbreaking for the Memorial Arts Center was held on June 3, 1966, the fourth anniversary of the crash. It took about two years to complete with a final price tag of more than $13 million, according to "Explosion At Orly," a book by historian Ann Abrams.
When the center opened in October 1968, the French ambassador to the United States presented to the city a casting of sculptor Auguste Rodin's "The Shade." Today it sits on the grounds of the High Museum of Art in a memorial ringed by polished stone etched with the names of those who died in the Orly crash.
The center has grown over the years to include the Richard Meier-designed High, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Alliance Theatre, the 14th Street Playhouse and the Atlanta College of Art.
Speculating on what the Atlanta arts footprint would look like today if the crash had never happened, both Abrams and Bankoff said they believe the city was destined to grow into a major arts center.
"Frankly, it would have happened anyway, but it might have taken a little longer, and it might have taken a few different turns," Abrams said.
The different artistic entities would likely have been scattered instead of winding up on a single campus in Midtown Atlanta, Bankoff said. The visual and performing arts were grouped under combined management, which may have accelerated their development and strength.
While Atlanta's profile in arts bloomed, the families of the crash victims put their lives back together.
Penny Hart was a 19-year-old college sophomore studying at the Sorbonne in Paris when her mother, Henrietta Collier Armstrong Ayer, came over on the trip. They ate dinner together the night before the crash.
"It was just a wonderful, happy occasion all the way around," Hart said.
Hart's stepfather booked her a flight to Atlanta the day after the crash. She stayed for several weeks and returned to Paris to finish her studies after her mother's funeral. After graduation, she abandoned her plans to go to graduate school for clinical psychology and decided she wanted to keep traveling. She became a flight attendant for Pan American World Airlines for several years.
"There was no one to stop me, and my mother would have stopped me. It just wouldn't have fit in with her image of things," Hart said. "I had a great deal of freedom, I guess. But it's also very strange to have no support if you need it."
She eventually returned to Atlanta. Her involvement in the memorial project was limited until decades later when she helped the center locate surviving relatives of the victims.
"Most of them were so thrilled to have been found because they hadn't had anybody to talk to about this very much and certainly not for a long time," she said. "In those days, you didn't wallow in your troubles publicly ever. You got right back up and dusted yourself off and got moving again."
Also killed were Tom Little Sr., an architect who restored 18th-century buildings, and his wife, Charlotte, who decorated the interiors with period furnishings. Their son, Tom, was 12 and was being cared for by an aunt while his parents were in Europe. He remembers watching cartoons in his parents' bedroom when the phone rang. He answered at the same time that his aunt picked up the extension in the kitchen and listened as another aunt sobbed that the plane had crashed.
Little remembers sharing stories with other family members of victims at the 40th anniversary of the crash. In his home, a photo of his parents taken at the airport just before they left for Europe sits on a shelf, and framed pencil drawings by his father hang on the walls. He said even he and his older sister had rarely spoken about the crash.
The Woodruff Arts Center and other organizations have planned events to mark the date, and Bankoff said the 50th anniversary provides "a moment to stop and reflect not just on the loss, but on 50 years of continuous support for arts and culture in the community as an important sign of what this community values."
"I'm glad that we have these anniversaries," Little said, "because I like to think that my parents' legacy will last forever."
Follow Brumback at: http://twitter.com/katebrumback