Monday, April 6, 2015

Rio Mall and the Globe of Frogs

It was a cloudy spring morning and I had just driven 25 miles into town to pick up a bag of Dunkin Donuts original blend ground coffee at the corner of Piedmont and North Avenue. OK, so that's only half true. More accurately, I'd come to contemplate lost eras of golden amphibians and buttermilk (this area was once known as Buttermilk Bottoms). It was a pilgrimage, a bittersweet trip down memory lane through aisles of AA batteries, Pampers, Colgate, and Diet Rite. Here, between shelves of paper towels and drain cleaner, I'd come to reminisce and pay my respects to that bastion of futuristic tropical kitsch, Rio Shopping Center, and its endemic fauna: a static battalion of 300 gilded frogs. With my petty purchases I would try to reconcile the futility of their premature extinction with the basic 21st century convenience of being able to pick up Pop-Rocks, motor oil and prescription drugs in the same place at the same time.

Top photo: Rio Shopping Center on September 12, 1993. Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographic archives.
Bottom photo: April 2, 2015. Rio was demolished in 2000 and replaced by Walgreen's, Publix, and the Savannah Midtown Apartments, seen in the background at top right.

To set the stage and put this rambling story in a personal context we must first travel back to a tired, odd smelling three-bedroom apartment on Buford Highway in early 1988. It was my first apartment. My closest high school friends were also living nearby, attending Georgia Tech and Emory University. As was typical of boys our age, our ears were saturated with the "college music" of the day: REM, Let's Active, The Cure, XTC, and Robyn Hitchcock, whose album Globe Of Frogs was in heavy rotation both on Album88 and my bedroom turntable. The surrealistic songs evoke images of mysterious frogs gathering in formation, alternately mating and migrating, inhabiting a dimly-lit realm of luminous ponds and puzzling spheres.

"And in a globe of frogs, the moth unfurls its moistened wings"
Since the late 1970s, the area along Piedmont Avenue between North Avenue and the Civic Center had been a pastoral green oasis in an otherwise seedy part of town. One could stand on Piedmont and look east across a hilly, nearly half mile expanse of green grass dotted with old oak trees, swaths of kudzu, and mysterious patches of concrete. I often asked what used to be there and why it had been cleared out. "I think they were going to put an expressway through there" was a common reply. (We'll find the real answer in an upcoming post.)

Ackerman & Co. manager Rand Wentworth on the construction site of the Rio Shopping Center, December 17, 1987. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archives. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.
Driving down North Avenue one evening in late 1988 I was shocked to see that the pastoral view had been destroyed and replaced with bulldozed red clay and what looked like a giant blue corrugated metal shed. "Probably another self-storage warehouse. Oh well, that sucks", I remember thinking to myself. 

A few days later I received a call from my friend Christo: 
"Have you seen the globe of frogs?" 
I figured he meant a music video for the Robyn Hitchcock song. 
Me: "No, I don't have cable."
C: "No, it's a real globe of frogs. Piedmont at North Avenue." 
Me: "That blue warehouse?" 
C: "It's a shopping mall. You need to go look around. And take your camera."

This was really intriguing. First of all, I hate shopping malls. For Chris to suggest that I willingly visit one meant that whatever lurked beyond that corrugated blue facade must be pretty amazing. The next day I came home from school, grabbed the camera and headed down to see what all the fuss was about. I was told to enter from the Piedmont side. Walking around the building from the parking lot up to the sidewalk as instructed, I was stunned by what I found.

My first impression of Rio, November 1988.

Rio's surreal landscape was designed by Martha Schwartz, whose website includes additional photos and this amusing and absolutely perfect description:

A squadron of gilded frogs worships a geodesic globe in the courtyard of a specialty shopping center in midtown Atlanta. With architecture designed by Miami–based Arquitectonica International, Inc., Rio Shopping Center boldly asserts itself among the chaos of a cluttered interdiv in an area ripe for revitalization. The globe serves as a beacon for the retail center whose first level of shops opens onto a courtyard ten feet below the street.

Overlapping squares of lawn, paving, stones, and architecture form the basis of the design. The squares are layered with other geometric pieces — lines, circles, spheres, cubes. These elements meet in a mysterious black pool which is striated by lines of fiber optics that glow at night. A floating path, reflected above by an architectural bridge, connects one side of the shopping area to the other. 

The frogs are set in a grid at the base of the 40 foot high globe which is located on a slope connecting the road to the courtyard. Alternating stripes of riprap and grass cover the slope. The grid of frogs continues down the slope and through the pool, all facing the giant sphere as if paying homage. The globe, which also provides support for vines, houses a mist fountain. A square plaza beyond this focal point forms a meeting place which includes a circular bar, a bamboo grove that punctures the roof, and a video installation by artist Darra Birnbaum. 

The video wall at Rio with midtown skyscrapers in the background. Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archives. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.

Here's a detail of the previous photo showing two more demolished Atlanta landmarks: the Jetsons-era C&S tower and the mid-century First National Bank building.

Rio looked like a combination of Logan's Run, Miami Beach, and the set of an '80s MTV video countdown show, which I almost expected to see playing on the giant video wall. Who knows, maybe the place was named after the Duran Duran song. That wouldn't have been surprising. Rio was ridiculous. It was absurd. It was sublime. It was something previously unimaginable in Atlanta: a shopping center with a sense of humor. I imagined a future in which surrealism, irony, and humor would become as integral to architectural design considerations as support beams, insulation, and electrical conduits. The optimism that Rio engendered in my tender 21 year old brain is impossible to overstate. I was convinced Atlanta had entered a new era and the frogs were leading the way. I wasn't alone in my admiration; Business Week gave Rio a "Best Architecture" award, Atlanta Business Chronicle named Rio "Best New Retail Development" and the mall also won the Fulton County Developers Award for best new retail project.

            Up they rise their pretty little heads
            And when she waters them
            They glow and smirk and smile in their beds
            And in a globe of frogs, they're making love and looking on

            From "Globe of Frogs" by Robyn Hitchcock

The sea of golden frogs, spring 1989.

During my first visit in late 1988, construction workers were still adding the final touches before the official opening and they were clearly annoyed by the spectators wandering around the property, me included. As I crouched down to get a close-up shot of a golden frog, a beer-bellied worker with a thick southern drawl said "After you get one [a photo] of him, get one of yourself." I guess that was meant as an insult because he and his co-workers laughed and walked away. What did they know? If the universe had any sense of justice, those guys would be installing grids of gold frogs all the way to California.

Stunning night view of Rio courtesy of Ackerman Development.

Rio quickly became a place to take out of town guests. It was enough just to stand on the bridge at sunset and watch the underwater fiber optics change colors. We were easily amused. It also made a fantastic backdrop for our band promo photos. Here's Orange Hat on June 3, 1989.

The view from near the same spot in April 2015 is a little less appealing, and not just for lack of awesome '80s hair. The geodesic sphere was located in the area of the car at far right. The drive through alley is exactly in the center of the location of the former frog pond.

This is a Google Earth "mash-up" showing Walgreens, Publix, and the Savannah Apartments complex sitting on top of a 1993 aerial. The intersection of North and Piedmont is at bottom left with Piedmont running left to right. Rio's geodesic sphere and diagonal bridges can be seen in the location of the current parking lot.

In 1989, I had the privilege of seeing Robyn Hitchcock perform an in-store acoustic set at the Turtles Records on Ponce, which was right next to the Plaza Theater. Afterwards, he signed autographs and I had planned to tell him about Rio's globe of frogs. What a great photo op that would be! There was no need, virtually every single person in line in front of me blurted out, "You have to go see the globe of frogs! Have you seen the globe of frogs? It's just around the corner. I can take you there. Blah, blah, blah..." He seemed completely disinterested and rarely even made eye contact with those in line. After a dozen people had broached the subject, he finally snapped. "Come on, I've got to be in Athens in two hours!" And that was that.

Robyn Hitchcock shrugging off yet another recommendation to visit Rio Shopping Center, spring 1989.
By 1990, it occurred to me: When are all the stores going to open? Where are all the customers? Why is this place always deserted? When is the food court going to open? Why is the video wall never working? Is this it? A year after opening, it was obvious things weren't going well. How could the coolest mall in Atlanta turn out to be such a flop? What's wrong with everyone?
A mother and child enjoy the frog pond in an otherwise customer-free mall. The gold frogs were a prized catch for thieves in search of a funky lawn ornament or frat house accessory. At least a half dozen are missing in this June 1990 photo. I'm pretty sure they were solid concrete and must have weighed 80 pounds each. Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archives. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.

I tried to support Rio as much as possible in the early '90s. Our band spent months at the Video Editor editing our "movie" Pork Rinds in the glorious VHS format. We often dined at Heera of India where we were usually the only patrons despite the great food. I bought a Scooby Doo t-shirt and Gumby hat at the funky hat shop downstairs in the corner. Almost weekly, we ate at Lettuce Souprise You overlooking the frog pond. In retrospect, I did more harm than good there; my boss was buddies with the manager of their Briarcliff location and I had a huge stack of free meal passes. They lost money every time I walked in the door.

A lunchtime crowd of 4 people. Lettuce Souprise You was upstairs on the left. I ate countless free meals in those red chairs.

I believe the last time I set foot in Rio was the day this photo of Sinead the mannequin was taken, December 10, 1995. (This was part of an abandoned photographic project tentatively titled "Sinead's Atlanta: A Mannequin's Guide To The Olympic City".) Anyway, I stopped going after that. It had become depressing, like watching a loved one wither away from illness. The paint was peeling, the underwater fiber optics had stopped working, the video wall was covered in bird droppings, the frog pond was full of leaves and many of the frogs had long since been stolen, presumably carted off to enliven dorm rooms and backyard gardens.
"I feel like Farrah Fawcett in Logan's Run!"


Rio Mall appears as the backdrop for a distracted lab scientist in this video by Atlanta psych-pop band Orange Hat.

It was no surprise when Rio was bulldozed in 2000. It was also no surprise to see it replaced with a Publix, Walgreens, and a monstrous apartment complex, places that represent the polar opposite of Rio: practical, profitable and completely devoid of any sense of individuality or uniqueness. 

          And when the night comes down
          The houses close their doors and dream of her
          Their shuttered eyes are closed
          Inside their curtains wrap around her form
          And in a globe of frogs, we're linking tongues and moving on

          From "Globe of Frogs" by Robyn Hitchcock 

Yes, I still miss the frogs but I actually did need the coffee this morning.

In an upcoming post, we'll see what was here before Rio.


  1. OMG this was awesome. Thank you! I would pay a lot for one of those frogs.

  2. BRAVO! I used to hang out here a lot in 88-89 and I felt SO COOL for doing it. Thanks for the great memories.

  3. Thanks for sharing info. Keep up the good work...We hope you will visit our blog often as we discuss topics of interest to you
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  4. I remember this place long ago the army recruiting station was there in 1999 and Chris Tucker had a comedy club for a minute as well.

  5. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Way too many days spent gothing it in Little Five to count. Still think The Cure at Lakewood in the fog was the high point of my life.

  6. To Orange Hat: I cannot thank you enough for these memories.When you create something like Rio- it was like pulling a rabbit out of the hat. It turned out well against all odds, and I was proud of it. It was sad to see it go. In the end, it was something that appeared before its time. Like many new ideas, it was difficult to digest for most people. But that's our job- to bring new ideas into the world. Otherwise we'd still be in caves. Thank you so much! You cannot know how meaningful and supportive this reminiscence is to me. Warm Regards and keep on going!! Best, Martha Schwartz (what's your name?)

    1. I just found this comment, months after the fact. Great to hear from you! Rio was such an incredibly imaginative place. Judging from the response to this article and the numerous posts I see on facebook, it made a huge and lasting impression on people. You should be proud to know that your creation still captures the imagination of Atlantans THREE DECADES later. (I can't believe it was that long ago.) It probably failed because it was too far ahead of its time. Strangely enough, that's also something to be proud of. Thank you for the message and thanks again for Rio!

      David Henderson

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