Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Alpine Helen

Helen, GA is one of the most interesting developments to ever occur to a town. The retail-tourist attraction apparently got its start in the 1960's when area businessman got together to turn a derelict town into a Bavarian-themed tourist attraction that remains one of Georgia's premier tourist attractions today. While the town saw most of its development occur in the early 1970's, it was an era when experiements in retail, architecture and tourism often failed the test of time. Helen, however endures and remains contemporary into the 21st century.

With this post, I am sure you wonder why I am covering a town that has nothing to do with malls or major retail chains: in fact, the chains in the town are not so dominant. The fact is that "retail" is a term to apply to anything that is the result of a business selling goods directly to consumers. Retail as we know it pretty much did not completely leave downtown until the mid-to-late 1970's, and the lifestyle center phenomenon very strongly reflects a desire of many to have a downtown-styled shopping environment. In addition, themed developments have become very popular in today's day in age. Helen has everything a lifestyle center would want: a quaint downtown appearance, safe, less conspicuous parking, a distinct classic theme, broad appeal and attractive landscaping and architecture. The one thing Helen doesn't have so much is the generic chain stores and restaurants found in most lifestyle centers. Local stores became firmly rooted in the town early on with the chains adding on later.

A look at the Chattahoochee River bridge entering the downtown area. The pedestrian addition on the left is a recent development.

The theme of Helen has resulted in a town that looks nothing like anything else anywhere in the Eastern US. The closest thing to it in the state is the more spartan Bavarian look of Avondale Estates east of Atlanta. Today, the buildings in the town have actually changed little, though much has been added since the original town was created. The creation of the town also resulted in significant condo, timeshare and resort development in the immediate vicinity. Nearby Skylake is a gated community that appeared around the time of Helen. The town's premier feature, though, is the Chattahoochee River which is near its source in the Georgia mountains and flows through the heart of town as a clear mountain stream. The river annually draws escapees from the heat and a steady flow of people in inner tubes during the summer. While the Chattahoochee offers recreation downstream, it is much swifter and much nastier than the clear stream through Helen.

Here are some of the shops on the north end of the town. These are the tallest buildings and quite possibly the oldest. The green astroturf looks a little dated. At least two of these "Alpine Helen" canopies can be found in the town on side streets.

Throughout the 80's, the enormous crowds drawn to the town resulted in much new development in the valley of Helen. Several motels were constructed, a water park was added and a small outlet mall all were built south of downtown. Like the main part of town, all of this new development was designed strictly on the German-Bavarian theme. Small wedding chapels also became a prominent feature of the town because of its charm. The town also features many local restaurants, some which have been around since the 70's. In terms of restaurants, Cafe International is one of those, and has continued to attract huge business for 35 years. Originally a cheese and wine tasting place, this restaurant is popular for its covered deck overlooking the river. The restaurant serves German food and beer mixed with some continental fare. Their Reuben is one of the best in the state.

The Cafe International is pictured here with its deck built right into the river. Such a business right on the water would not likely be allowed today. The hottest days of summer will find pink innertubes in the middle of this scene.

Aside from Cafe International, at least five restaurants are found in the downtown as well as some local bakery and fudge shops. Fast food may also be found there including Wendy's, Huddle House and Blimpie south of the downtown. The themed Huddle House is a real treat. A KFC also once operated in the town, but it closed in the 1990's. In all, the place feels somewhat like Gatlinburg with less gimmick and more style. In other words, don't expect to be ripped off at Ripley's Believe It or Not here, though there is at least one putt putt golf course to drop a few bucks at.

Here are some views of the shops along the south (west) side of the downtown.

While Helen is in the North Georgia Mountains, it is hardly in true mountains. The elevations of nearby peaks generally do not reach 4,000 ft. and the climate is only somewhat milder than the Atlanta area except in the deep cool coves graced with hemlocks and rhododendrons that make that area so popular. Because of this, the more typical Southern weather has threatened the livelihood of Helen more than once. The first was in 1994 when an F3 tornado barely missed the town, wiping out the House of Tyrol to the south near Mt. Yonah. This was a two story structure built with the same Bavarian theme found in Helen. It was a very attractive structure and had been recently built. It also had a very sturdy steel structure holding it in place. The beams and tremendous debris were all that remained after the storm.

Here are more views of the shops along the south (west) side of the downtown. The buliding in the middle photo is mainly just a large bathroom.

Mother Nature hit closer the second time when in 2005, Hurricane Katrina left its mark on the state through a series of moderate tornadoes. One hit the east side of Helen with a strength of F2, severely damaging the outlet mall, one of the hotels and effectively wiping out many trees in the area. Luckily, the more sheltered downtown area was not at all affected and the tornado did not have the long path of destruction that the 1994 storm did.

The north side of the street features a mini-mall that was not open when I visited. This mall contains about six stores with access to the river below. The steps here went down to the lower level of the center.

Near the restrooms in this previous photo is this alley, which contains a restaurant and a few other small shops. The back side of it contained a store that was roped off.

Another enclosed alley formed this mini-mall, which contains 4-5 shops. It is one of the least attractive parts of the downtown.

Helen had far reaching effects in the region when it was built. The design of the town led to many Bavarian-styled cabins cropping up in various developments during the early 70's. Helen-styled (I call it) homes appeared as far away as Pickens County and generally scattered through the large resort developments that appeared around the same time throughout the hills. The peak of popularity of the town was by and large from the early-80's to the mid-90's when tremendous crowds stormed the town in the summer and fall, choking traffic in the town as money flowed in from the ever increasing stream of Atlanta tourists and wealth. In 1982, the DOT even renumbered an existing highway (SR 356) as an alternate route of SR 75 around the city to guide through traffic away from the congestion. Undoubtably, the presence of the best hiking and mountain scenery in Georgia nearby helped nurse those crowds along as well.

This very attractive fountain graces the southeast side of the street in the town. I do not believe it is original, but I'm not sure.

Helen today exists along a wider assortment of options as nearby Western North Carolina and once more remote Union and Towns Counties both began to draw more of the crowds that previously stopped short at Helen. Improvements to highways into those areas increased the options, but also it has made Helen more accessible to Atlanta. Today, it is possible to drive to Helen directly from Atlanta quickly via SR 400 and SR 115. Additionally, the Helen valley has seen a maturing of the development that occurred through the 1980's. Today, very little new development is taking place in the town with new construction mostly away from SR 75. In addition, the aging condition of the distinctly designed 1938 arch bridge in downtown is scheduled for an eventual replacement, which would indeed disrupt the town and erase the centerpiece of its history.

Even the Wendy's carries the theme back in an era when most were pretty standard. This building is old enough that I remember it having the antique newspaper tabletops.

The Huddle House retrofitting was quit excellent. It is one of the best looking themed fast food restaurants I have seen.

Regardless, the good of this is that the town has remained attractive and unique without changing its look. A beautiful rock fountain now graces the center of town as well as plants and flowers that front the downtown. The growth of Atlanta has also put the population closer to the once remote town than ever before, keeping business alive and well even during the week. Today, it is indeed becoming a place of family traditions. I noted how my parents were my age when they first came there and how I am still coming there at least once or twice a year. Of course, when I come I am either there just to pass through or sit and have another Reuben sandwich overlooking the river: it is so worth it.

Outside of downtown is this water park south toward Cleveland.

Southeast of town, this strip was built attempting to capitalize on the tourism. Apparently it hasn't done so well as most of the center is vacant. Helen's expansion is far less attractive than the downtown, and it features most of the chain and tourist trap type development such as motels, a wedding chapel, the water park and a putt putt golf course in addition to the outlet mall.

The outlet mall, pictured here, first arrived in the late 1980's. It was damaged in the tornado in 2005. This type of development is inappropriate, and I wish that this area could be redeveloped into more of an urban streetscape such as the downtown with parking out of sight.


  1. I remember being bowled over by the kitsch of the place when I first move to ATL. It's not so much like Gatlinburg as like a lot of towns that have taken a Sunday drive location and made it into a haven for people needing to buy calico chickens and second rate fudge, although many of these towns also have high quality crafts, art, or furniture in among the collectable junk. Nashville, Indiana (an semi-artsy crossroads near some small state parks, an hour outside of Indianapolis) is another example of this. Places in Amish country in Ohio and Pennsylvania have done this and had local kitsch to build on, so they didn't need to import it. Solvang in California (which has some legit Danish ancestory) is another one of these places.

    Outlet stores and malls are not unusual in towns like this and they're natural places for a Dairy Queen. Conventional resort towns often have a similar mix of stores, with a few national chains or outlets mixed with local operations. The seasonal aspect of these towns and their bust/boom cycles during the week probably make them more amenable to mom & pop operations than chains (i.e., more complicated to make them work).

    The thing that struck me about Helen was how insular it felt, esp. on a mid-week visit, with little of the bantering and conviviality that usually marks these places.

  2. This was highly educational. I'd never heard of this development and had no idea this place existed in north Georgia.

  3. The remarkable thing with Helen was that the choice of an Alpine style was actually consistent with the heritage of much of the local populace, thought the choice seems to have been more for kitsch than for heritage. The region of Northern Georgia and Western North Carolina was known as "Little Switzerland" due both to the mountains terrain and the large number of immigrants from Bavaria, Switzerland and Austria that followed the Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Scottish immigrants to Southern Appalachia.

    Even some of the homes in nearby Sautee-Nacoochee Valley retained some of the more restrained elements of Bavarian/Alpine style.
    Moravian Missions had been among the first to "Christianize" the Cherokee Indians in the Cherokee Country of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, Waldensians had been active in the settlement of the Southern Blue Ridge mountains as well, while from the modern day Czech Republic, they were "Germanized" as well.

    Nearby Dahlonegah makes a more authentic approach to its town square, offering many craft shops and antique shops, while retaining its early 20th century town square look. It too tapped into the weekend Atlanta drive while capitalizing on its history.

    The highway improvements of the various Appalachian corridors have made further flung destinations more popular for Atlantans than Helen or Dahlonegah, while Dahlonegah is becoming part of the Altanta's exurban sprawl,with White County which contains Helen increasingly closer to the city's far flung suburbs and exurbs.

    I've seen Helen suffer in previous economic downturns, and the I suspect this current one may have longer term effects upon Helen's future developments than the past recessions.

  4. I've never heard of a town having Wendy's as its only burger place before.

  5. The outlet mall has a few more local stores than in previous years (Ace Hardware and a pharmacy, for example). It isn't what it was fifteen years ago. I love the Huddle House but the small restaurants are the show-stopper. I wish a few more, and less pricey, food outlets would locate in the old section. I loved the Wurst Haus. I don't remember seeing it the last time I was there. I went to the Cafe International- and embarassed myself. I was still sick from a hiking trip and forgot to pay my bill (did tip the waiter). The waiter found me and I paid my tab. I went back and tipped them extra for their troubles. I owe them one for being graceful and cordial.