Manuel's Tavern

The high art of a dive bar

Photo: Brian Maloof behind the bar at Manuel's Tavern. Becky Stein,

The walls of Manuel’s Tavern, the legendary Poncey-Highland watering hole, are covered with photographs, mementos, beer signs, scandalous paintings — the kind of debris that accumulates in a man cave after 60 years of serving beer and conversation.

But to the patrons of Manuel’s, these artifacts are sacred. Just ask owner Brian Maloof, the youngest son of the founder.

Maloof tried moving a small painting (at left) of a World War II air battle, apparently depicting the daylight bombing of Berlin. No sooner was it off the wall than Maloof heard from the widow of an American airman who was killed in that fight.

“I could tell it was almost like I had disturbed the final resting place of her husband,” Maloof said. “I put it back up.”

Scroll down for an interactive look at the wall that was home to this small painting, and get the back story on the items surrounding it, courtesy of Brian Maloof. Mouse over the points on the photo to get the stories behind the item.

This kind of scriptural obsession is one reason so many Manuel’s regulars are stressed about plans to close the tavern Dec. 27 for three months of renovations.They worry the history is going to be thrown out with the construction trash.

Some of those concerns would have been soothed by a glance inside the tavern one early December morning, where, hours before opening, a crew of urban archaeologists was busy at work, like CSI at a double murder.

Michael Page (pictured, with Ruth Dusseault), a lecturer in environmental sciences at Emory University, aimed a robot-powered camera, mounted on a tripod, at the east wall of one of the tavern’s gathering rooms, and adjusted the parameters, telling the machine where to look.

Then Page pushed a button. The device, called a GigaPan, took over, scanning, zooming, clicking, shooting, creating a matrix of photos that take into account the whole wall.

These photos, stitched together into a single image through special software, will be part of “Unpacking Manuel’s,”a project created by filmmaker and Georgia State University lecturer Ruth Dusseault.

The wiry Dusseault, clad in jeans and T-shirt, sat near a Budweiser sign, clicking through images on her laptop as her colleagues moved the dolly and PVC pipe that serve as the track for another device, a 3-D laser scanner.

The group of about a dozen volunteers was capturing Manuel’s in a digital bottle. Early evidence of their efforts is already up onDusseault’s website, “Unpacking Manuel’s,” where every image, tchotchke and knickknack will be filed and available for examination.

Dusseault’s plan is gratifying to Brian Maloof — it will help pinpoint where to put everything back once the renovation is complete — but it seems like a great deal of effort for family photos, bumper stickers and coasters.

Yet the history of Manuel’s is also the history of Atlanta, Dusseault says.

She gestured to the handwritten appointment book that Margie Maloof, Brian’s wife, uses to keep track of all the groups that convene in one or the other of the tavern’s many rooms — the marijuana fanciers of NORML, the chess club, the Marching Abominables, who usually arrive after their Tuesday night practice.

Photo: Revelers gather at Manuel's Tavern for the Speedo Run on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015. Jonathan Phillips.

The tavern recently filled with runners wearing seasonal underwear, and not much else, during the annual Atlanta Santa Speedo Run. “This is a public house!” Dusseault exulted. “Where else does that happen?”

She pointed to another image on her laptop, a close-up of an aerial photograph of the Old Fourth Ward, showing the Mead paper company and trains running along what would eventually become the Beltline.

She envisions putting students to work researching the origins of such photos, determining what they reveal about the period when they were taken. Such work draws students into the history of the city, she said. “Once they go through that process, then they own that object.”

The GigaPan photos in “Unpacking Manuel’s” are like Google maps: One can zoom in to see individual faces in group photos or the inscription on a plaque. They will be embedded in a 3-D virtual representation of the bar, which will function like a navigational tool within the site, so that the user can move around the virtual pub, examining one wall or another.

Dusseault said each picture will eventually be like a “drawer of information: A pop-up window will tell us the story behind that object.”

Her colleagues see the project as a teaching tool, as well as a history project. “Anyone studying history, journalism, public policy, archaeology or film could be developing research skill,” she said. The project is a shared undertaking by GSU, Emory University and the Savannah College of Art and Design.

“This is a way to extend the humanities,” said Brennan Collins, a lecturer in English at Georgia State. “It opens up storytelling for them.”

As the 11 a.m. hour approached on that early December morning, Hasting Huggins of SCAD began packing up his lights as Dusseault and others stacked the PVC pipes. In the North Avenue room, the Manuel’s staff refilled ketchup bottles, preparing for the lunch rush, while several dozen retired firefighters gathered in the parking lot, waiting to come inside for their monthly gathering.

“This is a place that’s had such a rich history, in a city that has very few such places,” Collins said.

Photo by Becky Stein,