Making History

Catherine Lewis

The Energizer Bunny has nothing on Kennesaw State University history professor Catherine Lewis. With nearly 20 years of experience as a public historian, curating and coordinating exhibitions for a wide range of local and national clients, her 11th book ready for publication and her most recent exhibit, “Return to Rich’s: The Story Behind the Store,” on display at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, Lewis is a busy lady.

“Everything feels new,” said Lewis, who also serves as the university’s executive director of Museums, Archives and Rare Books. “That’s the great thing about being a public historian; it’s an exciting and interesting career with a lot of variety and opportunity to partner with other scholars and institutions.”

Running through May, the Rich’s exhibit documents the department store’s importance to the history of Atlanta. Rich’s was founded in 1867 as a dry goods store by Morris Rich and his brothers. Whether shopping there, dining at the downtown store’s Magnolia Room or celebrating the holidays with a ride on the Pink Pig, Atlantans saw Rich’s as more than a store for 138 years. It was eventually absorbed by Macy’s in 2005.

“I was drawn to this opportunity (to curate the Rich’s exhibit) because it was an important story but one that also had great stories attached to it,” Lewis said. “It had a very festive feel to it; a lot of whimsy to it.”

Among the items included in the exhibit are the original Percival Pink Pig from the holiday ride; the coat purchased by Margaret Mitchell at Rich’s for the Atlanta premiere of “Gone With the Wind”; the 1924 Rich’s clock – a meeting point for many Atlantans visiting the downtown store; and newspaper stories chronicling attempts to integrate Rich’s all-white Magnolia Room in the 1960s.

“I also loved Rich’s,” said Lewis, a Florida transplant, who came to Georgia to attend Emory University. “I was a loyal Rich’s shopper until it closed. I shopped mainly at the Lenox Square Rich’s and simply loved the store. It was heartbreaking in 2005 when it went away.”

Closer to home, Lewis and the Department of Museums, Archives & Rare Books produced “The Kennesaw State Spirit: KSU at 50” exhibition, marking the 50th anniversary of the university’s charter. She has also curated, co-curated or coordinated exhibits including, “The Art of Golf” for the High Museum of Art, “The History of Atlanta Legal Aid,” a traveling exhibition for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, “The Story of the Masters,” 10 temporary exhibitions for Augusta National Golf Club and “The Acworth Rosenwald School,” and she presents at national and international conferences.

Currently, Lewis is working on an exhibit for the Ponce City Market, inside the old Sears building in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. As the largest adaptive reuse project in Atlanta's history, Ponce City Market will restore 1.1 million square feet of the historic Sears, Roebuck & Co. building, creating a vibrant urban centerpiece that combines 300,000-square-feet of retail and restaurants, 450,000-square-feet of office space and 260 residential units.

She is also co-authoring a book on the history of the Governor’s Mansion with Georgia’s first lady Sandra Deal and KSU Public History Professor Dr. Jennifer Dickey.

“Kennesaw State is well known for its community partnerships and its commitment to engaged scholarship,” Lewis said. “All of my projects focus on those areas, and that’s Kennesaw’s brand.”

From the Breman Museum, to the Ponce City Market, the Governor’s Mansion and beyond, through her scholarship, Lewis is stamping Kennesaw’s name all over metro Atlanta.

“It reminds people that KSU is vibrant institution with a lot of expertise,” she said.

--Jennifer Hafer