LENOX SQUARE IS AS MUCH a part of Atlanta's history as Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, "Gone With the Wind" and home-run king Hank Aaron.

A magnet for shoppers throughout the Southeast for four decades and a centerpiece of Atlanta's retail community, the shopping center has watched its now-upscale Buckhead community blossom dramatically through the years.

Today, the Atlanta Financial Center and a host of other high-rise buildings crowd the landscape. Phipps Plaza - a catty-corner neighbor and once a rival - is now Lenox Square's sister mall. But Lenox holds bragging rights to the claim that it was the first of these high-profile buildings to call Buckhead home.

Open-air concept Lenox opened for business in August 1959. Interestingly, its developers confronted a daunting task when theybegan pitching the idea of Lenox. They had to convince retailers that the wave of Atlanta's retail future lay smack-dab in the middle of a grassy field in a relatively undeveloped part of town, located a considerable distance from major interstate access. Mall developers were successful not only in luring original anchor stores Davison's and Rich's (an Atlanta institution) but also in launching a concept. Lenox proved that a large-scale mall development would indeed work in the Deep South.

Initially, it was a 665,000 sq. ft., open-air shopping center, yet earned the distinction as the Southeast's first mall. Within a year after opening, the center had grown to 62 stores and 6,000 parking spaces. When Phipps Plaza set up shop in 1969, becoming the first two-level mall in the region, it jump-started a rivalry that would brew between the two centers until only recently when they were both acquired by Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group.

"What's so fascinating about Lenox is that, over the years, the people who managed this property have done a phenomenal job of not only keeping pace with the times but also staying at the front end of the curve," says Helen Burns, regional vice president for Simon's Southeast properties. "As customers' expectations and needs have changed, the center has changed as well."

Growth mode Lenox underwent its first major expansion in 1972 when it was enclosed. A new anchor, Neiman Marcus, was added along with 50 specialty stores. Expansion was on the agenda once again in 1980, when the mall added a 90,000 sq. ft. food court. A third update in 1987 added approximately 40,000 sq. ft. of new retail space.

The last major expansion occurred in 1993, when the center underwent a $60 million makeover. The project included the addition of a 187,000 sq. ft. upper level, 40 stores and the complete renovation of the main mall level interior as well as the center's exterior. Once the renovations were unveiled, the mall added a flagship Crate & Barrel near its Peachtree Street entrance.

In January 1998, Lenox owner Corporate Property Investors (CPI) bought the highly upscale Phipps Plaza in a $200 million deal. A month later, Simon Property Group bought New York-based CPI for $5.78 billion in cash, stock and assumed debt, giving Simon control of both Lenox and Phipps. Today, a shuttle links the two centers, allowing shoppers to sample retailers in both locales. After years of constant change, Lenox still reigns as one of the largest malls in the Southeast, boasting 1.4 million sq. ft., 250 stores, 7,000 parking spaces and a 2% vacancy rate.

Lenox hosts a number of mall standards, including Macy's, The Gap stores, Brooks Brothers, AnnTaylor, The Limited family, Chick-fil-A and some upscale specialty tenants, including a Versace boutique, a Nicole Miller store and Cartier. Then there are the newcomers like Pottery Barn, J. Crew, bebe, BCBG, HMV, Betsey Johnson and Restoration Hardware.

"There's something special about going to Lenox," says Ray Kimsey, immediate past president of the Buckhead Business Association. "Whereas the suburban malls tend to be generic, Lenox has always been a notch higher."

Kimsey, who is an architect with Niles Bolton Associates in Atlanta, says the mall consistently reflects the latest in industry trends and innovations. Unlike other malls its age that are prone to fall behind the competition, Lenox's constant evolution from both a physical standpoint and a tenant mix has positioned it at the forefront of the mall industry, Kimsey says. "The reality is that Lenox has defined retail in the Southeast," he adds.

Sense of community One of the intangibles that makes Lenox so popular is its community involvement. The mall is famous for sponsoring its nearly 40-year-old fireworks extravaganza during the Fourth of July holiday. The event is geared toward families.

Lenox also sponsors a number of charity events in the metropolitan Atlanta area throughout the year. One of Burns' goals has been to build upon the already strong rapport between the center and the greater Atlanta area.

Lenox's legacy reaches far beyond the reputation of a mall, says Sam Massell, a former Atlanta mayor, city councilman and Buckhead native. During his tenure in Atlanta politics, he witnessed the mall's initial development and its metamorphosis from an open-air shopping center to a megamall. He's now head of the Buckhead Coalition, a civic group steering the growth of his beloved community.

Lenox has distinguished itself from other shopping malls, Massell says, earning the reputation as one of Atlanta's top tourist draws. Its selection of stores, range of merchandise and central location make it a place natives like to frequent, and one visitors consider a must-see. "When I was younger, we would take our wives to New York for shopping trips," Massell says. "Today, people come to Atlanta for shopping trips."

* Location: Atlanta

* Owner: Simon Property Group

* Opening: August 1959

* Trade area population: 880,103 households

* Average household income: $85,000 (Buckhead area)

* Current GLA: 1.4 million sq. ft.

* Number of stores: 250

* Current anchors: Rich's, Macy's, Neiman Marcus

* Original anchors: Rich's, Davison's

* Fun fact: Lenox offers the most designer tenants in a superregional mall in the Southeast. Also, Lenox's parking lot is the largest shopping center parking lot in Georgia.