Chamblee54

Downtown’s Modern Architectural Heritage

Posted in Georgia History, GSU photo archive, History by chamblee54 on March 8, 2016

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The tour began at the Commerce Club, It is a glorified parking deck, with a dining club on the top two floors. It was started as a place that would allow Jews. In the early sixties, the Commerce Club was the site of a secret meeting between Atlanta City officials, and Civil Rights demonstrators. Since it was mostly parking, the activists drove in and parked unannounced.

In 1992, PG saw Dan Quayle arrive to give a speech at the Commerce Club. A couple of hours later, PG was crossing Walton Street, when the Vice President’s limousine drove by. PG waved at the vehicle, only using one finger.

The next stop was the Fulton National Bank building. It was the first high rise built after the depression. For many years it was red brick, until some idiot had the idea of painting it beige. Across the street is 2 Peachtree. At 41 stories, it was the tallest building in town for a while. Some say it was the ugliest building downtown, although that is tough to quantify. An 8 story brick building in front was retrofitted with black panels, so that it would look like its tall neighbor. These panels are falling off, and may eventually be taken down.

Woodruff Park is across Five Points from 2 Peachtree. The legendary head of Coca Cola, Robert Woodruff, bought several blocks of aging buildings, and tore them down to create the park. Some say he wanted the open space in front of the Trust Company building, so it could face Peachtree. The Trust Company was Coca Cola’s bank. For years, the formula for Coca Cola was held in their vault.

In one legend, Governor Gene Talmadge went into the Trust Company lobby. This would be in the old building on Pryor Street. (Now Park Place) The Governor had enjoyed a happy lunch, and was being held up by two of his aides. Soon, Governor Talmadge felt the need to use the restroom, which he did in the corner of the lobby.

Gracing the North end of Woodruff Park, at 100 Peachtree, is the Equitable Building. It, and the adjacent Georgia Pacific building, were designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, or SOM. No, that is not short for SOM-bitch. These two buildings were more modern, and are sometimes called glass boxes. At least the GP building has some variation in the back.

Georgia Pacific was built on the site of the Loews Grand Theater. Across the street was a giant Coca Cola sign. GP did not think that sign fit in with their new building. Coca Cola was tired of making repairs to the sign, and was happy for an excuse to take it down.

Behind GP, on John Wesley Dobbs (formerly Houston Street, pronounced HOUSE ton) was the Belle Isle Garage. This was the original Merchandise Mart. At some point, the present Merchandise Mart was built on Peachtree. The people going to shows needed a place to stay, and John Portman started building hotels.

A few spots north, past the site of the Paramount Theater, is 191 Peachtree. John Portman had wanted to build there for years, but was never able to pull it off. Finally, the property was taken over by someone else, the S&W cafeteria was torn down, and Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed the high rise that sits there now.

PG asked if that building was still mostly unoccupied. The guide said that you read the AJC too much. After King & Spalding moved out, the building began a comeback, and is mostly occupied today. The parking garage, with faux columns outside, is a favorite.

Across the street, on the site of the Henry Grady Hotel and Roxy Theater, is the Peachtree Plaza hotel. There is a duplicate of this building in Detroit, that is 4 feet higher, but that doesn’t stop people from calling the Atlanta version the world’s tallest hotel. A few spaces north on Peachtree are the original Peachtree Center buildings.

One of the PC buildings is different from the rest. Mr. Portman was not able to buy the land for one building, but merely lease it. The lenders wanted to be able to tear the building down easily if land lease problems developed. This building has a steel frame, and is bolted together.

Another one of these buildings was all electric. This was a sixties concept, that is not much seen today. Across the street, a major tenant was the Atlanta Gas Light Company. An all electric building would not do. Natural Gas heating was installed. This building is not on the grid, but has a generator in the basement that supplies their electricity.

The tour ends with three hotels in a row. The Regency Hyatt House was revolutionary. It was the first modern hotel with a large atrium. Mr. Portman had lunch with Conrad Hilton, and described his plan. Mr. Hilton said it would not work. The management contract for the new hotel went to the Hyatt company, which was then little known outside California. The Regency has been renovated in the last few years, and does not have much of its old character.

A short walk over a sky bridge takes you to the Marriott Marquis. This is the Regency on steroids. The last time PG saw this building was during Dragon Con, when it was different. Across the street is the Hilton. It is another atrium building, with mini lobbies every few floors blocking the open space. The Hilton is built on the site of the Heart of Atlanta Motel, which is another story.

The last stop on the tour was One Peachtree Center. This was intended to be the crown jewel of John Portman’s empire, but it almost brought it down. An economic downturn hit during construction, and Mr. Portman’s lenders got nervous. John Portman went for being known as a baroque modernist, to just plain broke. He managed to survive, and is still in action at 92 years old. As for One Peachtree Center, Sun Trust Bank moved their major offices there a few years ago, and the building is mostly occupied today.

Pictures today are from “The Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library”.

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