This area has always been a site of dreams getting real. From a rag-picker’s desire to have a home for his family to a technology incubator that launches design-centric brands for consumers. It’s 151 Spring Street, the soon-to-be Switchyards Building, a potential hub of consumer and design start-ups opening by the summer of 2015.
“We’re naming the building the Switchyards Building and hope it’s named that for years to come,” wrote Michael Tavani, founder of Switchyards, in a recent email exchange. “A nod to classic names of buildings – named after the tenant. Switchyards’ mission is Made with Soul in Atlanta. We hope the building will represent that soul as a physical space.”
A center of innovation, placed perfectly on the coming streetcar line, allowing professionals to walk to work, making the foot traffic as vintage as the building. Tavani hopes visitors read newspapers in the lobby. It’s an appropriate setting for those dreaming about the next Atlanta start-ups, when you consider the history.
According to old sources, this building sits on land that was catty-corner to the “The Patchwork Palace”, the home of rag-picker Mr. Mortimer Pitts, whose story was proclaimed in a speech by Henry Grady in 1877 (Mortimer Pitts was really a trench digger named Lewis Powell). It was Grady’s favorite speech, one he hoped to turn into a short story, but never got the chance before his death in 1889.
Instead the story was included in Joel Chandler Harris’ Life of Henry W. Grady Including His Writings and Speeches: A Memorial by Joel Chandler Harris in 1890. Harris was a fellow journalist of Grady, ardent admirer and a famous writer himself, penning the Brer Rabbit stories. If you’re free this weekend go visit the Harris family home, the Wren’s Nest in West End.
“His breakfast was a crust, his dinner a question, his supper a regret,” relayed Harris, citing Grady’s notes from the famous speech about the rag-picker Mortimer Pitts. “He had a wife and many children… but Mr. Pitts wanted a home.”
A rag-picker was a term for a chiffonier, a person who rummaged through refuse and trashcans, picking out pieces of cloth, metal and bones to be sold to a master rag-picker. While not on the level of a street beggar, it was a rough life in the 1870’s.
Mr. Pitts saved $3 by salvaging trash to purchase an empty lot.
Eager to fulfill his dream, Mr. Pitts rummaged through the remains of old abandoned homes. With a piece of wood here, and a few nails there, “the house grew like a mosaic.”
The chimney was a piece of old pipe that probably went nowhere. Windows were lopsided and unequal. The roof was an assortment of mismatched shingles. His front piazza was a large plank of wood resting on two barrels. It was the Patchwork Palace and Mortimer Pitts loved his erratically-built home.
But not everyone loved it. Pedestrians in Atlanta would either snicker or stare in awe at the structure – it looked like it would fall over with a simple change in the humidity. Henry Grady admired it, for he knew the man, the love and the hard work that Mr. Pitts put into his home.
Grady’s speech in 1877 regarding Mr. Pitts’ Palace was an ode to the working class and starving – how they could be happy in their situation. The theme of a toiling but happy southern working class is typical of Grady and his New South.
Despite the look of toppling over at any moment, the Palace lasted until Harris published his memorial to Grady in 1890. And as the 1890’s stretched into the 1900’s the mosaic-like structure transformed into a storefront with apartments on top. During this time Sanborn maps list 151 Spring Street across the street as dwellings. (Atlanta Journal Constitution stories and other sources conflict in regards to Pitts/Powell. Some say the Patchwork Palace was located at 151 Spring Street, others 102 Spring Street across the street. Some articles say he purchased the land for $400, while the Harris-penned Grady Memorial says it was $3. Some sources say he dug trenches, while others indicate he was a rag-picker.)
The big change to the location occurred in the 1920’s. It was sparked by the completion of the Spring Street viaduct in 1923. With the viaduct, automobiles could flow around the congested Five Points, and many buildings were built along Spring through the remaining 1920’s that served this traffic avoiding the downtown area.
Cars were the focus for many of the businesses that occupied this area when this building was completed in 1928. According to research done by Kyle Kessler, a downtown architect and expert on its history, one of the first tenants in 151 Spring was the Consolidated Tire Store, a dealer of Goodyear tires that could be purchased “on the club buyer or divided payment plan.”
Also in the building in 1928 were two printing companies, the Keelin Press, a printer of books and greeting cards, and the Harrison Company, a publisher of law books, led by President George Harrison. George’s brother, Z.D. Harrison, had been clerk of the Supreme Court of Georgia since 1868 (by 1928 Z.D. was the longest serving court clerk on record). The Harrison Company printed reports and court appeals from the Georgia Supreme Court.
The two most significant tenants in its history moved into the building in 1944. These were the Lanier Company and the Oxford Manufacturing Company. Both were owned by three brothers, Sartain, Hicks and Thomas Lanier.
The Laniers were recent transplants from Nashville, having moved the Lanier Company from that city to Atlanta in 1942. The Lanier Company was a distributor of dictation machines invented in 1932 by Thomas A. Edison’s Ediphone Company.
When the three brothers moved to Atlanta in 1942, they purchased the Oxford Manufacturing Company, a producer of military uniforms. Oxford was still a small outfit when they moved into their new Spring Street location in 1944. From the 151 Spring Street building they built a huge men’s and women’s apparel empire that still exists. Today they bring the public brands such as Tommy Bahama and Ben Sherman.
The Lanier Company went public on the New York Stock Exchange from this building in the early 1960’s. Sartain Lanier, the leader of the three brothers, was CEO of Oxford until 1981. According to their website, Oxford has international sales in excess of $735 million a year and is one of the largest publicly-traded companies headquartered in Georgia. Not bad.
By the early 1970’s the United Service Organizations (USO) was located in this building and in 1979 the Atlanta Legal Aid Society moved their headquarters here. But they plan on moving before Tavani takes over the building. The Society purchased 54 Ellis Street in 2013, a historic structure that was originally the Elks Lodge. Unfortunately they tore down two adjoining buildings around 54 Ellis to make room for employee parking with the acquisition, which fellow writer ATL Urbanist explored in this post: A Parking Apocalypse on Ellis Street.
What is Michael Tavani’s direction for the Switchyards Building?
“We close and begin the rehab in March,” wrote Tavani. “The renovation will take 8-12 weeks.”
“I’m planning on doing a vertical ATLANTA marquee sign like an old theatre on the corner with manual letters that we can change daily for announcements,” wrote Tavani. “The remodel will be very open – original ceilings, brick walls [and] original floors. Lots of subway tile and distressed wood. Keeping it very simple. The key is fast Wi-Fi, comfortable chairs and inspiring tables and rooms.”
The ground floor will offer a pocket coffee bar and hotel lobby. Tavani noted the lobby will be open to the public, and he envisions it as an open meeting space for all of Downtown and Fairlie Poplar.
“We’re adding back windows on the ground floor,” noted Tavani. “They were bricked over when the neighborhood was bad in the 1970’s. We’d like to get the interior back to the brick walls and concrete floors and original ceilings – high ceilings on the ground floor.”
He certainly has a vintage vision for the space, which is refreshing for a downtown that seems to quickly tear down old buildings for the new.
Start your journey learning about this brand incubator on the Switchyards website. Want to get involved? Become a Founding Member of Switchyards here. The first 500 supporters (there’s a $50 fee) get recognition in the space, tickets to Switchyards events (including their rooftop launch party), and invites to meetups for Founding Members only. Plus, all tenants will come from Founding Members, so if you eventually want in, you have to become a Member.
Special thanks goes out to Kyle Kessler and Michael Tavani for their help with this article.