Parked directly north of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Downtown Atlanta stands this historic building. It’s 355 Peachtree Center and seedy Atlanta history oozes from this eight-story red brick structure. Today under renovation for another round of subsidized residential living, it was once known as the Imperial Hotel.
Started in 1910 and opened in 1911, the Imperial Hotel was one of the first major commercial projects in this area of Downtown Atlanta designed to address the rapid business and population growth the city witnessed at the beginning of the 20th century. Many other hotels were constructed during this period of time. The Atlanta Constitution on April 20th, 1913 declared that “2,000 rooms in 20 months” had been built. Atlanta builders were quite busy.
The Imperial Hotel was designed by architect Edward E. Dougherty who would draft many commercial and residential buildings in Atlanta and Nashville. The design follows the Chicago style or Chicago school, the major indicator being the repeated use of bay windows. The crown of this old skyscraper showcases herringbone brick patterns and terracotta inlays. It reportedly cost $300,000 to build in 1910.
The lobby of the hotel offered a Tudor-style fireplace along with impressive concrete ceiling beams and marble wainscoting. When it opened in 1911 the location was considered the outskirts of the city and the Imperial catered to business travelers and tourists. Despite this location on the outskirts it was easily accessible by streetcars, making it a popular hotel.
In 1953 the front entrance was remodeled along with the basement, providing more space to entertain guests of the hotel. The Imperial Hotel’s basement hosted various lounges, clubs and restaurants with names like Joe Dale’s Cellar Restaurant, the Domino Lounge, Copa Lounge, Copa Caprice and even a Whiskey a Go Go franchise called Whisk a Go Go (read more about Whiskey a Go Go here).
It’s peculiar this structure sits next door to the Church of the Sacred Heart and across the street from the First Methodist Church of Atlanta. While some early acts in the 1950’s included well known musical artists such Fats Domino and Little Richard, by the 1960’s the acts tended to be risqué.
The entertainment lined up downstairs at the Domino by managers such as “Chick” Hedrick in 1960’s and through the 1970’s showcased pianists, orchestras and bands. But the main attractions were the exotic dancers with names such as TNT Red. The shows featured topless ballet interpretations and other potentially horrible yet intriguing artistic concepts. By the 1970’s these sexy performances were interrupted by bad comedians or B-level singers like Frank Sinatra Jr. Just imagine the thoughts of church and clergy members next door and across the street.
In 1980 a developer named John Portman purchased the Imperial Hotel and quickly abandoned it to neglect. It sat vacant. Through the 1980’s as the aging and empty structure declined, homeless citizens moved in. This time period witnessed the homeless population increase by the thousands in Atlanta. Local charities, nonprofits and churches struggled to keep up. In fact, the rising tensions in the city over their growing numbers would lead to a historic confrontation centered at the Imperial.
In late June of 1990 several Atlanta homeless advocates, including the popular Ed Loring and his wife Murphy Davis, entered the Imperial Hotel and proceeded to occupy the site in protest. Outraged over the treatment of the homeless, the takeover was a planned demonstration against several moves by the city of Atlanta. Members of the group were particularly upset about funds from the Federal Government originally intended for low income housing that was instead used to develop commercial districts.
The protest lasted until July 3rd, 1990, when police escorted 85 homeless individuals along with the activists out of the hotel. Ed Loring, Murphy Davis and four others were fined by the City of Atlanta for their role in the occupation of the Imperial Hotel. In order to exit in peace, a deal was struck with Mayor Maynard Jackson, and the city agreed to create 1,000 single room housing units for the homeless beginning with a building called Welcome House.
After the standoff the building was acquired by Progressive Redevelopment, Inc., a nonprofit that developed and operated the property for subsidized residents until 2007, when water bills and tax issues forced this group to close the building. It looked as if this historic building would just slowly fade into Atlanta history.
But luckily the charm and history of this building was too good to pass up. Recently purchased by groups from Atlanta and Ohio, when this building opens after renovations in 2013 it will feature 90 apartments for both low and middle income individuals.
When History Atlanta visited this structure on the north side of downtown it was still under renovation, the red brick being power-washed and cleaned. It also looks as if the interior has been gutted. It’s great to see a historic building given new life in Downtown Atlanta rather than torn down in favor of new construction. Historic preservation in Atlanta is crucial; once a building is torn down it is gone forever.
Did You Know? The Imperial Hotel, or 355 Peachtree Center, offers two historic elevators installed by the Otis Elevator Company in 1910?
Did You Know? Elisha Otis started this company and developed the safety elevator in 1852, which locked elevators if the hoist cables snap or fail, allowing them to safely go higher and higher.
Did You Know? Otis elevators could be found in the Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower and the old World Trade Center buildings.