It was Atlanta’s first shopping center with an outdoor parking lot designed for drivers to swiftly pull up, easily park, shop for an hour or two and quickly drive away. Many consider these early “community centers” or strip malls the beginning of urban sprawl, the destruction of older buildings in favor of new flashy structures along with city designs that emphasize automobiles and parking lots at the expense of pedestrians and public transportation. In short, it was the start of the suburbs.
It was Briarcliff Plaza, also known as Ponce de Leon Plaza, which started development in 1935 by Relnac, Inc. and opened throughout the later months of 1939 across Ponce de Leon Avenue from the old Asa G. Candler Jr. apartment building (more on this building below).
Briarcliff Plaza, aka Ponce de Leon Plaza, holds a special place in Atlanta history due to its centerpiece, the iconic Plaza Theatre. The Plaza Theatre is the oldest continually operating movie theater in the city, the Art Deco marquee beckoning drivers on Ponce with its bright neon lights. It is considered an Atlanta landmark.
Before development of Briarcliff Plaza and Plaza Theatre, the tract of land on which these buildings now stand was residential, a combination of high-rise apartment buildings and personal residences. In addition to homes like the Dr. Robin Adair estate (the last property that was purchased in order to develop this piece of land), the focal point of the block was the Druid Apartments located directly on the southwest corner of Ponce and North Highland. Built in 1917 at a price of $75,000 by Atlanta real estate developer George Francis Willis, the Druid Apartments were at one time owned by the brothers-in-law of Leo Frank who was famously lynched in Marietta in 1915.
After the stock market crash of 1929 Druid Hills and the surrounding neighborhoods changed. As the wealthy and elite lost large amounts of money on bank bonds, the absence of income led to many of large residential buildings that were built or purchased as investments to fall into neglect and disrepair, including Candler Apartments (Briarcliff Hotel) and Druid Apartments. Hailed by the Atlanta Constitution as an example of fine residential architecture in 1929, by 1939 the Druid Apartments had been razed in favor of Briarcliff Plaza and the Plaza Theatre, while the Candler Apartments had been converted into a commercial hotel and renamed Briarcliff Hotel.
Developed by Relnac, Inc., Briarcliff Plaza was designed by George Harwell Bond, an Atlanta architect at G. Lloyd Preacher, a firm that built many buildings throughout the south, including the Medical Arts Building in Downtown Atlanta. This “community center” was proposed to cost $300,000, and leases were quickly filled.
Plaza Theatre has been able to last continually at Briarcliff Plaza, but other businesses, such as Plaza Drugs, haven’t been so lucky. Some of the early leases in 1939 were for Dupree Dry Cleaners, Blick’s Bowling Alley, Holcomb Flowers, the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Company and Nick Caruso’s Big Place which, according to an Atlanta Constitution advertisement, offered “shoe repair, hat cleaning, pressing, repairing and hat cleaning.”
The Plaza Theatre opened on December 23, 1939 with a screening of The Women starring Joan Crawford. With 1,000 seats, an orchestra pit and balcony levels, residents from Virginia Highlands, Poncey-Highlands and Druid Hills flocked to see their favorite silver screen stars.
The 1940’s and 1950’s were kind to Briarcliff Plaza and the Plaza Theatre. In 1950 a significant addition was added to the shopping center. But by the 1960’s the surrounding neighborhoods declined, and Briarcliff Plaza suffered.
By the 1970’s Briarcliff Plaza had totally bottomed out, known as a thriving illicit drug and prostitution market, ironically all under the gigantic “Plaza Drugs” sign from the old pharmacy located on the corner which now holds Urban Outfitters. Plaza Theatre equally deteriorated, showcasing live burlesque shows and X-rated pornos until 1983. It seemed as if these historic buildings and this phase of Atlanta history would fade into oblivion.
But Atlanta businessman Robert Griffith began a grand renovation plan of Briarcliff Plaza in the early 1980’s, enticing business owners that would help restore the block to its prior glory. With this historic preservation in mind, the Plaza Theatre was purchased in 1983 by George Lefont, an experienced movie theater professional who quickly converted the balcony into a second smaller theater screen.
Instead of raunchy X-rated porn, Lefont focused on eclectic movies that would appeal to a sophisticated urban clientele. This dedication to classic, foreign and independent films defined the Plaza Theatre during the 1990’s and 2000’s. This theme has recently been toned down, and the Theatre now offers mainstream new releases along with classic movies and a few selections from the underbelly of cinema. For example, during my last visit I screened Goldeneye, one of my favorite 007 flicks for Plaza Theatre’s 50 Years of Bond Series running in the summer of 2013 (check out their website here for special events, classic movie screenings and showtimes).
Sadly Griffith’s plan failed to gain financial success. From his purchase until the late 2000’s Briarcliff Plaza was plagued with monetary issues. Luckily the Plaza Theatre sold in 2006 to Gayle and Jonathan Rej, a couple dedicated to historic preservation. In 2012 it changed hands again from the nonprofit Plaza Theatre Foundation to a private owner described as a “theatre enthusiast”. Let’s hope this new owner doesn’t screw up this valuable piece of Atlanta history.
The Plaza Theatre is located at 1049 Ponce De Leon Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA 30306. Give them a buzz for showtimes at 404-873-1939 or visit the Plaza Theatre website here. Briarcliff Plaza, or Ponce de Leon Plaza, offers the Righteous Room Bar, Urban Outfitters and more. Drive on over, do some shopping, check out one of America’s first suburban strip mall designs and maybe a classic Hollywood flick. Lights, Camera, Plaza!