Imagine a brick maze of interlocked buildings from before 1907, smack in the middle of downtown Atlanta. In short, that’s the M. Rich Building. It involves five formerly independent structures, interlaced with pathways, doorways, archways and hallways all created by former owners. Some of these interconnected buildings were themselves organic annexes of rooms and storefronts, either torn down or constructed into the current T-shaped complex. It features two addresses, 82-86 Peachtree Street and 111-115 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, along with a rich retail past that spans Atlanta history.
The M. Rich Building entrance located at 82-86 Peachtree Street calls home the formerly magnificent shopping corridor known as Whitehall Street. A retail center since the genesis of Atlanta, Whitehall (now Peachtree) has always been the place to buy anything, even men, women and children until Sherman marched through the city in 1864. After the war its reputation for goods and trade sprawled to help Atlanta become the retail center of the South. And a fixture on Whitehall Street after the Civil War was a group of Jewish brothers from Hungary who would change their surname from Reich to Rich while doing business in Atlanta. They would build the department store empire simply known as Rich’s.
While older Atlanta residents remember the Great Tree and the Pink Pig at the flagship 45 Broad Street location, many do not know Rich’s was a fixture over on Whitehall Street for fifty seven years prior to 1924. In fact, the Reich brothers had a presence in Atlanta before 1867. That year Mauritius Reich, who had previously been working for an older more-established brother in Atlanta, decided to open his own dry goods store on Whitehall. This first store grew into the Rich’s department store chain that would stretch outside Atlanta and across the South. Rich’s lasted until 2005 when it was absorbed by the giant retail blob known as Macy’s.
Mauritius Reich changed his name to Morris Rich by the time he opened his store at 36 Whitehall Street in 1867. Throughout the early history of the company Morris would add and drop partners (brothers along with people outside of the family) while jumping around several locations on Whitehall Street and selling everything from silks and carpets to furniture and clothing.
Their second location was in the former home of the J.M. High Company at 65 Whitehall Street on the corner of Whitehall and Hunter Street, which is now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive., almost caddy corner from the current M. Rich Building. They moved into the corner location in 1875.
The M. Rich Building at 54-56 Whitehall, according to many sources, was their third location when they moved there in 1882. It was a different building than what we see today; it offered dramatic double-paned windows and an expanded selection of merchandise spread over two levels. The group headed by the Hungarian brothers settled in at 54-56 Whitehall and almost immediately started expanding backwards behind it. This area would become the 1883 “Connector” Building in the complex (see below map). By 1884 the company was known as M. Rich & Brothers since it was run by three brothers, Morris, Emanuel and Daniel. They did have other partners, however, and some famous names started within Rich’s (such as J.J. Haverty).
Their growth was rapid, and they started to occupy the “Hunter Street Ell” Building just a few years after it was built by another company in 1885. This “Hunter Street Ell” Building is the front door for the MLK Drive entrance. Eventually they would expand into the building next door, listed as the “Copper Blue” Building built in 1886 on the map (Copper Blue is actually the last tenant, so pay no attention to the name).
In 1901 Rich’s completed the five-story “Furniture Annex” Building on the diagram. They added more square feet, but didn’t add more storefront. On Whitehall Street in the early 1900’s more storefront with large glass windows meant more window gawkers, more foot traffic and more sales. It was how the big boys competed.
Starting in June of 1906 M. Rich and Brothers started a grand renovation which really didn’t end until 1910. Rich’s actually rented out space around their footprint to divert traffic to their Furniture Annex during the largest parts of the project. And the largest part of the plan involved demolishing the 54-56 Whitehall Building along with an adjacent building at 52 Whitehall Street (the M. Kutz & Co. Building acquired by Morris in 1906) to create a huge storefront that connected to the three other structures through the “Connector” Building. The result was the current T-shaped complex we see today.
The centerpiece of the renovation would be the new storefront building that lined 52-54-56 Whitehall, very valuable real estate when it came to 1907 Atlanta. For this job (and to design the interlocking hallways and annexes), Rich’s brought in Atlanta architects Morgan & Dillon. Known for creating courthouses, fire stations and early Atlanta skyscrapers such as the Healey Building, the M. Rich Building design is more similar in scope, size and timing to their Thiesen Building built in 1901 in Pensacola, Florida.
The completed M. Rich Building in 1907 was a lucrative upgrade from the previous building. While the addition of the 52 lot increased their ability to dress windows the structure was remarkable in several other ways. Significantly, it’s one of the earliest examples of Chicago Style building design in Atlanta that still exists today. And the new emporium offered a two-story main hall that extended more than 50 yards with glass counters and wood columns lining the walkways.
It was a slick and modern facility with passenger and freight elevators. And from 1907 until 1910 Rich’s continued to finish the “Connector” Building. The finished layout results in a building complex that today intertwines hallways and walkways that are sloped, along with doorways and archways that are cut between the five original buildings. Some floors are at different elevations, changed by previous owners. And even the facades of the two buildings on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive have been moved back several feet when that street was widened in 1965.
Rich’s thrived in their renovated location. By 1910 a boardroom was added to the fourth floor of 52-54-56 Whitehall, while two more levels were added to the “Furniture Annex”. In 1919 Rich’s announced they had outgrown this complex. By 1924 they had fully moved out and into the 45 Broad Street location (the location everyone remembers).
In 1925 the W. T. Grant Company moved into the building. Grant’s was a national department chain, just one of many to move into Whitehall Street locations during the 1920’s. Grant’s remained in the M. Rich Building until they declared bankruptcy in 1974. What remained of Grant’s after the bankruptcy was absorbed by the giant retail blob known as Kmart.
The M. Rich Building Complex was vacant until 1978 when it was purchased by lawyer, politician, convicted perjurer and serial Georgia business owner Patrick Swindall. He operated the Atlanta Furniture Company out of the building until 1986 when he sold the structure to a venture group that defaulted on the bill.
Swindall took back possession of the building. During his second ownership the M. Rich Building witnessed the neighborhood descend into the depths of a criminal haven. While Swindall operated a shady but legal Flea Market, a dark illicit drug market thrived around the building, totally out of his control. In the middle 1990’s the building was raided for drugs (a tenant, not Swindall), and Swindall’s vision of lofts in the building never flew due to lack of tax breaks and other funds. Swindall did manage to gain landmark designation for the M. Rich Building in 2000.
If Fulton County Tax Assessor digital records can be trusted (and they are notoriously wrong), Patrick Swindall sold the complex in 1998 to a company named 82 Peachtree for $1.2 million. It seems Patrick Swindall has a knack for attracting quality buyers, because this second owner also was a financial gem, foreclosing on the property in 2010. It was then sold to another company named NFPS Inc. for $3.9 million.
It has since sold again, in 2011, to The Creations Group, a real estate and investment company based in Hong Kong, for $1.425 million. The Creations Group has spearheaded renovations and increased occupancy from 5% to more than 75% with tenants such as C4, Creative Loafing and AT&T.
It’s a historic building that needs a regular tour. It offers so much Atlanta history, but it can become confusing. Entryways and corridors between the five original buildings have been cut by all the owners, from Morris Rich to Pat Swindall. Its maze-like layout mirrors Atlanta’s history and growth, showing how our structures, like our city grid, have organically conformed to the needs of the people.
Did you know… The Creations Group was founded in 1991 in Australia by Caroline and Danny Lin?
Did you know… The Fulton County District Attorney’s office was located in the M. Rich Building Complex for several years (currently the home of C4)? Probably not the best location for a place raided by the police…
Did you know… Modern Peachtree Street (formerly Whitehall Street) presents many problems, from drugs and prostitution to older families that own former department store buildings? Happy with the current revenue, many of these families do little for their appearance and upkeep.
Did you know… The street levels between the “Main Store” Building and the “Hunter Street Ell” Building actual drops down one full grade?
Did you know… An Atlanta police station was located on the same block and the police used the alleyways behind the M. Rich Building for storing confiscated farm animals such as pigs and chickens?