Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Westin Peachtree Plaza

This post comes to you with help from Leslie Kilpatrick and Jennifer Barger, who contributed a ton of the research. Thanks ladies! (It also helped get this one out so quickly, so expect longer wait times in the future.)

So anyway, this post's block falls within Peachtree St, Ellis St, Carnegie Way, Spring St, and Andrew Young International Blvd. It is currently home to one of the most recognizable buildings in Atlanta's skyline, the Westin Peachtree.

Ugh, it's not even a square!!

Before the Civil War, banker John H. James purchased a portion of the block along Peachtree and Ellis for $1,500 and built his home there. James spent the Civil War in the Bahamas (sure, ok), and when he returned, he sold his lot and purchased another one on the block to build an even better home at Peachtree and Cain (now Andy Young Blvd) in 1869.

John H. James
John H. James Mansion
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Within a year, James sold his new Victorian residence to the State of Georgia for $100,000 in bonds, and the house became the first official Executive Mansion (Governor's Mansion) in Atlanta. Rufus Bullock, Georgia's first Republican governor, was also the first of 17 governors to live in the mansion.

Governor Rufus Bullock and his awesome face thing.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
1888 watercolor engraving of the Executive Mansion
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Governor's Mansion Interior, 1895
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Other homes cropped up along the block at this time, which you can see in the 1871 birds-eye view below. The grandest homes lined Peachtree on the eastern edge of the block, with more modest homes lining Church St (now Carnegie).

1871 birds-eye drawing.  The Executive Mansion is on the northeast corner, labeled #4.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The house just south of the Executive Mansion was built in 1858 for William Herring and designed by John Boutell. During the federal occupation of Atlanta, the Greek Revival home served as headquarters for Union General George Thomas. In 1878, Austin Leyden married Herring's daughter Catherine and moved into the house, so the house is commonly referred to as the Leyden House. The Leyden House is referenced in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind as being close to Rhett Butler's house (sorry, Windies, but that part's fiction).

Union soldiers at the Leyden House, 1864
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Meanwhile, John H. James, who had been elected 21st mayor of Atlanta in 1871, built himself yet another new house on the corner of Peachtree and Ellis. He then sold that home in 1884 to the Capital City Club, an Atlanta social club founded in 1883. The Peachtree Street entrance of the clubhouse was used for men, while women had to use the side entrance off Ellis Street.

He-Man Women Haters Club, 1890
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Next door to the club house was another postbellum mansion, owned first by tailor John B. Jones, then by banker R. H. Richards. The 1895 image below shows the Peachtree side of our block, with (left to right), the Capital City Club (the spires were apparently removed), the Richards mansion, the Leyden House, and the Executive Mansion (only the tippy top is visible).
Peachtree St, 1895.  It's getting fancy up in here!
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Jones-Richards Mansion
1878 atlas showing all properties n the block.
By this time, the Leyden Home had become a boarding house run by the Leyden family, whose tenants were often wealthy bachelors. Comparing the 1895 image below to the 1864 image, you can see some structural updates to the house, like the second-story balustrade.

Leyden Bachelor Pad, 1895
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
In the 1892 birds-eye drawing below, you can see all the mansions lining Peachtree to the east and the cluster of smaller dwellings along Church St to the southwest. Just behind the Capital City Club is the Church of the Redeemer (later the Central Congregational Church), built in 1885. An interior photograph of the church is below, and part of the exterior can be seen in the 1890 photo of the Capital City Club above.

1892 birds-eye view
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Church of the Redeemer interior, 1890
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
The 20th century brought drastic changes to the block, beginning with the death of Austin Leyden in 1900. The Leyden house was eventually purchased in 1909 by Coca-Cola Company founder Asa Griggs Candler for $100,000. Candler also purchased the Capital City Club house in 1913 after the club moved to its current building two blocks north in 1911 (Fun Fact: Candler was a prominent member of the club). Candler demolished both properties by 1913, leading to "rife speculation" about his plans for the block.

Atlanta Constitution clipping showing the demolished
Capital City Club building, dated January 31, 1913
The Leyden House, though destroyed, partially lives on in Atlanta's Ansley Park neighborhood. Candler opted to save the house's columns, and they were transferred to Woodbury Hall School for Girls, which remains today as Peachtree Circle Apartments.  History Atlanta has a great article about the saga of the Leyden House and its columns.

Peachtree Circle Apartments in Ansley Park with 158-year-old columns.
The Richards mansion changed hands in 1910 with the death of Mrs. Richards (now Mrs. Abbott, re-married and re-widowed). The University Club moved in the following year and occupied the home until 1916. By 1920, that home had also been demolished, leaving the Executive Mansion as the block's only remaining Peachtree residence. You can see that in the 1919 birds-eye drawing below, although it's a little hard to tell. You can see a couple other structures on the block, mostly dwarfed by larger structures on surrounding blocks. Our block sits largely vacant.

The Winecoff and the Bussey building block our view of
a whole lot of nothing in this 1919 birds-eye drawing.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The Executive Mansion didn't last too much longer either. Governor Hugh M. Dorsey vacated that house in 1921, feeling that its dilapidated state left it unfit for residency. Dorsey, who had made a name for himself as prosecutor for the Leo Frank trial in 1913, was the last governor to live in the mansion, and the home was torn down in 1923.

Governor Hugh M. Dorsey, really picky about his mansions.
One last stroll before it's all gone forever. (Photograph from 1907)
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
The Executive Mansion lot didn't sit vacant for too long before the Henry Grady Hotel took its place. Named for the Atlanta Constitution editor and New South proponent (you may have heard of him), the Henry Grady Hotel was designed by G. Lloyd Preacher & Company and opened in 1924. The Daughters of the Confederacy threw a ball opening day celebrating the hotel and Grady's New South vision. Rooms were for whites only, which led to two Atlanta University students staging a lie-in at the hotel in 1963.

Postcard of Henry Grady Hotel
Attached to the southern side of Henry Grady Hotel on Peachtree were two theaters: the Keith-Albee Georgia Theatre (re-named the Roxy in 1938) and the Capitol Theatre. Both theaters played films and stage shows, and like the rest of Atlanta at the time, they were segregated spaces with separate box offices and entrances for white and black patrons.

Georgia Theatre Program, 1927
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Capitol and Roxy Theatres, 1944
Courtesy of Georgia State University Special Collections
Roxy Theatre Candy Stand, 1947
Courtesy of Georgia State University Special Collections
Roxy Theatre Colored Entrance, 1954
Courtesy of Georgia State University Special Collections
An office building called the Red Rock was also constructed on the block in the 1920s on the corner of Cain and Spring. The Red Rock held offices for companies like General Electric and Singer Sewing Machines.

A far more significant addition to the block came in 1927, though, when Asa Candler's master plan finally came to fruition. Candler contracted Davison's to build a new department store, designed by Atlanta architect Philip Shutze, taking up the remainder of the Peachtree side of the block. Davison's (formerly Davison & Douglas, Davison-Paxon-Stokes, and Davison-Paxon) was an Atlanta-based department store that had recently been purchased by Macy's. Davison's was also segregated back then, with the lower levels of the store (called Davison's Basement) reserved for black customers.

Davison's at the corner of Peachtree and Ellis, 1940s
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Davison's Interior
Davison's initially flourished for many years, adding a parking deck and new store space in 1949. The store was modernized in 1963, but as the 20th century waned, downtown department stores couldn't compete with suburban malls, and Davison's was no exception. It changed its name to Macy's in 1985 and continued to decline until it finally closed in 2003.

Looking south on Peachtree from Henry Grady Hotel to Davison's, 1956
Courtesy of Georgia State University Special Collections
The Henry Grady Hotel remained open until 1974 when civic leaders' dreams of a world-class Atlanta led to its demolition in favor of a new modern hotel (demolition seen below).  

Embodiment of New South vision deemed an outdated relic.  There's a metaphor in there somewhere.
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
John Portman, Jr., an Atlanta-based architect (and another member of the Capital City Club), designed the new Westin hotel in place of Grady. Portman's master plan for downtown, dubbed Peachtree Center, was created in 1958 and included offices, hotels, and convention space spanning several city blocks.  

Architect John Portman and his awesome head thing.
The first of Portman's downtown Atlanta buildings was the Merchandise Mart (now part of AmericasMart) in 1961, followed by the Peachtree Center office towers in 1965, and the Hyatt Regency in 1967. Portman's vision came to our block in 1976 with the completion of the Westin Peachtree Plaza.

Westin Peachtree under construction, 1974
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Construction progress, 1975.  Onward and upward!
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Many of Portman's hotels are known for their large, open atria. The Westin, however, was constructed on a comparatively narrow lot, resulting in its tall, cylindrical guestroom tower atop a base with the lobby and public space. The base extends along Andy Young International Blvd, the northern edge of the block, from Peachtree to Spring St. The tower portion is close to the corner of Andy Young and Spring. At the time of its completion in 1976, the 723-ft Westin Peachtree was the tallest building in Atlanta and the tallest hotel in the world.

It's so tall it looks like it's scraping the sky!
I wonder if there's a name for a building like that...
View at street level on Peachtree.
The top three floors of the 73-floor hotel house the Sun Dial, a revolving restaurant and lounge that provides a panoramic view of Atlanta's surroundings.

Sun Dial rendering
Courtesy of Atlanta History Center
On March 14, 2008, a tornado ripped through downtown Atlanta, damaging over 500 of the Westin's mirrored windows. The manufacturer no longer made glass to the original windows' specifications, so the window repairs weren't completed until 2010.

500 broken mirror windows adds up to 3500 years bad luck.
Significant renovations to the Davison's/Macy's building, which had been largely vacant since the store closed in 2003, began in 2008.  The renovations include retail, convention space, and a banquet hall. Called 200 Peachtree, the building has housed Meehan's Irish Pub and Sweet Georgia's Juke Joint since 2010.

200 Peachtree
And that pretty much brings us up to date. A plaque on 200 Peachtree's facade mentions the grand mansions that once lined Peachtree Street. Now there are only two buildings on the block (three if you count the parking deck), constructed roughly 50 years apart.

Below I've taken the buildings shown in the 1878 atlas and added them to the block as it appears today.

Here endeth the lesson.


  1. This blog is great! Thanks and keep it up!

  2. An interesting side-note to the Henry Grady Hotel - prior to demolition, the building was used to study how fire spreads and reacts to different containment and suppression techniques, helping to update the Life Safety Code...

  3. Thank you very much for this information. Leyden House is of particular interest to me as my husband is a great-great grandson of Wm. Herring. So interesting to read the whole history of the site and to see where it stood in relation to what is there now. We will be sure to have a drink at Meehan's Irish Pub the next time we are in town!

  4. This blog is awesome!!! You are doing a fabulous job! Thanks for sharing it with us.