Cover Story: The lost world of City Hall East

The mysteries inside Atlanta’s largest abandoned building

Larger than the Mall of Georgia. Roomier than the Bank of America tower. In terms of raw square footage, able to swallow the Cobb Galleria Centre, the twin towers of the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd state office complex and the Varsity drive-in, all at once – with enough room left over for Tyler Perry’s house.

Yeah, City Hall East is one big-ass building.

For the numerically minded, the nine-story former Sears, Roebuck & Co. Southern Regional Catalog Distribution Center on Ponce de Leon Avenue is just shy of 2 million square feet in size, not counting the parking decks, boiler plant or other on-site structures. That’s 45 acres of floor space.

After then-Mayor Maynard Jackson coaxed Atlanta into buying the enormous edifice from Sears in 1991 for $12 million – “The deal of the century,” he called it – it was home to the police department, parks and rec, fire headquarters, motor transport, central records and a city-sponsored art gallery. At one time or another over the past two decades, City Hall East also housed the Lee Haney gym, offices for Habitat for Humanity, Jimmy Carter’s short-lived Atlanta Project, the now-defunct Jomandi Theatre, and a 130,000-square-foot exhibition hall that hosted the Southeastern Flower Show.

Still, under the city’s ownership, no more than a third of the building ever saw use.

Initially constructed in 1925 and expanded several times, it was one of 10 gargantuan regional distribution centers that Sears built in major cities across the country between 1910 and the dawn of the Great Depression. The company operated a retail store in the building until 1979 and still employed a force of more than 2,000 office and warehouse workers for nearly 10 years after that.

Now negotiating to sell the old warehouse to private developers, the city is currently working to empty the building of several decades’ worth of old furniture, ancient files, obsolete equipment and assorted crap. Mark Hunt, the city employee tasked with preparing City Hall East for decommissioning in early May, says workers are hauling enough junk out of the building every hour to fill four 20-cubic-yard Dumpsters.

And you thought cleaning out your garage was a bitch.

Taking a tour of City Hall East is a little like walking through an abandoned factory, entering a Kafkaesque maze of empty office suites, or stepping into a Terry Gilliam movie set, depending on what part of the building you’re in. The scale of the structure can be intimidating. Small anterooms open into cavernous chambers that could accommodate entire football fields. There are freight elevators you could drive a car into and banks of slots where hundreds of hourly workers once kept timecards. Miles of conveyor belts, dumbwaiters and chutes used to carry merchandise from vast stockrooms through enormous sorting and packaging areas to immense loading docks, where distant back walls recede into the shadows.

Then there’s the old stuff. The maintenance shop is a time capsule of Machine Age devices and doodads, with hundreds of wooden drawers filled with such anachronisms as vacuum tubes, white ceramic insulators and rows of bakelite-encased circuit breakers. Next door, the electrical room has a wall lined with massive switches, voltage dials and brass wheels that would make Victor Frankenstein feel at home. In the boiler plant, huge, ancient contraptions sit side by side with huge, semimodern machines amid a riot of pipes and gauges.

Lastly, the weirdness. In the basement, workers have stacked most of the leftover furniture collected upstairs – coat racks, desks, file cabinets and a sea of chairs of every shape, style and degree of wear. On a loading dock sit vendor carts with striped awnings that were last seen during the Centennial Olympics. In a hall upstairs lie hundreds of long wooden boxes containing tens of thousands of feet of core samples – cylindrical bedrock borings taken at the location of every sewer pipe, tunnel or water main from the city’s ongoing, $4 billion sewer overhaul project.

Before the old Sears building is turned into lofts or office space or upscale boutiques, before it gets cleared out, repainted, renovated and repopulated, we wanted to give you a sense of the ancient, awe-inspiring and downright odd spaces that remain inside Atlanta’s largest abandoned building.

Behold the lost world of City Hall East.