Cover Story: Step inside the Clermont Hotel (2)
CL takes a final look inside the seedy Ponce hotel before it get an upscale face-lift
On the coldest day in Atlanta in nearly two decades, the heat is turned off inside the Clermont Hotel. Frigid gusts sweep through the cracked windowpanes of the seven-story brick building and into dozens of forlorn and abandoned rooms. The iconic structure has been vacant since Fulton County health inspectors shut it down four years ago for unsanitary conditions.
The Clermont Hotel's manager, Stan, who's currently the lone tenant, jimmies a padlock, unravels steel chains, and snips a zip tie to open the plywood-boarded front entrance. Once we're inside, he shuts the iron-barred door and locks back up to keep out unwanted visitors.
Giant strips of paint peel off the crumbling walls. Dusty ceiling fans hang over orange cones surrounding a large ice patch in the wake of an overnight flood. Behind the front desk's glass security window, keys with oversize green tags rest on hooks and within cubbyholes, still waiting to be dropped into guests' hands. Old cigarette butts fill a blue ashtray set atop a pile of Atlanta Police criminal trespassing warning forms. One registration paper includes an important disclaimer: "Guests without baggage please pay in advance."
Last winter, Clermont Hotel Partners LLC purchased the 88,000-square-foot Ponce de Leon Avenue landmark for $2.25 million. New plans for the 89-year-old structure that sits atop the seedy and beloved Clermont Lounge call for a renovation of the building into a four-star boutique hotel.
That the Clermont Hotel's new owners are preserving the landmark building is an unusual approach in a city that has long disregarded its architectural history. The adaptive-reuse renovation represents a rare chance to reclaim a storied, forgotten space.
In June 1924, Atlanta businessman Jesse L. Morrison constructed the 85-unit Bonaventure Arms Apartments for $600,000. The project was one of several concurrent efforts to meet the city's growing housing demand for middle-class professionals. An article from the Atlanta Constitution described the structure, due east of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Southern Regional Catalog Distribution Center and Ford Motor Assembly Plant, as one of the "handsomest and most modern apartment houses in the south."
The property frequently changed hands over the next 15 years. In 1939, the Briarcliff Investment Company purchased the building and converted it into the Hotel Clermont, an extended-stay lodge with long-term rentals that, at first, only served white guests. To promote the hotel, the owners erected the metal tower, then equipped with beaming neon lights, on the hotel's rooftop.
Prior to the Clermont Lounge's opening in 1965, the basement housed a number of establishments, including ritzy cocktail lounge the Continental Room, and the Anchorage Supper Club, which hosted nightly burlesque shows. The Atlanta Playboy Club and Jungle Club followed in the space, bringing in increasingly exotic entertainment. The lounge's and hotel's notoriety grew alongside Ponce's reputation in the '70s and '80s. Drug addicts and hookers became tenants alongside middle-class renters. The Clermont Hotel's mythology has entwined everyone from Blondie to GG Allin.
"It became universally seen as a seedy hotel where you might get shived," says Scott Henry, CL's former news editor who stayed in rooms 406 and 508 for a 2002 cover story. "It wasn't as cracked out as I expected it to be, but it wasn't a place you'd even go ironically."
Health violations and subsequent foreclosure brought that all to an end in late 2009. The bank-owned property fell into disrepair as multiple developers eyed its potential redevelopment. Real estate developers Ethan Orley and Philip Welker, who specialize in adaptive reuse projects, inked a deal in late 2012 after a contract fell through at the last minute. In recent months, workers have cleaned out asbestos, lead paint, and other hazardous substances from the hotel's bowels in preparation for proper renovations.
Between $10-$30 million in improvements may be required inside the hotel. Guests can expect to pay top dollar for single rooms in the renovated hotel or check into more affordable hostel-style rooms on the two basement floors. Early renderings reveal plans for a proper driveway, streetscaping, and an entrance canopy for the building's front. Around back, a two-story parking deck will be constructed to bring the property up to date with current zoning codes and Atlanta Beltline overlay standards. An existing house on Bonaventure Avenue will be turned into additional guest rooms, increasing the hotel's capacity to nearly 100 rooms.
Welker says the Clermont Hotel will no longer have restrictive loitering policies and will open its doors to a "melting pot" of Atlanta residents and travelers. According to G+G Architects Co-Principal Lee Ann Gamble, the project will feature a restaurant with a notable chef to attract a local crowd. Patrons will also have access to a rooftop bar. The rusting tower will be restored and its neon letters will once again light up Ponce. And, yes, the infamous Clermont Lounge should remain largely untouched.
The renovation could pay homage to the Clermont Hotel's past and offer visitors a closer look at life in one of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods. Welker says their preservation efforts could "set a cultural tone for the rest of the neighborhood." At the same time, the project is also a sign of the rapid gentrification already happening as developers erect new residential units and drive up housing prices. With Ponce City Market, the Atlanta Beltline, new bike lanes, and perhaps, someday, an extension of the Atlanta Streetcar, the area is becoming a more attractive place to live to those with deeper pockets. It's unclear whether Ponce's history of sleaziness, endearing to and mourned by some locals, will be entirely whitewashed in the name of progress.
Before builders gut deteriorating rooms, spruce up decrepit halls, and inevitably turn the page on a bygone era, CL captured the Clermont Hotel's sordid past one last time. Step inside with us.