Arts Agenda - Architectural obituary

Once a symbol of modern glamour, the Atlanta Cabana is no more

In a city that has trouble supporting the arts, the destruction of notable pieces of architecture is not surprising. Peachtree Street has endured much of this loss in its constant re-invention as the city's "premier" thoroughfare. With the demolition last week of the Atlanta Cabana, so ends another chapter in the street's irrepressible and historic development.

Located on the corner of Peachtree and 7th streets, the Cabana was the first of many flashy hotels developed by casino-mogul Jay Sarno. While working as a tile contractor in Miami, Sarno befriended Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. In 1958, after pitching Hoffa a concept for a motor lodge, Sarno and lifetime business partner Stanley Mallin received the first loan ever granted from the Teamsters' often-maligned Central States Pension Fund.

Early on, Sarno enlisted Georgia Tech architecture grad Jo Harris. Initially the object of Sarno's flirtations, Harris demonstrated her skill as an interior designer and helped the developer realize his vision of rococo modernism. Together they adorned the Cabana's 200-room complex with fountains, statues and mirrors. At ground level, a curvilinear flow of lounge, restaurant and ballrooms flanked the motor court and pool, while a modern "L-configuration" of balconies allowed for numerous viewing opportunities of guests and passersby.

Their design was clearly influenced by the Miami hotels of architect Morris Lapidus in the early '50s. His Fontainebleu and Eden Roc were the best examples of an emerging American architectural jeu de vivre, whereby European Modernism, stripped of its social responsibility, started to have some fun.

Decorated extensively with tile (an obvious passion of Sarno's), the Cabana incorporated the eye-candy qualities of mid-century strip design — notably large forms and bright colors. A monolithic seven-story turquoise tile wall faced Peachtree announcing, "I am here," and perfectly served as a billboard for the car culture redefining Peachtree in the 1950s.

By contemporary standards, the Atlanta Cabana was pure kitsch, but for the middle-class occupant of that era, a night at the Cabana offered exciting opulence. Although never to be mistaken for Route 66, Atlanta's advancement north along Peachtree transformed an avenue of stately homes and churches to a strip of modern commerce and entertainment. No longer the exclusive address of formality, old money or blue hair, here on display was a youthful Americana.

Following the Atlanta Cabana's success, Doris Day teamed with Sarno to build additional Cabanas in California and Texas. There were plans for more, until Sarno had an epiphany during a gambling trip to Las Vegas.

With another loan from the Teamsters' pension fund (a prime lender to Las Vegas casinos during this era), Sarno and company opened Caesars Palace in 1966, and as many have written, the fantasy resort was born. Sarno managed the property during the peak years of Vegas until the late '80s when his success began to wane. A one-time king of the strip, Sarno spent most of his final years playing at the Caesars blackjack tables. He died in 1984, in one of his own hotel rooms.

In recent decades, the Atlanta Cabana lost most of its luster. During its last carnation as a Quality Inn, an architecturally unsympathetic "rejuvenation" covered the exotic tile work in plaster and adapted the swinging lounges for serving continental breakfast. Clearly, the celebrity appeal had been lost. A recent plan by Midtown developers George Rohrig and Charles Loudermilk to refashion the Cabana as a boutique hotel was not successful.

A trip to the demolition site a few weeks ago revealed many of the Cabana's original finishes, hidden for years behind masks of gypsum and carpet. Scattered were the remains of filigreed concrete screen block, outlining an enormous grid of canary yellow terrazzo that covered the lobby floor. A bulldozer rested on a sidewalk of blue-green tile; in the background a waffle pattern of intricate relief tiles are newly exposed behind furring strips and floral wallpaper. In many ways, these layers of building materials characterize the history of Peachtree, the prosperous post-war years leading to a decline highlighted by the infamous hippie squatters of the late '60s.

Many preservationists are grappling with the fact that some of the building projects that were opposed 50 years ago may now be considered historic — and for good cause. Proponents of the Cabana's demolition might argue that its construction probably replaced some older gem of a building — but if the wholesale practice of tabula rasa is legitimized, Peachtree's vibrant past will be completely erased. Ironically, at a time when the nuances of mid-century design are re-inspiring art, architecture and fashion, Atlanta has lost an example of the real thing.??

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