Humbug Square - In the House

New nightclub perks up city's tired Underground playground

Underground Atlanta awakens from its slumber at New Year's, like Brigadoon rising from the mist.

It's the only time of year you can get a glimpse of what the complex used to be like, a long time ago, when I thought it was the coolest place in America.

"It absolutely was," agrees political consultant Angelo Fuster, who used to play guitar and sing James Taylor songs at one of the great old Underground clubs, the Bank Note.

"People were jammed in wall-to-wall on the streets," he recalls.

The clubs — which had old, raw stone walls dating back to the 19th century — lined the streets, which were crawling with musicians. At the time, Fuster says, there were an amazing 30 places to hear live music within a mile of Underground.

But it didn't last. It's one of the saddest stories I know. At least the city and Underground's managers, O'Leary Partners, are keeping it going.

This week, Underground will have a big Peach Bowl party and its annual New Year's Eve Peach Drop, which brings in 150,000 people or so. Then there's the bonus crowd of fans attending the Sugar Bowl, blown into town by Hurricane Katrina.

But, frankly, I'm most interested in the opening of the new brothel.

At least it sounded like a brothel when I first heard about it. It's a nightclub called the House with a bunch of different rooms, including a VIP master bedroom, a teenager's bedroom, a living room and a kitchen. The website — www.thehousenightclub.com — urges you to "make sure to visit our kitchen's own washroom and watch our dirty house mom get clean in the shower."

I drove down to Underground Atlanta and went into Kenny's Alley, where they opened some new nightclubs last year and called it "The New Underground Atlanta." It was daytime and only a handful of people were milling around.

I saw the logo for the House on the third floor above the alley and rode up on the shabby elevator. I looked through the club window and saw workmen furiously sawing wood and hanging lights to get ready for the Dec. 29 opening.

And that's when I met Krista Gable, owner of the House.

"I'm seriously ADD," Krista says, so she's hired calmer people to help run the club. She has long blond hair and is wearing a shiny gray pantsuit.

She tells me right away that the club is not a brothel. Some of the ad copy is a tease. The club will have "no stripping, no nudity," she says. It's basically a Top 40 music club with DJs. Krista dreamed up the idea for the club in October, invested her own cash — she says a half-million — and has been rushing toward the opening ever since.

She says she's teamed up with Q100 and is going after all Atlanta's party-goers, regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation. She's got a party bus that will pick up patrons throughout the city and take them back after the 4 a.m. closing.

Krista is 28, a preacher's daughter from North Carolina who runs an Internet ad agency, a Buckhead recording studio and an information technology recruiting agency. She says she's going to be a big part of the club, even serving drinks.

She is so animated and excited that I tell her she reminds me a bit of another visionary who opened a place in Underground Atlanta and took part in every aspect of the operation. In fact, I shared a piece of cheesecake with him the night before.

His name is Dante Stephensen. The place he opened in Underground Atlanta, 36 years ago, was called Dante's Down the Hatch.

Underground's golden era lasted from 1969 to about 1973. And if Underground Atlanta was the coolest place in America, Dante's Down the Hatch was the coolest place in Underground. You had to stand in line for hours to duck through the wooden hatch and walk down the stairs into the craziest place outside of Disneyland.

Stephensen, a musician, carpenter and geologist from Chicago, built a 17th-century Spanish galleon that was docked in a faux Mediterranean village. Live crocodiles swam beside the ship. He served fondue, fine wine, and top-of-the-line mixed drinks, and the club featured live jazz. It was Peter Pan with a pouring license.

I went there not long after it opened. My jaw dropped when I saw that one of my ex-fraternity brothers, Beau Newton, was the sommelier. I wouldn't have been more impressed if he had joined the Beatles.

Stephensen, who now operates Down the Hatch on Peachtree Road near Lenox Square, explains what happened to Underground. In 1969, Fulton County was the only place in the metro area, and most of the state, that allowed mixed drinks. And Georgia law required men to wear coats and ties in clubs that served liquor. (Most rural men who visited Underground had just one suit — for church, weddings and funerals — and they didn't dare get into fistfights and ruin the suits or their wives would kill them, Stephensen says.)

But several things happened. Then-Gov. Jimmy Carter got rid of the coat-and-tie law and also lowered the drinking age from 21 to 18. Fights started. And the kids carrying fake IDs were no longer 18. They were 16.

Then MARTA tore up several blocks of clubs, including the Bank Note, to make way for the new subway line. The old Urban Mass Transit Administration dragged out its payments for the property for three years, ultimately bankrupting the company that ran Underground. MARTA construction also eliminated much of the parking.

Sometime around 1973, DeKalb County began allowing mixed drinks and therefore provided competition. In addition, Stephensen claims, the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution began covering Underground with a "condescending snarl." Every crime in downtown was linked to Underground, he says.

In 1981, Stephensen and a few holdouts finally gave up and left Underground. It remained closed for eight years.

Then, some of the original pioneers won a claim for damages against UMTA and used the money to plan Underground's rebirth. It was handled by the Rouse Company, famous for revitalizing downtown areas.

Underground reopened in 1989, but much of the original charm was lost. The old Underground streets — which had been abandoned in the late 1920s, when the city built viaducts to raise new streets high above the railroad gulch — now looked like a mall.

Stephensen opened his club in Underground again in 1989 and kept it going through the Olympics. Business died off again after that. He finally closed it in 1999 to focus on his Buckhead club.

Now, Underground needs to get the nightclub business that in the '90s moved to Buckhead Village and has since migrated to Midtown. General Manager Chick Ciccaglione says Underground, unlike Buckhead or Midtown, doesn't offend neighbors and can be safely secured. But in 2006, it will take another hit when the World of Coca-Cola moves away to be closer to the aquarium.

I strolled around Underground last week and let the memories wash over me. I was happy to see that Dante's gleaming old wooden hatch is still there. I thought about seeing my old friend Beau in the glory days, pouring fine wine. Stephensen told me that Beau died last year, stung by wasps. Stephensen also told me that his original old ship is still down there at the deepest place in Underground Atlanta, gathering dust.

Senior Editor Doug Monroe is a fifth-generation Atlantan. You can reach him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.