Effort to protect former Eagle home as landmark faces delay

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The effort to protect the 122-year-old building that once housed the Atlanta Eagle stalled on Wednesday, delaying discussion of designating it as a historic landmark for at least two weeks. 

The Atlanta Urban Design Commission pressed pause after the building’s owner asked for more time to review the city’s application for landmark status. The city – and Historic Atlanta – wants to designate two buildings – 306 Ponce de Leon Avenue, which housed the Eagle until it closed in November, and 300 Ponce de Leon, vacant since the 1990s – as landmarks to protect them from being demolished.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms jump-started the process in mid-December. But Dennis Webb – an attorney for Shahzad Hashmi, the Gwinnett psychiatrist who owns both buildings – argued that they received two city reports about the landmark designation just a week before the meeting. 

“The two staff reports total 112 pages of incredibly detailed information,” Webb said during the commission meeting on Wednesday. 

“The property owner certainly wants to participate in this process and wants to present evidence on this application and under the circumstances doesn’t feel like it’s really had an opportunity to meaningfully do so,” he added. 

Webb asked the commission to delay the proceedings for 30 days. Commission Chair Desmond Johnson agreed, but city officials asked for a two-week delay with the possibility of another extension to be granted during the commission’s Jan. 27 meeting. The commission unanimously agreed to the two-week deferral.

Charlie Paine, secretary of Historic Atlanta and chair of its LGBTQ Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, said the organization is “heavily in favor” of moving forward with the landmark designation process. 

“We are really proud to have led this effort and to work with the city on this important historic site,” Paine told the commission.

Designating the two buildings as landmarks would prevent them from being demolished and mandate that exterior changes receive advance approval from the Urban Design Commission.

Charlie Paine, secretary of Historic Atlanta and chair of its LGBTQ Historic Preservation Advisory Committee. (Photo by Patrick Saunders)

RuPaul and an Atlanta police raid

In two reports, the city’s Department of City Planning argues that the historic, architectural and cultural significance of both buildings warrants them being designated as landmarks. The reports are based in large part on research and documentation from Historic Atlanta.

The building at 306 Ponce was constructed in 1898 as a residential mansion and converted into a commercial building with a one-story addition in 1949, according to the city report. It’s been a bar since 1981 and was home to the Eagle from 1988 until it closed in November.

A young RuPaul performed there when it was the Celebrity Club, Atlanta police raided the Eagle in 2009, and the structure is a symbol of the transformation of Ponce from a residential corridor into a commercial strip in mid-1900s – all reasons it should be designated a landmark, the city said in its report.

The building is also a symbol of LGBTQ Atlanta, which is an “important social group in the history of the city and state,” according to the report.

“This community is an integral part of the city’s social, cultural, and political landscape and have helped created the city’s reputation as an open, welcoming, progressive, dynamic, and diverse urban area,” the report stated.

The 300 Ponce building – built in 1910 and known as the Kodak building thanks to a rooftop sign installed in 1979 – has been vacant since the 1990s. In 2001, it briefly housed the campaign office of Shirley Franklin, who was elected the city’s first female mayor. The city argues that’s one of the reasons the building should be designated a landmark, as well as its architectural and cultural significance.

Franklin was an LGBTQ ally, supported equality efforts and hired prominent LGBTQ staff members during her two terms in office. She was also the city’s mayor when Atlanta police raided the Eagle in 2009.

Both buildings are in disrepair, and a portion of the Kodak building has suffered “considerable damage to the north facade,” according to the city report. The original facades of the structures – built as residential mansions – were lost in the mid-1900s when commercial storefronts were added. 

‘Tons of repairs’ needed if Eagle to return

Granting landmark status to 306 Ponce could help bring the Eagle back, owner Richard Ramey said in December. But the structure needs “tons of repairs” before the bar would reopen there. 

“If and when we go back into our home at 306, the building is going to be renovated. We are not going back in the condition that building was in in the last several years,” he said.

In October, Ramey said that he was one year into his final three-year lease and that Hashmi had a buyer for the building. That, combined with plummeting revenue thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, convinced Ramey to close the Eagle.

Ramey said he would find a new location for the Eagle and reopen in 2021.

But when Bottoms announced her intent to designate the building as a landmark, Ramey said that opened “a pathway to go back home to 306.”

Ramey has not publicly detailed what repairs the building needs, the cost or who would pay for them. He has had four landlords in the 23 years he’s owned the Eagle and repeatedly said they were all reluctant to repair and improve the building.

Ramey said in December that Hashmi is open to having the Eagle return but that they have not met to formalize an agreement.

In November, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation included both buildings among its 10 “Places in Peril” list for 2021.

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