Atlanta’s Strength in the Face of Fire
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Where Atlanta.
Atlanta is wise beyond its 179 years thanks to the dense scrapbook of history amassed in that short time. Flip through the pages of Atlanta’s history books, and you might notice a recurring theme of mass destruction caused by one unforgiving enemy: fire.
It’s as if Gen. William T. Sherman cast a spell on Atlanta when he led 67,000 torch-yielding Union troops through town in 1864. Fifty-three years later, in 1917, flames consumed 300 acres of the city’s center in what is now the Old Fourth Ward. In 1938, the Terminal Hotel was gutted in minutes by a roaring blaze that claimed 35 lives. And, in 1946, 119 lives were lost to a fire that ravaged the “absolutely fireproof” Winecoff Hotel, making it the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history.
But, as British philosopher Bernard Williams once said, “Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit.” Time and again, Atlanta has proven itself inextinguishable in the face of ardent tragedy.
Torched by War
Smoke formed a nouveau sky above splintered beams. The glow from half-lit embers created an apocalyptic twilight. Ruins—once homes or drugstores or train depots—crackled in memory of Sherman’s destructive march through Atlanta during the Civil War.
The city had formed only 27 years before as the terminating point of four railroad lines—Terminus, they first called the place. Mill workers, railroad engineers and other such blue-collar types dominated the burgeoning city, branding it with a coarse, rough-and-tumble flair. It was no paradise before Sherman’s infamous Atlanta Campaign, but it was home to thousands. By the ill-fated summer of 1864, that home was all but lost—and with it went dreams for a greater Atlanta.
Or so it seemed.
Sherman would move on from Atlanta to Savannah, and the Union Army would ultimately win the war. The young nation would remain united and slavery would be abolished. Atlanta would, for the first but certainly not last time, dust off the ashes of destruction and rebuild.
It was perhaps the city’s rapid Civil War reconstruction that set the tone of bulletproof strength for years to come. In fact, within four years of Sherman’s inflamed march, Atlanta had become the region’s industrial hub and the state’s capital. Atlantans not only rebuilt their town, but also took the opportunity to reinvent their city as more progressive than its Southern neighbors—the “New South,” they deemed it.
And so it was. Atlanta was soon a nucleus for intellectuals, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and inventors (such as pharmacist John Pemberton, who formulated a tonic now known as Coca-Cola). By the 1950s, less than 100 years after the abolition of slavery, Auburn Avenue was recognized as the wealthiest African-American street in the nation.
Massive, world-renowned attractions are firmly planted where lives once were uprooted. In just a one-mile radius downtown, visitors can choose from nearly a dozen attractions, including Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, theCenter for Civil and Human Rights, the Children’s Museum of Atlanta and theCollege Football Hall of Fame. Most of these cultural institutions surroundCentennial Olympic Park, which commemorates the 1996 Summer Olympic Games held in Atlanta—or more specifically, in an area once reduced to dust. In January 2014, the Atlanta Streetcar thrust the city’s past as a rail hub and streetcar town into the future with a 2.7-mile route that connects downtown and Old Fourth Ward.
Downtown is also home to the city’s largest hotels, which sit within walking distance of the fourth largest convention center in the nation and one of the world’s largest wholesale trade centers, AmericasMart.
Old Fourth Ward neighbors downtown Atlanta to the east. Today, eclectic bars, multicultural restaurants and historic landmarks dominate the large neighborhood. But these structures came to exist only after 300 acres were cleared by the second-worst fire in the city’s history.
There must have been something in the air over Atlanta’s Fourth Ward on May 21, 1917. It was a windy day, and the sun was a burst of yellow in a clear, blue sky. Within 60 minutes that morning, firefighters had been called to extinguish three fires. A small warehouse fire was easily tamed, but two fires were collectively burning through 13 homes. The fourth call came in at 12:46 pm: smoke billowing from a small warehouse in the area’s south end. Without equipment, firemen arrived at the warehouse, where a stack of inflamed mattresses greeted them. Calamity converged as wind whisked the flames up Edgewood Avenue in the time it took firefighters to arrive with the necessary artillery.
The 10-hour blaze ultimately destroyed 1,938 buildings throughout 73 city blocks. One woman suffered a fatal heart attack as she fled the infernal scene. The area was left smoldering for a week.
The loss of homes and businesses cut the Fourth Ward deeply, but residents found no other option than to rally together and rebuild. In 1918, a makeshift, tented market took up residence on land scorched by fire a year prior, giving the community a place to buy fresh produce and goods. In 1924, brick and mortar replaced canvas and steel with the opening of the official Atlanta Municipal Market. The segregated market allowed only whites to shop inside, while African-American vendors were forced to sell from the building’s curbs. Nearly 100 years later, the since-renamed Sweet Auburn Curb Market brims with a diverse group of local vendors, chefs and restaurateurs who own the popular stalls inside.
Today’s Old Fourth Ward is also a haven for locally owned restaurants of every kind.
Harold’s Chicken & Ice Bar, 4th & Swift and Thumbs Up Diner serve Southern fare, and Miso Izakaya, Mango’s and Across the Street lend international flavor to the neighborhood. Local favorites LottaFrutta, Serpasand Highland Bakery offer incredible food in laid-back settings.
Ashes of Unrest
During moments when peace and serenity are meant to rule, fervent flames and thick clouds of smoke cast their unforgiving reign on both the Terminal and Winecoff Hotels. Though the hotels share eerily similar horror stories—fire discovered by a hotel employee at around 3 am—the incidents occurred eight years apart.
In 1938, the Terminal Hotel was a dollar-and-up lodging conveniently situated across from Terminal Station. The fire on May 16 gutted the building and, in its rampage, claimed 35 of the 75 lives inside. Today, the Richard B. Russell Federal Building sits where Terminal Station once stood, facing not a hotel, but a hodgepodge of locally owned shops, businesses and art galleries that make historic Castleberry Hill one of Atlanta’s most artistic neighborhoods. In fact, the area is home to one of the city’s best art strolls, which take place on the second Friday of each month.
Less than a mile away on Dec. 7, 1946, the Winecoff Hotel would earn an enduring spot in the country’s collective memory. The 15-story hotel opened its doors in 1913 as one of the city’s tallest buildings; but the hotel’s true claim to fame was its promise of being “absolutely fireproof.”
The gruesome events that took place in the early hours of Dec. 7 were a perfect storm of mishandled safety protocol, highly flammable interiors and a lack of fire escapes. Of the 309 people in the hotel, only 185 made it out alive (65 of which were injured). The Winecoff Hotel fire made global headlines for two reasons: First, with 119 total deaths, it was (and remains) the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history; and second, a young Georgia Tech graduate student captured an ominous photo of hotel guest Daisy McCumber leaping from the blazing building, for which he won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. McCumber survived the fall and lived to age 86.
Unlike the other aforementioned structures, the Winecoff Hotel was not demolished, but rather took on several new forms before reaching its latest incarnation as The Ellis Hotel in 2007. The Ellis Hotel sits on the same bustling Peachtree Street as did the Winecoff—smack dab in Downtown Atlanta. This twice-ravaged land (remember the Atlanta Campaign?) today sits calmly within blocks of the city’s major visitor destinations, including massive hotels, world-class attractions and large-scale event venues.
The City of Atlanta’s seal speaks volumes about its dense and fiery history. In the center of the seal, flames give birth to a phoenix, wings outstretched and crowned by the word “Resurgens,” latin for “resurrecting.” Below the mythical bird’s wings, the seal says “1847. Atlanta, Ga. 1865.” Born once, born again. And again. Today, the phoenix seems an all-too-appropriate representation of this unstoppable, Herculean city.