Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reviving the Clermont

Poncey-Highland's historic Clermont Hotel has been in the news recently, as the Atlanta City Council approved a rezoning proposal that would convert the Clermont and two neighboring parcels along Bonaventure Avenue to mixed residential commercial, making it possible to move forward with plans to redevelop the old hotel.

Recent Photo of the Clermont Hotel (courtesy of Bita Honarvar, Atlanta Journal Constitution)
The Clermont was built in the 1920s as an apartment building and converted into a hotel in the 1940s. The building is best known for the Clermont Lounge, a bar and strip club that operated in the basement since the late 1960s. Having never been there myself, I hesitate to attempt any description, except to say, based on the many accounts I have heard and read, it sounds a bit like a working class Studio 54, except 1984 began a long, long time ago, and neither changed, nor ended. My favorite sound-byte on this colorful Atlanta institution is that it is "less a dive than a complete submersion." The building and lounge were closed by health officials in 2009.

1960s Advertisement (courtesy of Atlanta Time Machine)
AM 1690's Sidewalk Radio did a wonderful story on the Clermont Hotel that includes glimpses of its history and discussions with Boyd Coons of the Atlanta Preservation Center, and Mike Gamble, of G + G Architects of Atlanta, in addition to DJ, a long-time bouncer, and Blondie, who's name is synonymous with the Lounge.

Aerial View of the Clermont Hotel in 1968, the year the Clermont Lounge Opened,
viewed from south (courtesy of historicaerials.com)

Birds Eye View of Clermont Hotel, from north (Bingmaps.com)

The building was acquired in January 2013 by Clermont Hotel Partners LLC, a company led by Philip Welker and Ethan Orley, principals of BNA Associates LLC. Welker and Orley are real estate professionals that specialize in mixed-use redevelopment projects. The design concept provided to the zoning commission was drafted by G + G, who won the 2009 Clermont Design Competition sponsored by then-owner Gene Kansas. Their winning design included a rooftop bar, complete with reflecting pool and eerie bunny sculpture, and an ultra-modern lobby with a "flirt bar" that would extend the entrance from the facade to Ponce, all enclosed in luminous poly-carbonate walls (in what would undoubtedly be both the coolest and hottest lobby in Atlanta).

Lobby Concept from the 2009 Competition Winning Design (courtesy of G + G Architects)

G + G's design was an attempt to acknowledge the history of the building without over-celebrating or reproducing it. Theirs is a common perspective, by which one might argue that the continuity of history ~ that is, the ongoing use of and building onto the historic properties ~ is more appropriate than the elevation of the past that is fundamental to early (and ongoing) preservation efforts, which are usually more interested in returning buildings to an appearance from some specific point in their past. Neither approach is fundamentally right nor wrong, they merely represent different philosophies in preservation. That said, balance is the important factor, regardless of which philosophy you follow; and G + G has some experience of the modernist consumption of historic buildings (for example). 

This excerpt from the design concept highlights the proposed parking structure (in blue), repaving of
the hotel plaza along Ponce (in red),  and the entry extended to the sidewalk along Ponce (in green). 

The zoning proposal included a concept produced by G + G, which includes the construction of a parking structure to the south of the hotel; repaving of the front plaza along Ponce; and plans for landscaping and the renovation of the residence at 673 Bonaventure Avenue, which will become a separate guest lodge. The City Council set forth a series of conditions that the owners will have to satisfy in their redevelopment. The design for the parking structure must be compatible with the original architectural character of the Clermont Hotel building and landscaping plans must be created and then approved by the Office of Planning and the City Arborist prior to implementation. The asphalt pavement along Ponce, in front of the building, will be removed and replaced with decorative pavers or scored concrete. There are additional restrictions set on lighting, which is to be directed away from residential areas, and sound, and most of these (there are eight conditions, in total) require approval by various authorities. The most interesting condition is number eight, which stipulates that following the redevelopment of this property, the owner will be responsible for nominating the Clermont Hotel building as a local Landmark. 

The design includes an extension from the front door to Ponce; it is unclear whether or not this is a carryover from G + G's 2009 design or if this is merely a more traditional awning to provide a place for easy check-in, before driving around to the parking deck in back.  

Welker and Orley bring a vision of a boutique hotel to this project. There has been no public discussion of the degree of work required and the level of impact anticipated to the historic fabric of this building. BNA's website features two examples of redevelopment projects involving historic properties; these are the Clarkesville High School in Clarkesville, TN (known now as the Penn Warren Apartment Building), and the Oliver Hotel of Nashville. Their role in these projects is not well-defined in either instance, so it is difficult to gauge the quality of their work; however, photos of the interiors of both buildings suggest the work was somewhat typical of redevelopment projects involving historic properties, in that the exteriors were essentially preserved, while the interiors resemble new constructions.  It's easy to glance at a few photos and shout Facadism!, but that would be foolish as we simply do not have a full picture of either project. While the exterior of the Clermont is essentially intact and appears to be in good condition, the state of the interior is infamous. At the time of its closing there were accounts of roach infested rooms, black water running from the faucets, and worse. It is likely that much of the interior walls will be gutted to upgrade piping, wiring, and install central heating and air; but what of the flooring, the doors and windows, lighting fixtures, etc.? 

This is an exciting time for this area with the ongoing rehabilitation of the old Sears Building and now the Clermont. As I'm sure many are, I am very much looking forward to learning more about the plans for this building. Stay tuned to RNB for more on this project ~ I'll keep my ear to the web and be sure to share any updates as this unfolds.

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