Saturday, April 29, 2006

Scores Attend Ellis Hotel Groundbreaking, Praise Redevelopment Plan

"I'll believe it when I see it!"

That has been my answer to any and all redevelopment plans put forward over the years to restore the Winecoff Hotel. After all, there have been so many of them and yet the strategically placed building just sits and sits. Generation after generation of pigeons have roosted inside the structure flitting in and out through broken windows. Neglected for so long, the building that towers fifteen stories above the highest piece of ground in downtown Atlanta, has become virtually invisible to most Atlantans. Amazing!

Now comes the latest effort to revive the building. The new developers have at least shown that they can put on a show. The 10 am "groundbreaking" ceremony held April 21st offered new hope that the old hotel will again be put to good use. Held beneath a portable white tent on the tiny space owned by MARTA next to the building, speaker after speaker extolled the virtues of the new plan. It all sounded surprisingly credible.

Atlanta firefighters guarded the event as if to silently give their blessing to the new plan. Each one of them knows well the story of what happened there in 1946 and in turn they looked at the building and paused, no doubt thinking, "it could have been me, it could still happen to me."

TV reporters scrambled to get a quick education about the history of the building and the new plan for their live shots at noon. Like so many, they had driven by the building dozens of times and hardly noticed it. Only WSB radio reporter Sandra Parrish had come prepared.

A troop of loud protesters could be overheard through parts of the ceremony chanting, "Stop mortgage fraud." They had come at the behest of Courtney Dillard, the last in a long string of would-be redevelopers who have seen their dreams dashed, their money vanish.

The sun shown brightly and when the speakers had had their say the crowd was invited inside to the area that was once the hotel's lobby. There the "groundbreaking" took place. Actually, a dozen or so silver hammers were handed out to those who are involved with the new plan and on the count of three they all took a few smacks at a piece of dry wall, knocked a few holes in it then left it standing and damaged like the rest of the hotel.

How dreary the old lobby looked, long overdue for a face lift. The only means of orientation for students of the Winecoff fire were the elevator doors and the structural pillars.

When the crowd had drifted away and the TV reporters moved across Peachtree St. so their cameras could glimpse the enormous "invisible" structure, down the stairs, a little short of breath, came a real life connection to The Winecoff fire: Janet Cox - daughter of survivor Dorothy Moen Cox. I looked at her and in an instant I knew where she had been, room 730.

"Did you visit Mama's room?" I asked.
"I saw Mama's room," she replied.

We all live for days worth remembering. Long after everyone at the ceremony has forgotten it. Whether the new plan succeeds or fails the day's most poignant and memorable moment will be, of course, the one attached to the Winecoff fire.

Hear WSB Radio's reports by Sandra Parrish.

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