Broken windows and shattered expectations

Charles at Large: A fifth-generation Atlantan explains the city
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Q: Why the hold-up in getting the Westin’s windows fixed?

On March 14 of last year, I got a frantic call from my mother, who was barricaded in her Midtown basement. There was an edge to her voice I hadn’t heard since she phoned me the morning of September 11, 2001, as I slept through world history in my Providence, Rhode Island, dorm room. “There’s a tornado in Atlanta,” she said. It seemed as likely as locusts, or a plane striking a tower. But I could feel the force of the storm through the receiver—and it did more than force my mother underground and uproot some old oak trees.

“I was at home in Sandy Springs when I got the news,” says Ed Walls, general manager of the Westin Peachtree Plaza. “I headed back downtown. All the streets were blocked off, but the police knew me and let me through. We had nearly 2,000 guests that night with the SEC Championships at Philips Arena and the hotel hosting a wedding and dental convention. They heard what sounded like an oncoming train and then felt the impact.”

Conceived by John Portman in 1976, with no history of major storm damage till the tornado, the Westin was riddled with hundreds of holes in just a few of the twenty minutes it took the storm to violently rejigger the city. The tornado’s 130-mile-per-hour gusts (it was rated an EF-2 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale) disabled 320 of the hotel’s 1,068 rooms. And though eighty-one of those rooms are still out of service, permanent repairs began last month.

Most rooms that had just one or two (of four) windows damaged are now open to occupancy, with new drywall, carpets, drapes, furniture, and King James Bibles. The rest—which endured far more damage than that wrought by the raucous high school party I attended on the Westin’s twentieth floor in the late nineties (rated an EB-3 on the Enhanced Bacchanalia Scale)—should be ready for occupancy by the fall of 2010, at which time all of the hotel’s 6,350 windows, for aesthetic and safety reasons, will have been replaced.

For nearly a year, the Westin worked with consultants, designers, its insurance company, and the City of Atlanta to find a solution that would address the hotel’s design and ensure that the glass matched and would be safe. The blown-out windows, which have been temporarily covered with black-painted plywood on the outside and drywall on the inside, were made of heat-strengthened bronze reflective glass a quarter-inch wide. Their thicker replacements will have a laminated pane that meets new post-tornado building codes. The cost will exceed $22 million, but the revenue loss from reduced occupancy is many times that. Now I don’t feel quite as bad about the smeared ketchup we left on room 2012’s walls.

A: What’s with the DAR building on Piedmont? It’s trashed!

My grandmother is rolling over in her red, white, and blue urn. Dearest granddaughter of the revolution: Your grandmother’s patriotic organization sold that building, known as the Craigie House, in 2004. You see, a fallen tree led to the fall of the House of Craigie in 1985; its subsequent deterioration was too much for the local Daughters of the American Revolution to mend. Its current owner, the much-beleaguered Inman Park Properties—which at press time was about to lose the stripper-filled Clermont Hotel to foreclosure—aims, according to its website, to “craft creative solutions for unique properties.” Surely graffiti and broken windows stretch such a claim. IPP says the spot will be restored at some point, but the real estate firm has already lost several of its other landmark properties to foreclosure, making that vow dubious. Perhaps the irony of IPP’s inaction is lost upon them: Letting a historic chapter building—the second-oldest in the U.S.—fall into disrepair undermines DAR’s mission of “preserving American history.” It’s time for the DAR—whose members are female, over eighteen, and able to “prove lineal descent” from an American Revolution patriot—to rise up once more.

Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham

Got an Atlanta question? E-mail Charles Bethea at askcharles@atlantamag.emmis.com.


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