After the Atlanta Eagle fire: Owner Richard Ramey reflects on 35 years of LGBTQ+ history

“Yes, the Ponce building is a historic landmark, but the Atlanta Eagle family is its people, and we’re all safe tonight,” Ramey says. “That’s what I’m most grateful for right now."

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After the Atlanta Eagle fire: Owner Richard Ramey reflects on 35 years of LGBTQ+ history
The Atlanta Eagle building on Friday morning

Photograph by Richard L. Eldredge

With Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum, and Atlanta Fire Chief Roderick Smith standing a few feet away, Atlanta Eagle owner Richard Ramey watched 35 years of his life go up in flames Thursday night. Shortly before 8 p.m., Atlanta Fire responded to a multi-alarm blaze at the old Atlanta Eagle location at 306 Ponce de Leon Avenue, the city’s first designated LGBTQ+ historic landmark. Atlantans using the popular hyperlocal community app Citizen live-streamed video of the fire as it began tearing through the structure’s roof and threatened to spread to the old abandoned Kodak building next door. The fire erupted across the street from the recently reopened Krispy Kreme, itself the victim of two fires in 2021. Two blocks down Ponce, another Atlanta landmark, Mary Mac’s Tea Room had just reopened following a partial roof collapse from a storm in March.

“I’m so full of emotions right now,” Ramey told Atlanta in an exclusive conversation late Thursday night. “No one wants to see their history erased. So many people who had history there over the last 35 years are heartbroken tonight.” For many LGBTQ+ Atlantans, losing the historic structure during Pride Month was especially painful. Posted one former customer on Facebook, “This is where I first came out. Sad day for our community.”

Early Friday morning, the smell of smoke lingered at the scene, where the landmark, though heavily damaged, still stood. At the height of the blaze Thursday night, there was communications chatter among AFD firefighters broadcast on Citizen that the structure’s century-old chimney could collapse. With hook and ladder fire trucks positioned on Ponce, firefighters spent hours successfully knocking down the blaze. The cause of the fire is not yet known. “This doesn’t look like it’s vandalism or arson or anything or malice intent,” Mayor Dickens said to WSB.

After the Atlanta Eagle fire: Owner Richard Ramey reflects on 35 years of LGBTQ+ history
The Atlanta Eagle fire, as seen on Citizen

Screenshot taken by Richard L. Eldredge

After the Atlanta Eagle fire: Owner Richard Ramey reflects on 35 years of LGBTQ+ history
The Atlanta Eagle fire, as seen on Citizen

Screenshot taken by Richard L. Eldredge

The Atlanta Eagle, a gay bar catering to the city’s queer leather community, opened on August 28, 1988, borrowing its name from a series of gay bars with the same name across the country (the first Eagle debuted in New York City in 1970 in the aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall riots).

After closing the original Atlanta Eagle location on Ponce during the Covid pandemic, Ramey reopened the bar in 2022 inside the former space of the two-story Midtown Moon gay bar inside the Ansley Square shopping center on Piedmont Avenue where business has thrived. In between answering questions from the press Thursday night, Ramey was taking phone calls from regulars to reassure them the new location was fine and open for business as usual.

“Yes, the Ponce building is a historic landmark, but the Atlanta Eagle family is its people, and we’re all safe tonight,” he said. “That’s what I’m most grateful for right now. I had high hopes for the old building that it could have become the Atlanta Gay History Center or some other landmark for the community.”

After the Atlanta Eagle fire: Owner Richard Ramey reflects on 35 years of LGBTQ+ history
The Atlanta Eagle building on Friday morning

Photograph by Richard L. Eldredge

After the Atlanta Eagle fire: Owner Richard Ramey reflects on 35 years of LGBTQ+ history
The Atlanta Eagle building on Friday morning

Photograph by Richard L. Eldredge

According to Historic Atlanta, the preservation nonprofit that helped get the structure landmark status, the building was originally one of the city’s grandest residences. It was first occupied in 1898 by Lula Belle Hemphill Quinby, the daughter of Atlanta Constitution co-founder and former Atlanta mayor William A. Hemphill. By 1985, as the area became more commercial, the building became famous as the Celebrity Club, where a young performer named RuPaul played there with his band, the Wee Wee Pole.

Ramey first began frequenting the Atlanta Eagle in 1987 when he was in his 20s as one of the founding members of the Southern Bears, a social club dedicated to celebrating queer men of a certain size. Recalled Ramey: “For a person who was not very secure within their own body to be able to go to the Atlanta Eagle and be on the dance floor and to be with people who encouraged you to take your shirt off was incredibly special. For me, that’s what the Atlanta Eagle stood for—you could come in those doors and be the person that you are. You had no reason to be ashamed of yourself at the Eagle. Whether you were a bear or into kink, leather, or drag, you were embraced there with open arms.”

After the Atlanta Eagle fire: Owner Richard Ramey reflects on 35 years of LGBTQ+ history
The Atlanta Eagle building on Friday morning

Photograph by Richard L. Eldredge

“Blondie would come in after her shift at the Clermont Lounge to have a few beers with us,” he continued. “I’m still working every day of my life to ensure our new location has that same feel. When you walk in our front door, you’ll feel welcomed and not judged. The Eagle has always been a place where you can feel comfortable, safe, and celebrated for who you are. There was so much love and energy in that old building. That’s why I fought for so many years to keep it open.”

Ramey said it meant a lot that Atlanta Police chief Darin Schierbaum was on the scene Thursday night. Ramey recalled Schierbaum was a community liaison assigned in the aftermath of the city’s botched 2009 raid on the Eagle where members of the vice squad, looking for illegal drug use and acts of public sex, yelled anti-gay slurs and handcuffed patrons and employees face down on the bar floor. In the years following, after a federal lawsuit alleging civil rights violations and a $1 million-plus settlement, the disbanding of the Atlanta Police Department’s Red Dog unit, and multiple officer firings, the APD sought to repair relationships with the city’s LGBTQ+ community.

“The raid should have shut me down,” said Ramey. “It hit me hard. But when I saw the community wanted to fight, I decided I would lead that fight. I was very honored that the customers wanted to fight the city. It meant a lot that the chief who, back then was just coming up in the department, was there tonight. He’s the one who called me to tell me about the fire. Over the years, he did a lot to help mend bridges and to help us get back on track with the city and the police department. To know these city officials care enough about the Eagle and the Atlanta Eagle family to show up to the scene of a fire at an old abandoned building on Ponce touched my heart.”

Ramey remains hopeful that when the last hot spots are extinguished at 306 Ponce de Leon Avenue, some pieces of the building’s history might be salvaged. “It was a magical place,” he reflected. “The original building had so much character and charm with that old beautiful wooden staircase. When we moved out, I intentionally left the Atlanta Eagle sign up. I wanted people to know we had been there. Tonight, to see all of that smoke and flames around it and to see that sign still there gave me hope. The building has a lot of history behind it that won’t be forgotten.”

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