New life for downtown Macy’s building

The glamorous, 14-foot-high teardrop chandeliers in the former Macy’s building downtown soon will have a new reason to sparkle.

Even in this gloomy economy.

Within the year, the memorable fixtures will help illuminate weddings, parties and special events.

Construction started this week that will transform the three main shopping floors of the 82-year-old building on Peachtree Street into an events venue.

The Grand Atrium and The Gallery events spaces are scheduled to open in early 2010, along with two restaurants, Meehan’s Public House and Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint. Later, a traveling exhibits venue will open on the ground floor.

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A team of 25 investors, led by Robert Patterson, is rebranding the building as 200 Peachtree. Their hope is the once grand centerpiece of downtown will be revived as a key element of downtown economic life, six years after Macy’s left.

But the decision to pursue a multi-use plan also reflects the reality that downtown’s glory days as a shopping district are long gone. Various post-Macy’s ideas for retail in building haven’t panned out.

“People come downtown to do things, not necessarily shop,” said Patterson, a native Atlantan who has worked in real estate. “Retail has been hard hit, especially apparel, which in the past was on an aggressive expansion. It seems to be taking a couple of years off.”

Although hidden in the modern skyline, the Macy’s building is beloved by some for its architecture.

“With its base of two-story arched openings, unadorned upper floors and prominent cornice, the massive block closely follows the prototype of the Italian Renaissance palazzo,” the American Institute of Architects said in a 1992 guide to the architecture of Atlanta.

Chief architect Philip Trammell Shutze is also well known to Atlantans for his work on the historic Swan House in Buckhead, among other notable buildings.

The Macy’s building cost $6 million to build in 1927. It was then the largest department store south of Philadelphia and among the first to have air conditioning, according to the Atlanta History Center.

The store opened as a Davison-Paxon’s, a banner it wore for decades, even though it was owned by New York-based R.H. Macy & Co. It took the Macy’s name in 1985.

Most department stores were founded in America’s downtowns, but they bolted for the suburbs following residential populations and the rise of malls.

Macy’s one-time rival, Rich’s, closed its downtown store in 1991. Macy’s closed its doors on Peachtree in 2003. Since then, downtown’s retail scene has veered toward tourists.

A few national retailers remain clustered around the Peachtree Center office towers. Many national chains that opened downtown for the 1996 Olympics later pulled out. The shops remaining at Underground Atlanta mostly cater to visitors, as do those near other downtown attractions.

Ideas floated for the Macy’s space after the store closed included condos, the civil rights museum, a Target and a gallery of retail shops with a food court. Two prominent developers, Kim King and the foundation of Tom Cousins, almost bought it but got cold feet.

The store landed on the Atlanta Preservation Center’s list of “most endangered” historic places in 2007.

“The biggest challenge is that we’ve got a lot of square footage, and a lot of it is not on Peachtree Street,” he said. Patterson said he has 142,000 square feet to lease over the three main floors. He will convert several of the original arched windows into entrances, but that still leaves large blocks of windowless space inside -- better for events, his group concluded.

In fact, since it closed the Macy’s building periodically served as a place for parties and a training center for Delta Air Lines employees.

To be sure, said Patterson, uses for the building could evolve if the economy improves.

Given the hard economic times, and the fact the building was mostly empty since Macy’s vacated it in 2003, downtown boosters like Central Atlanta Progress President A.J. Robinson are excited to see its revival.

“The building was dark for a number of years,” Robinson said. “I think they’re spending the right amount of capital. They are preserving the real character of the building. I’m encouraged at what they have been able to accomplish in what admittedly is the most difficult environment since the 1930s.”

The cost of the makeover is approximately $16 million, roughly the same price investors paid to gain control of the bottom three floors, Patterson said.

The investors group, called 180 Peachtree Retail LLC, bought the bottom floors about a year from Peachtree Carnegie, which owns the top five floors. Those are leased to a data center, Atlanta’s 911 service and an architecture firm.

The Macy’s building isn’t the first downtown space to change strategies due to the economy. The Glenn Hotel, a few blocks away at Marietta and Spring streets, transformed some of its underperforming restaurant into event space.

Mark Vaughan, chief sales and marketing officer for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, doesn’t worry about the meeting space hitting at a time when the convention business is hurting.

“It fills a void for us,” he said, noting the building is “almost a whole square block, connected to the Westin (Peachtree Plaza hotel), on our showcase street in the city. That creates more activity and more vibrancy along Peachtree Street.”

“It gives us one more cool thing on Peachtree Street to get excited about,” agreed Ed Walls, general manager of the signature hotel. He said he looks forward to partnering with 200 Peachtree on booking the meeting space.

Patterson said he hopes that the aging Peachtree landmark will become “a real hub of activity for years to come. A center of excitement. That’s what downtown is all about.”

HIGHLIGHTS OF 200 PEACHTREE

*Restaurants: A Meehan’s Public House, from 101 Concepts, opens in January. Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint by Global Concessions, operator of One Flew South in the airport, opens in March. Atlanta has approved valet parking on Peachtree St. for the restaurants.

*Event spaces: The Grand Atrium and The Gallery on the mezzanine and lobby levels.

*Traveling exhibit space on the terrace level. Developers are seeking a naming rights sponsor and Exhibit Consortium will manage it.

*The renovations are being handled by architecture firm CNNA and construction firm R.J. Griffin & Co.

*Office: Top five floors are leased to a data center, Atlanta’s 911 service and an architecture firm.

Source: 200 Peachtree.

THE CHANDELIERS:

The teardrop chandeliers that are a trademark of the former downtown Macy’s building once hung in the chain’s flagship Herald Square store in New York. They were removed during World War II to conserve energy. After the war the chandeliers reappeared in the downtown Atlanta Davison’s, which became Macy’s in 1985.

Source: AJC archives.

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