UPDATE: A crew from Charleston-based Lowcountry Demolition began gutting the historic building’s interior Tuesday. Preservationist Kyle Kessler said he would continue lobbying the city and reaching out on social media to try to save the building.
Before Dolly, Cash, Hank, and even Jimmie Rodgers, Fiddlin’ John Carson sat in a downtown Atlanta loft and sang an old tune into a flared horn.
The Cabbagetown resident’s 1923 session yielded two songs, “Little Log Cabin in the Lane” and “The Old Hen Cackled,” that would become the first hit record in the musical genre known today as country. The unassuming brick building that briefly served as a recording studio for Okeh Records still stands at 152 Nassau Street, across from Centennial Olympic Park.
In the coming days, the building could be leveled after a Myrtle Beach-based developer acquired a demolition permit from the city earlier this month. In its place, the developer plans to build a 21-story, “Margaritaville”-themed hotel, timeshare rental and restaurant in a nod to Jimmy Buffett’s 1977 hit song.
As of Monday, a change.org petition to save the historic building had garnered more than 8,000 signatures. In a sign that demolition plans are moving forward, though, all of the structure's electrical wiring was recently removed, said Kyle Kessler, an architect and downtown resident who has spearheaded a campaign to preserve the building since 2017.
City Commissioner Tim Keane called the potential demolition “unfortunate,” adding that officials asked the developers to preserve and incorporate the building into the new project, but that the developers refused.
J. Patrick Lowe, a senior partner with Strand Capital Group, the firm managing the development, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May he didn't think the project could move forward without that piece of land. Lowe did not respond to multiple requests for comment in recent days. Laurie Gorman, a publicist for Buffett, did not respond to requests for comment.
Kessler hasn’t given up hope and said he would stand between the building and the demolition crew if necessary. Last Wednesday, he set up a portable, hand-cranked 1923 Victrola Talking Machine in front of the building and played records produced a few feet away nearly a century ago.
“This is about being a voice for a building that can’t speak for itself and telling the tales of the folks who made it historic,” said Kessler, arguing it could be incorporated into the new development’s motif as a music venue or a gift shop.
“The birthplace of the country music industry”
Today, Atlanta is widely known as the capital of Southern hip-hop and the birthplace of its most popular derivative, trap music, but even most residents wouldn’t guess that the city predated Nashville as the epicenter of the country music industry.
In the summer of 1923, legendary record producer and talent scout Ralph Peer ventured south from New York to record local talent for Okeh Records. On the recommendation of an Atlanta music distributor, Peer brought Carson in for a recording session at the Nassau Street building.
At the time, Carson and his fiddle had been known commodities in Atlanta for at least a decade. The one-time cotton mill worker earned a reputation playing for crowds on busy street corners.
Carson was never the best fiddler in town, but he was the most entertaining, Nashville-based music historian Robert Oermann said. He often wove comedic themes into his lyrics and told jokes between songs. The Fannin County native also built up a regional audience with frequent live performances on local radio programs.
His performances also had a darker side. During the infamous Leo Frank trial in 1913, Carson sat outside the courthouse and roused anti-Semitic fervor at the alleged murderer with his ballad “Little Mary Phagan,” about the 13-year-old victim, music historian Steve Goodson said. Frank was lynched in 1915 after he was convicted of the crime and had his sentence commuted by the governor. Many historians believe Frank was not guilty.
Despite Carson’s notoriety in the South, Peer had very modest expectations for the 1923 record and sent only 500 copies back from the presses in New York. The record eventually sold more than half a million copies nationwide, according to former Georgia State University professor Wayne Daniel’s 1990 book, “Pickin’ on Peachtree.”
The record’s success awakened music producers to the enormous marketability of “hillbilly” or “old-time” music, and the country music industry was born, Oermann said.
Most country fans recognize Peer’s 1927 recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in Bristol, Tenn., as the “Big Bang” of country music. Grammy-winning music producer Lance Ledbetter, though, described Carson’s hit record as “the Big Pop before the Big Bang.”
Before he left town, Peer also recorded several black jazz, blues and gospel trailblazers in the Nassau Street building with musicians including Eddie Heywood Sr., Fannie May Goosby and the Morehouse College Quartet.
The music didn’t last long. The record company vacated the building about a week after it set up shop. The building later housed many other businesses, including a film production company, a heating system manufacturer and, until about eight months ago, a law firm.
Anatomy of a deal
After more than 90 years of obscurity, the building on Nassau Street grabbed the spotlight in a matter of weeks in the spring of 2017.
Due to a change in address, the exact building where Carson recorded the hit had been unknown for decades. Kessler, the preservationist, used his urban planning expertise to match city records with a news clipping announcing the recording session from the Atlanta Independent, a long-extinct black newspaper. Shortly after his discovery, Kessler began an effort to get the building recognized as a historic landmark by the city.
Around the same time, developers proposed to build a Margaritaville restaurant where the building stands and put several amusement park attractions in the adjacent lot that sits across from the SkyView Ferris wheel.
When city planner Keane announced in May 2017 that Atlanta would nominate the building for historic designation, which would prevent its demolition, the developers threatened to sue the city, saying the action would be unfair because they had already begun the application process for the project.
Then, a deal was struck.
Under the direction of then-Mayor Kasim Reed, the city would give the developers “a golden ticket” to demolish the building if they built a Wyndham-brand hotel standing at least 10 stories and costing at least $100 million, according to a 2017 agreement.
Keane recently said the city signed the controversial agreement because the risk of being sued was too great and it had to make the best of a bad situation.
“We have a developer and owner that doesn’t want to work with the city and doesn’t care about the issues the community cares about,” Keane said.
In recent design plans reviewed by The AJC, the lot occupied by the historic building would be used for the dumpsters and grease traps next to the first-floor Margaritaville restaurant.
“All the grease off those ‘Cheeseburgers in Paradise’ would end up where this building now stands,” Kessler said. “I’m not a songwriter, but that would be saddest blues or country song you could possibly write.”
See a copy of 2017 development agreement: