No ill intent behind fire that damaged historic Midtown gay bar, mayor says

Owner of Atlanta Eagle shed ‘a lot of tears’ after seeing former building go up in flames

A stretch of Ponce de Leon Avenue that is home to several beloved Atlanta institutions has again seen disaster befall some of its historic buildings.

A fire damaged the old Atlanta Eagle gay bar and the Kodak building at the intersection of Ponce de Leon and Argonne avenues Thursday night. Footage from the scene showed giant flames engulfing the original Kodak sign that stands on top of the building.

From the sidewalk outside, Richard Ramey looked into the charred remains, wondering what would come of the spot that had meant so much to so many people.

The longtime owner of the iconic gay nightclub said he had shed “a lot of tears” since learning about the blaze early Thursday evening.

”We had a rough night,” he said as fire investigators in yellow helmets walked past the entrance of the Atlanta landmark Friday afternoon.

The Atlanta Eagle was located in Midtown near the iconic Krispy Kreme, which burned twice in recent years, and Mary Mac’s Tea Room, which closed for two months earlier this year after a roof collapse.

The Eagle was originally built as a single-family home in 1898, and it became a well-known gay bar over the past 30 years. It was the first recognized and protected LGBTQ landmark in the Deep South, according to Historic Atlanta, which has advocated for the building’s preservation.

The Midtown bar reopened about two years ago in a cozy strip mall off Piedmont Avenue, surrounded by LGBT-friendly businesses. Some of the sprawling old homes nearby display brightly colored rainbow flags in honor of Pride Month. On Friday, an employee at the new location said they were preparing for a show ahead of a busy weekend.

When he got the call, Ramey said he was on the side of the road exchanging information with the driver of a pickup truck who bumped into his Mercedes-Benz.

”I told the guy I had an emergency and he actually knew the Eagle, so he said, ‘Yeah, go, go,’” Ramey said.

Richard Ramey, the owner of the historic nightclub, is hopeful the building may be salvageable.

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid

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Credit: Shaddi Abusaid

When he got to the scene of the blaze, Ramey said he was greeted by the city’s mayor, police chief and fire chief.

Several engines responded to the fire, which was first reported around 8 p.m. As crews worked to put out hot spots, parts of the roof of the Atlanta Eagle building appeared to be charred and falling apart. The Kodak sign still stood tall, but officials have not said if it’s now a hazard.

Officials did not say what started the blaze, but Mayor Andre Dickens said he did not believe there was malicious intent behind the fire.

“This doesn’t look like it’s vandalism or arson or anything,” Dickens told Channel 2 Action News.

”It touched my heart in a way they’ll never know,” Ramey said. “I know that it was just a fire, but the mayor and chief of police and the fire chief don’t show up at every fire.”

People began coming by the shuttered nightclub early Friday morning as news of the fire spread, including Malik Brown, the city’s director of LGBTQ affairs, though he did not speak to the media.

Ramey called the outpouring of support overwhelming and said it was indicative of just how important the building was to so many.

”I know this didn’t house the Atlanta Eagle anymore, but it was still 35 years of memories,” he said. “It was a very special place.”

Before the Eagle, the building housed The Celebrity Club, where drag icon RuPaul got his start as a young performer.

The fact that the building was damaged during Pride Month wasn’t lost on Ramey.

”We went through so much here — from the raid to going through a bad economy,” he said. “There were just so many incredible memories.”

On Sept. 10, 2009, two dozen police officers burst into the bar, ordering everyone to the floor while using anti-gay slurs. Officials said they went to the nightclub after reports of men engaging in sex while others watched.

Eight people were arrested that night, but their charges were quickly dropped and their cases dismissed. Several officers were fired in 2011 for lying about what happened the night of the raid.

Despite the fire, the structure of the building is still intact, and Ramey is holding onto “a glimmer of hope” that it can be saved.

If the building is salvageable, he said he would love to see it turned into the Atlanta Gay History Center.

The Kodak building next door was built in the early 1900s and, like the Atlanta Eagle building, initially served as a private residence. Star Photo moved into the building in 1951 as Ponce de Leon Avenue grew into a busy commercial corridor. The building was then plastered in signage, including the iconic Kodak sign.

Thursday’s fire was doubly coincidental: It is the latest in a string of unusual, damaging events at historic buildings on this stretch of Ponce, and it was the second gay landmark to burn in Midtown in less than two weeks.

On May 25, firefighters were called to the popular nightclub Blake’s on the Park after getting reports of smoke in the area. The club is situated near the intersection of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue near Piedmont Park, less than a mile north of the old Atlanta Eagle building. The fire was relatively minor, but the club was forced to close due to water and smoke damage throughout the building. Its owners have vowed to reopen.

Thursday night’s fire on Ponce was also just across the intersection from the Krispy Kreme that reopened in October after back-to-back fires destroyed the building. The famous doughnut shop shuttered in February 2021 because of a blaze, then was demolished that summer after a second fire in July.

Earlier this year, Mary Mac’s Tea Room was forced to close after the roof of its century-old building collapsed under heavy rain. In 2023, a sinkhole opened in the street in front of Torched Hop Brewing, partially swallowing an SUV just across from Mary Mac’s.

After the sinkhole appeared last year, Torched Hop owner Stephen Bivins summed up the thoughts of many in the neighborhood.

“It seems like a little bit of a curse or something going on,” he said.

— Please return to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for updates.