Marred by deadly disaster, Atlanta hotel
gets new life
From the street, the old Winecoff
Hotel looks like any number of weathered downtown
properties vying to reinvent itself in the midst of
the city's tourism boom.
The once-luxurious hotel has been vacant for 24 years,
having a tattered existence after a 1946 fire in the
building killed 119 people, the deadliest hotel fire
in U.S. history and one that helped forever change
fire codes across the country.
But developers now are renovating the 15-story structure
into a 127-room boutique hotel that will be renamed
The Ellis, after one of the streets the hotel stands
on. It's planned to open in June of next year and
will preserve much of the Winecoff's former glory
and look _ but not its name.
"It's obviously a conundrum," said Susan
Griffin, a member of Kelco/FB Winecoff LLC, a real
estate group based in New York City that's renovating
the hotel. "We definitely want to be sufficiently
reverent to history but it's one that's now haunted
by its history of a disaster."
Built nearly 50 years after Union Gen. William Tecumseh
Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground during the Civil
War, the Winecoff Hotel represented a measure of sophistication
for the rebuilding city, said Sam Heys, co-author
of the 1993 book "The Winecoff Fire."
"When it was built in 1913, it was probably
the premier hotel in Atlanta," Heys said. "It
was a great source of pride for the city."
The hotel lacked the fire-safety measures now common
in public buildings, such as sprinkler systems and
corner stairwells or other fire escapes. The $24 million
renovation project, of course, will be complete with
those modern safety devices.
"It's amazing to me that the hotel was able
to go with such archaic fire safety from then to 1946,"
Griffin said, referring to the building's first 33
years. "I'd say you could call that lucky."
On the night of Dec. 6, 1946, the hotel was full
with 280 people. The end of World War II had brought
American soldiers home to growing cities like Atlanta
that didn't have the extra housing to accommodate
"In 1946, Atlanta was a city that was busting
at its seams," Heys said. "The hotels in
the city in December 1946 were just full. Some people
were having to live in the hotels week by week trying
to find an apartment."
The fire started just after midnight on Dec. 7, 1946,
in the west hallway of the third floor. Officially
listed as a fire of "unknown origin," Heys
and co-author Allen B. Goodwin suspect it was caused
by arson because the fire quickly spread with unnatural
speed to the east hallway two floors up.
Smoke inhalation was blamed for most of the deaths.
Others died from falling or jumping out of windows
to escape the flames and smoke, Heys said.
Janet Cox's mother, Dorothy, survived her seven-story
jump from the building. A 16-year-old high school
student from Columbus who was staying at the hotel
while participating in a state YMCA mock legislature,
Dorothy Mowen Cox leapt from her room when the flames
got too close. Among those killed in the fire were
30 of the high school students.
The teenager landed on top of a two-story building
next to the Winecoff. She lost her teeth and broke
her jaw, pelvis and legs. She had complications from
her injuries the rest of her life.
"My mom was not supposed to be able to have
children. She would have nightmares once she got home
about getting out of her room _ she lived in a two-story
home. She was frightened about it," said Cox,
whose mother died three years ago.
The Winecoff fire _ combined with two other deadly
fires earlier in 1946, in Illinois and Iowa _ led
officials to create model documents that cities could
use for fire safety, said Casey Grant, assistant chief
engineer for the National Fire Protection Association.
Those new codes included required sprinklers and
multiple exits and bans on flammable materials in
"The Winecoff was part of the string of fires
that really helped be a catalyst for the public conscience
to help these changes occur," Grant said. "The
hotel industry has really taken it upon themselves.
They've really made sure that collectively, hotels
are among the safest places to stay, at least the
big chain hotels."
After the fire, the hotel reopened in 1949 as The
Peachtree. In 1967, as brand-new luxury hotels gained
prominence in downtown Atlanta, The Peachtree closed
and its owners sold the building to the Georgia Baptist
Association. That group used the building for 15 more
years as a senior citizens' home, until it was closed
Since then, there have been many plans for the building
that ultimately never materialized. Heys said this
latest plan likely will give new life to the property.
Cox said her family is supportive of the new plans
for the old hotel because her mother would have approved.
"She would have been very glad to have seen
it," she said. "I think she would be happy
that it would be something else, another hotel even."