Memories live on in historic Atlanta Constitution building


The staff of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had only been in their new building a few months when I joined The Journal as a copy editor on December 3, 1973. Working conditions had become so bad in the “old building” that the standing joke in the new digs was still …. “everything will be all right when we’re in the new building.”

I heard many harrowing stories about what it was like to work in the old building, which was a short walk from the new offices. It also housed the Atlanta staff of the Associated Press. I would occasionally visit the "old building" to stay in touch with the AP's Atlanta photo staff when I was The Journal's photo editor. During those visits it was easy to see what my new colleagues were talking about.

It was a relief to come back to our nine-story building at 72 Marietta Street, which was state of the art for its time. From our sixth floor newsroom we could see another part of the Journal-Constitution's past. This was the five-story Atlanta Constitution Building at 143 Alabama Street, which was just across the parking lot.

Dark, silent and abandoned, it stood in stark contrast to our vibrant new work space – which actually was a newspaper campus. We worked in a brightly lit office building attached by a walking bridge to a mechanical building where composing room employees built individual pages, first from hot lead and later with "cold type." The printing presses were several floors below. Down another flight of steps, deep in the bowels of the mechanical building below the presses, was the reel room. Here, spools holding giant reams of newsprint fed sheets of paper up to the presses. Sometimes after we closed out an edition I would steal a few minutes and go to the press room and wait for the presses to start. It was a joy and a privilege to watch and listen as the presses revved, began to turn and then gained full speed. The floor would shake and the paper would hum in tight lines up, around and though the drums and across the plates that would fill the blank sheets with the important news of the day. Everytime I watched this scene I had the same thought, 'This is what freedom looks like!"

Now, after all these years, the Atlanta Constitution Building, an aging and neglected eyesore that was built in 1947, has been sold for $2 million to Pope & Land and Place Properties, according to an announcement from Invest Atlanta. Pope is going to redevelop it into a mixed-use project that will include 67,000 square-feet of loft office and 25,000 square-feet of retail space (rendering above). It will also include a residential component with at least 112 new multi-family rental units, 34 of which will be income-restricted to households earning 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI).

What great news! For starters, it’s a historic building. For another, it’s on the south side of downtown and will bring much-needed vitality to an area that needs a boost. For yet another piece of good news, and potentially the most exciting of all, it’s near The Gulch. This is a series of railroad tracks leading into and out of the city that serves as both a reminder of Atlanta's founding as a railroad and supply chain hub and a look to the future. The Gulch will be one of the potential sites for Amazon’s HQ2 if Atlanta is lucky enough to land this economic bonanza.

Construction on the Atlanta Constitution Building is expected to begin in the summer of 2018. The office portion is scheduled to wrap up in 2019, and residential construction is set to end in early 2020.

I’m marking my calendar now. I'm not going to miss a chance to step inside this historic newspaper building, though it had a short life in the journalism world. It was built in 1947, but the "Con," as the morning paper was known by writers and editors at the time, moved out just six years later in 1953. The building was refurbished and Georgia Power moved into it from 1955-1960. Many Atlantans paid their electric bills there during that time. Then Georgia Power moved into its own new digs. The building has stood vacant since 1972, the year before I started on The Journal, the afternoon paper. Fittingly, the Buildings Worth Saving Committee of the Atlanta Preservation Center placed it on the 2003 List of Endangered Buildings.

The $40.6 million redevelopment project is estimated to have an economic impact of $56.5 million and will create 360 permanent jobs in the new office and retail spaces. They’ll be nothing like the old jobs, though.

Who could ever replace the great writers and editors of The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution? Even if they didn't work in the Alabama Street building, it evokes memories of great Atlanta journalism. I’m thinking in particular about Margaret Mitchell, The Atlanta Journal reporter who wrote Gone With the Wind; Ralph McGill, The Constitution's editorial page editor and his editorials about civil rights; Furman Bisher, one of the nation’s most respected sports columnists; Lewis Grizzard, a Southern humorist; and Celestine Sibley, and her observations about life in the South and Atlanta. I was fortunate enough to know and work with some of these outstanding people and journalists. They are all long gone now, of course. But, somehow, I’m guessing you’ll still be able to sense their impact on the city and the region when the doors to the Atlanta Constitution Building finally re-open, even if it's with a new masthead.

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