The Winecoff Fire
On December 7, 1946, at 3:42 a.m., the first alarm came into Atlanta Fire Department headquarters:
"The Winecoff Hotel is on fire!".
Atlanta authors Sam Heys and Allen B. Goodwin documented the tragic events of that night in their comprehensive book, The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America's Deadliest Hotel Fire. The two Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters detailed the stories of the 119 victims, their families and the survivors of what is still today the most destructive hotel fire in United States history.
Of the fire and its toll on both the victims and the city of Atlanta, Goodwin wrote the following:
Twenty minutes later the fourth, final and "general alarm" - the one reserved for a citywide conflagration - went out.
For the next two hours everything good, bad, improbable and certain about the human experience played out. Few events in history can match the Winecoff Fire for extremes.
No one who was there has ever been the same since. Every witness was affected for the rest of their lives. The shock waves affected thousands more and still ripple today.
The tragic fire was at first ruled an accident in headlines welcomed by the public and embraced by city officials. But soon, closer examinations revealed an act so violent, so vicious - yet so unthinkable - it plunged the city into a state of denial from which it has never fully recovered.
Many shattered lives were bravely pieced back together. Many grew stronger, most suffered mightily and some are still struggling.
May we remember always the 119 victims and their families.
The Ellis Hotel Rises from the Ashes
Within the following narrative you will find a brief history of the Winecoff Hotel and how it rose from the ashes of destruction, unspeakable tragedy and decades of neglect to become The Ellis Hotel on Peachtree, a symbol of rebirth and renewal. And thus, it is impossible today to respectfully describe the magnitude of the historic restoration of the Winecoff Hotel without first telling its story.
The Winecoff Hotel, today the Ellis Hotel, is located at 176 Peachtree Street NW, in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Designed by William Lee Stoddart, the 15-story building opened in 1913. It is located next to the former Macy's (at 180 Peachtree Street), which was built as the flagship Davison's, and just south from the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel (easily identifiable by its cylindrical glass design). It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 31, 2009.
The Winecoff is best known for a fire that occurred there on December 7, 1946, in which 119 people died. It remains the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history, and prompted many changes in building codes. Guests at the hotel that night included teenagers attending a Tri-Y Youth Conference, Christmas shoppers, and people in town to see a??Song of the South.a?? Arnold Hardy, a 26-year-old graduate student at Georgia Tech, became the first amateur to win a Pulitzer Prize in photography for his snapshot of a woman (later identified as survivor Daisy McCumber) in mid-air after jumping from the 11th floor of the hotel during the fire. McCumber miraculously survived the fall.
In April 1951, the hotel reopened as the Peachtree Hotel on Peachtree, and was now equipped with both fire alarms and fire escapes. In 1967, it was donated to the Georgia Baptist Convention for housing the elderly, and then repeatedly sold to a series of potential developers.
After more than two decades of vacancy, RD Management (New York City) took over the building and architects at Stevens & Wilkinson, Stang & Newdow and Juneau Construction Company began a $23 million renovation in April of 2006. The project restored the building into a boutique luxury hotel called the Ellis Hotel after the street that runs along the north side of the building. It was reopened in October of 2007.
For Juneau Construction Company, the Ellis Hotel project is the most challenging restoration and one of the most rewarding projects in the companya??s history. In summary, the refurbishment of the Winecoff Hotel into The Ellis on Peachtree is a renovated property that combines the historic legacy of this beautiful building with classic contemporary design. The hotel features 127 guest rooms, a cafe, patio, lounge and restaurant, complete with the restoration of the original second floor balcony on the Peachtree facade. The Ellis contains a business center, meeting space, fitness center and state-of-the-art technology for guests. To honor the historic exterior of the hotel, the interiors feature classic post-modern interior throughout all areas. The Ellis provides a lodging experience that is not available anywhere else in Atlanta. For its accomplishments, Central Atlanta Progress bestowed the Atlanta Downtown Design Excellence Award on the Ellis and ranked it the most significant project in Atlanta in 2009.
These recognitions and the success of the project were well earned. They are the result of Juneaua??s immeasurable efforts and teamwork with the designers and the owner to overcome formidable challenges, both expected and unforeseen. Along the way, lives were literally changed and much was learned.
Juneau superintendent Darby Mullen said the following of the project:
a??It is difficult to put into words the magnitude of this renovation. No one knew what to expect when we began this project. The building had been totally destroyed by the fire, and years of neglect resulted in construction issues that forced us to think a??outside of the boxa?? at every angle, every day. Not a day goes by that I dona??t think about the Ellis project. It is something that will stay with those involved for the rest of our careers and beyond. We are all so proud of the opportunity we were given and the work we accomplished to not only restore this landmark building, but to give it a new life.a??
Challenges Met, Lessons Learned
One challenge that was obvious from the onset of the project was the complete lack of any lay-down area. The site limits were literally the corners of the buildings, which backed up directly to busy downtown streets, active pedestrian sidewalks and neighboring buildings. In order to work in such confined quarters, Juneau implemented a new 24-hour installation rule. All materials that arrived on site were ordered to be installed within 24 hours. The implementation of this rule played an integral role in the projecta??s timely and successful completion. It also had a monumental impact on how Juneau approached its schedule.
The project team met weekly, and oftentimes daily, to assess and update a complex schedule that accounted for literally every hour of every day. Without this diligent and tedious overview, the project could never have met its goals. The intricate scheduling often meant that materials were thoroughly inspected the minute they were delivered. Time was always of the essence, and materials had to be scrutinized on the spot before they were either installed or sent back for modifications.
This unique scheduling placed novel demands on Juneaua??s Quality Control efforts. To ensure this historic renovation resulted in the pristine, safe and structurally solid world class hotel it is today, new rules and systems for sub management and QC were developed and implemented. By coincidence, the new Juneau Quality Control manual was being written at the time and many of the innovative procedures developed at the Ellis Hotel helped formulate processes that will be used at Juneau on all projects for many years. This includes the companya??s approach to fire safety systems, coordination with local safety officials and building inspectors, cross-checking with spec guidelines and the comprehensive photographic documentation of an entire project.
Ironically, the fire codes that we have today and the Quality Control instilled in the construction of the Ellis all came about because of the Winecoff Hotel fire. Fire codes today revolve around the idea of containment, and/or extinguishment, of a fire that starts with the fire alarms and sprinkler systems. This project was special in this regard as Juneau had weekly visits from high-ranking officials of the Atlanta Fire Department, along with the Atlanta Building Inspector, who is in charge of Life Safety. Juneau thoroughly reviewed sealing of penetrations with fire caulking, fire shafts that house mechanical and elevators that consist of layers of fire core board. Juneau also reviewed smoke doors, smoke seals, ansul systems (foam fire systems for stove areas and kitchens), which all have to do with containment. This was reviewed by the Juneau superintendent and field personnel daily along with the Atlanta Fire Department and city officials, as this was a project that was understandably under the spotlight from the city with regards to fire control. This was beneficial along with daily deficiency sheets originated by Juneau to create a fully modern, state-of-the-art fire protection system at the Ellis Hotel.
'We now give you, The Ellis Hotel!'
On October 17, 2007, at 6:21 p.m., the announcement was made to hundreds of citizens, officials, construction workers, designers and honored guests at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for to The Ellis Hotel:
a??We now give to you, The Ellis Hotel!a??
Sixty-one years after a fire consumed a monumental building and the lives and livelihoods of countless people, a tireless team of contractors, designers and city officials saw their historic work usher in a new