Editors Note: Landmarks & Leaders is a new monthly column that explores influential buildings and leaders in the commercial real estate industry.

In the wee hours of Dec. 7, 1946, guests at the upscale Winecoff Hotel in downtown Atlanta awoke to a fire burning out of control. One hundred and nineteen people died, some jumping to their deaths to escape the blaze. Now, 60 years after the fire, the prominently located landmark is finally being restored.

“We want to re-brand the hotel as a fresh new thing, not as the site of a horrible disaster,” says Susan Griffin, a partner in Kelco/FB Winecoff LLC, the owner. “We're opening a brand new hotel with state-of-the-art technology and contemporary finishes.”

Next spring, a new 127-room hotel is slated to open within the original exterior. From a restaurant on a second floor balcony, diners will once again overlook Peachtree Street, the main artery that runs through Atlanta. Other aspects of the building, however, will be different. The guest rooms will be bigger, the windows will be new, but most notably, the name will change to The Ellis.

Despite its historic significance, the Winecoff has been difficult to save for several reasons, Griffin says. One challenge is its small footprint, which precludes large meeting rooms or enough guest rooms to generate significant revenue. The first floor, which will be dedicated entirely to the lobby, is only about 4,800 sq. ft.

There are structural challenges, including corroded steel under concrete. “This historic renovation will have a greater cost per unit than if we were to start with a raw piece of land,” says Griffin. New York-based developer Kelco has $9 million of equity in the $24 million project.

Lifetime struggle

William Winecoff built the hotel in 1913, and sold it during the Depression. He and his wife continued to live there until they died in the fire.

In 1951, the Winecoff re-opened as The Peachtree On Peachtree, with fire escapes, fire doors and a sprinkler system. Though many travelers couldn't bear to stay where so many had recently died, the hotel drew a steady clientele of businessmen. Over the next 15 years, however, the property declined as competing hotels opened in the area. In 1967, the owner, Fred Beazley, donated the building to the Georgia Baptist Convention, which converted it into a retirement home.

Ackerman Realty purchased the building from the Baptists in 1981 for $2 million. Charles Ackerman, founder of the Atlanta-based full-service real estate firm, recalls that he originally planned to convert the former hotel into offices, but the ceilings weren't high enough. He next considered razing the building and erecting a high-rise, and then investigated bottom-floor retail and closing off the upper stories.

All the while, Ackerman talked to a number of potential buyers but finally gave the building back to the lender, Ohio Savings Bank, to cover the debt in 1990.

In the homestretch

The building changed hands a number of times after that. Developers made local headlines with plans for office space, hotels, condominiums, retail and even dorms. But the deals fell apart, and the building fell into disrepair.

Kelco bought the Winecoff out of foreclosure, purchasing half of the building in 1999 and the other half in 2000. But after 9/11, the Atlanta hotel market, heavily dependent on convention business, tanked. Kelco put it on the market.

When the developer still had not found a buyer by the second quarter of 2004, it decided to redevelop the property internally, Griffin says. The Atlanta Development Authority (ADA) is chipping in $3 million through a tax allocation district, which will cover components such as utility installation and sidewalks, according to the ADA. Kelco also received historic tax credits through the National Park Service, which will allow the firm to write off 20% of construction costs.

The goal for The Ellis hotel is to feel new, but also stay true to its history. Guest rooms will range in size from 270 sq. ft. to 330 sq. ft. Look for a vibe somewhat like the Four Seasons in New York, says Griffin, which was designed in the '60s. “It won't look cookie-cutter.”

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