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RuPaul’s 1985 drag shows at Atlanta Eagle site could help stop potential demolition

By David Pendered

The drag queen RuPaul’s early career at a building now known as the Atlanta Eagle could help avert the city’s proposal to allow future development above and behind the structure, including some structural demolition and the potential relocation of the KODAK sign to some other spot on the property.

RuPaul (center), Miss Opal Foxx (left, Benjamin Smoke) and Miss Felecia appeared in 1985 at the Celebrity Club, which in 1988 opened as the Atlanta Eagle. Credit: Joe White, courtesy of Historic Atlanta

RuPaul now is nationally known and was recognized in 2017 on Time’s list of 100 Most Influential People. In 1985, RuPaul was beginning his career in the Celebrity Club, the space that in 1988 became the Atlanta Eagle.

In a letter dated April 20, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs states it looks “forward to working with you further on this project,” meaning an application for historic designation at the state and/or national levels. Regarding RuPaul’s association with the property, the letter notes:

  • “The property may also be eligible at the local level under Criterion B in the area of Social History for its association with the early career of RuPaul Andre Charles, an entertainer that has demonstrably influenced the LGBTQ and entertainment communities in Atlanta and beyond.”

The owner of the property, AYL Management Group, LLC, paid $1.9 million in 2016 for two contiguous commercial properties known as the KODAK building and Atlanta Eagle, according to Fulton County tax records. AYL intends to develop a medical office building, according to its March 5 letter to the city. AYL objects to the proposed historic designation because of the restrictions the designation would place on the ability to develop the site, located at 300 and 306 Ponce de Leon Ave.

Atlanta’s Urban Design Commission has proposed retaining the brick commercial buildings and the original house behind the Atlanta Eagle, and allowing attached structures to be demolished. The KODAK sign could be relocated on the property. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Historic Atlanta is working to preserve the structures and sent a letter to DCA that triggered the initial review of potential historic status. The non-profit preservation group hopes to help the property owner achieve its business objectives while saving the building. The purpose of Historic Atlanta is to “advance social justice and community by saving historic places,” according to a report on its website. The property owner has final say over moving forward with applications for historic designation.

Charlie Paine, who chairs Historic Atlanta’s LGBTQ Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, said the buildings’ advocates recognize the economic realities facing the owner.

“Historic Atlanta understands that preserving these buildings may not have been the property owner’s plans, but losing them should not be on the table,” Paine said. “If the owner needs help, we’re here to help. We’re trying to make sure that people know we are here to help. The designation would not be the financial end for the property owner.”

A listing on the National Register could make the property eligible for an array of grants and financial incentives, according to a report by the National Park Service. These incentives would not be available if structures at the site are demolished as described by the city’s proposal.

This deck and other structures located behind the Atlanta Eagle could be demolished to make way for redevelopment, according to the proposal by Atlanta’s Urban Design Commission. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The city’s incentives include a potential transaction that could enable the owner to profit without developing the site. The land could be rezoned for dense development, and those development rights could be sold and transferred to another piece of land in the city through the common practice of transfer of development rights. No further development need occur on the Atlanta Eagle property.

The April 20 letter from the state DCA’s Stephanie Cherry-Farmer, who manages the agency’s National Register and Survey Program, is dated the same day Atlanta’s Urban Design Commission presented its proposal to the Midtown Neighbors’ Association’s Land Use Committee. The MNA is involved because of its role in reviewing proposals in the Midtown Garden District, and delivering recommendations to NPU-E that can be sent on to the city.

The UDC proposes to allow development on the site of the Atlanta Eagle and the KODAK building.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has endorsed the protection of the site. The UDC’s proposal is part of the city’s effort to balance historic preservation with the owner’s property rights.

The UDC on April 19 proposed a set of potential zoning conditions that call for:

  • Retaining two commercial buildings that face Ponce de Leon Avenue and the original house on the property located behind the Atlanta Eagle;
  • Allowing removal of an addition to the rear of the house, outdoor decks, patios, stairs and walkways;
  • Retaining and refurbishing the KODAK sign, which could be moved elsewhere on the property provided that it’s visible from Ponce de Leon Avenue;
  • Allowing the property owner the “right to build adjacent to (including affixed to), over and behind the mid-century, commercial front addition to the 1900s house, the 1900s house, and the 1900s roof structure….”

The KODAK sign atop the structure could be relocated elsewhere on the property, provided it remains visible from Ponce de Leon Avenue. Credit: Kelly Jordan

RuPaul (center) at the Celebrity Club in 1985. Credit: Credit: Joe White, courtesy of Historic Atlanta

RuPaul (center) at the Celebrity Club, 1985. Credit: Joe White, courtesy of Historic Atlanta

RuPaul (right) at the Celebrity Club, 1985. Credit: Joe White, courtesy of Historic Atlanta

The dance floor at the Atlanta Eagle. Credit: Kelly Jordan

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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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