By King Williams
Any day now, the city of Atlanta will approve the demolition permits for 141 Walton Street and 152 Nassau Street, home of the first-recorded country music song. This demolition is for the construction of a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville Bar and Hotel.
The irony is that we are witnessing another large moment in Country music in Atlanta.
Local Atlanta area teenager Lil’ Nas X and his Country Trap song ‘Old Town Road’ has reached an internet zenith, and it is now crossing into mainstream media.
Originally uploaded to YouTube in December, ‘Old Town Road’ initially was a 93-second music video comprised entirely of clips from the massively successful Western video game Red Dead Redemption 2.
Since December, the song has been slowly climbing the YouTube, Streaming and Billboard music charts until it was abruptly removed from the Country charts in late March and re-categorized on the Hip Hop charts.
The move was so rare that it sparked a backlash within the greater music industry about the classification of music genres altogether.
The move prompted the Atlanta Hawks (because of course they did) to invite Lil Nas X to perform at a recent game. This performance added to the song’s virality, gain traction among the international audience of NBA fans.
This Friday saw Country singer Billy Ray Cyrus added his own verse to the remix of the song. The remix became the No. 1 trending video on YouTube, the No. 1 global trending topic on Friday on Twitter, the No. 1 iTunes sales charts as well as a Spotify Global top-10 single.
This would seem like the perfect time to illustrate the historical precedent of Atlanta as the birthplace of recorded Country music in the 1920’s at 152 Nassau Street in downtown. This is in addition to the upcoming fall 2019 Ken Burns-PBS docu-series ‘Country Music’ which starts in Atlanta and not Nashville to highlight the roots of country music.
But today, 152 Nassau Street is now more known for being located next to the Tabernacle, another preservationist project downtown which has been successful almost from its conversion from a church to a concert venue.
But here we are, again on the eve of another historic building in Atlanta slated for demolition to make way for a new development.
Let’s toss another piece of Atlanta history, this time country music history, out for Jimmy Buffet.
Okeh Records, the New York City based record label came to Atlanta to record a variety of songs here in Atlanta at 152 Nassau Street in the Summer of 1923. “Fidlin” John Carson is credited as the first breakout star of what was then called ‘Hillbilly music’ recorded at 152 Nassau Street. Right behind 152 Nassau Street at 141 Walton Street, were home to Atlanta’s film exchanges – places were film was stored and transported for films of the 1920’s through 1940’s.
So now Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville is on its way to downtown Atlanta. The restaurant-bar, a brand extension of the 1970’s-80’s rock star, will be part of a $100 million dollar hotel and margarita emporium in downtown Atlanta.
Initially, the development was much smaller in scope but was facing a bigger likelihood that it’s plans would be rejected due to its potential damage to 152 Nassau and 141 Walton streets according to architect and local historical preservationist Kyle Kessler.
It was just in 2017 that 141 Walton and 152 Nassau St. in the Fairlie-Poplar district were on their way to being designated as historic buildings, but that designation was abruptly stopped.
Then in November 2017, the city entered into an agreement with the developer giving it the right to demolish historic buildings as long as the development was more than 10 stories high and worth at least $100 million dollars.
The development will now be a 21-story tower of timeshares and hotel rooms, with a 2-story Margaritaville restaurant anchoring the development.
These timeshares and resorts are apart of the Wyndham Hotels, Wyndham Destinations brand. Wyndham Destinations, has made Margaritaville a destination brand for fans of Jimmy Buffet and retirees.
This project is now only two permits away from demolition, and the Saporta Report’s David Pendred was one of the first people to write on it. Yet few people outside of ThreadATL or Kyle Kessler have been spotlighting this demolition.
We’re allowing the destruction of the home of the first recorded Country song, to build a Margaritaville…
Full stop. Are we really going to do this for a Margaritaville?
So what is Margaritaville?
For many who are unfamiliar, Margaritaville is named after singer Jimmy Buffett’s 1977 song of the same name and for the last 40+ years it has become a slew of consumer products. The audience is primarily Baby Boomer’s who are now entering retirement age and who’s affinity for Jimmy Buffett’s lifestyle marketing appeals to.
There are Margaritaville blenders, boat shoes, outdoor furniture, barbecue rubs, k-cup coffee, bluetooth speakers, mens and women cruiser bikes (blue and pink respectively), Margaritaville-themed chain restaurants, of course tequila, a vacation club and a 1,500 acre Lake Lanier resort that opened in 2018.
Atlanta is not alone. Nashville now has a Margaritaville, and a new one is being developed in the tourist trap of Times Square in New York City.
So why does this matter?
Jimmy Buffett’s proposed Margaritaville is currently surrounded by eight surface level parking lots and a parking deck. Eight.
What’s more aggravating is that this development actually doesn’t destroy 141 Walton and 152 Nassau streets for the actual building. Those buildings will be destroyed to make room for a the garbage loading area for Margaritaville.
I can’t think of a better example of Atlanta’s economic development policy than bulldozing a nearly 100-year historic structure for a garbage loading area for a national chain of restaurants and timeshares aimed a suburban retirees.
For some reason, the developer chose a site with historic structures rather than move the development to one of the eight adjacent park lots. And the city has not stood in the developer’s way.
Economic development and historic preservation can go hand-in-hand. But our elected leaders have not championed efforts to save a tangible part of Atlanta’s history.
In the past, I have criticized Atlanta for developing like a suburb rather than a city, and this proposal may be one of the most egregious examples.
There is a sliver of hope.
Kessler recently launched a Change.org petition to preserve the buildings, and the has more than 6,000 signatures.
Because City Hall already has approved the deal, the city could be subject to a lawsuit if it now tries to stop the demolition, according to Kessler. The only hope to save the buildings would be if the city could came up with a better proposal that was acceptable to the developers.
Acceptable to developers but not the city?…Let’s think before we act, are we really going to let this happen again? For a Margaritaville?
Let’s not destroy a piece of our unique history, I hope the development community can find a way to preserve this structure and better develop our downtown. And if you want to hear the full interview with Kyle Kessler, check back on Sunday night at 9pm on my podcast The Neighborhood Watch, available on iTunes and SoundCloud.
Also here is a great video on Fidlin’ John Carson courtesy of the great YouTube channel ‘Stories of Atlanta’.
And because I know you want to hear the remix to Old Town Road with Billy Ray Cyrus, here it is.