By King Williams
This article is an update to a piece I wrote in March called “Sad Song: The Old Town Road ends at Margaritaville” and a long-form interview with Atlanta architect and preservationist Kyle Kessler.
Kessler has been leading the efforts to preserve 152 Nassau Street, the home of the first recorded Country song in history with vocals and lyrics as well as 141 Walton Street, the site of one of the earliest known film transfers in Atlanta history, since May 2017.
On Thursday, Aug. 8, the demolition of 152 Nassau Street has ceased thanks to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ellen LaGura who ordered developers to stop demolition until an Aug. 29 hearing.
Unfortunately, significant damage had already been done. 141 Walton Street has already been destroyed and about a third of 152 Nassau Street is gone.
I reached out to Kessler again for his thoughts on these developments. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
King Williams: So how did we end up here?
Kyle Kessler: Back in May of 2017, the City nominated the building to be designated as a landmark building with national significance.
I started advocated for these buildings shortly after I learned about them in May of 2017. I first learned about 141Walton Street and 152 Nassau Street being nominated at the May 2017 Urban Design Commission Awards. As Tim Keane, Atlanta’s Commissioner of City Planning presented on the buildings and announced the decision to move forward towards protecting the buildings.
The city started the process to protect the buildings from demolition, but that abruptly stopped in November in 2017. When the City was challenged by threat of lawsuit by the Margaritaville-affiliated developers, the City came to this agreement with them that allowed demolition.
KW: So, with the judge halting demolition, it seems like a win of sorts?
KK: The demolition has been [temporarily] halted by order of Fulton County but there is a hearing still happening on August 29th.
KW: Does that mean the demolition has stopped? It seems like 141 Walton Street is gone, but there is still some of 152 Nassau Street left.
KK:The temporary restraining order ruled last Thursday has paused demolition work for now. This is a temporary work stoppage due to concerns raised by Historic Atlanta, Inc…We’ll see after August 29th if it holds.
Significant portions of both buildings are still standing, although not nearly as much of them as had been standing for almost 100 years. It’s now up to a judge to determine how much remains standing long-term.
KW: It seems as if the demolition came as soon as pressure came on the development had reached a fever pitch.
KK: I don’t want to say that was the reason and don’t think that’s the narrative. Efforts to save this landmark building have been two years in the making.
KW: So how did you find out about the actual razing of the building? It seems for many who’ve been following it that it happened out of the blue.
KK: After a recent radio interview about the building’s history, I took a professor who’d written about the recording sessions – before the 152 Nassau had been identified as the historic location – to take a look at the building.
It was then that I noticed they’d pulled the electricity from the building, so I suspected demolition would start soon.
The contractor did minor interior demolition for about a week and then – just hours before the court hearing – they started using heavy equipment on it. I was on-site Thursday morning and livestreamed the demolition, allowing thousands of others to see what was happening to our city’s musical heritage in real time.
KW: Have you made contact with anyone at Wyndham or Margaritaville or Jimmy Buffett himself?
KK: I’ve reached out via email, phone, and social media to Margaritaville Holdings and Wyndham Hotels, but they have not commented.
I also managed to get ahold of Jimmy Buffett’s entertainment attorney and he forwarded the information I sent him to the CEO of Margaritaville Holdings. To the best of my knowledge, he received it.
In my first email to the Margaritaville development team, I noted that Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Best of’ CD was one of his first CDs I bought, so this isn’t an attack on him or his music. This is about preserving history. I’m still hoping he would be made aware and wants to incorporate local and musical history into Margaritaville.
KW: How did you feel about the city council’s vote of 14-0 to preserve 152 Nassau Street and 141 Walton Streets?
KK: Well, I felt good because I was there at City Council when they voted. During public comment earlier in the meeting, I played one of the old 78 rpm phonograph records recorded at 152 Nassau Street – “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by the Morehouse College Quartet.
I also spoke about the history of the building and why we should be preserving it. Unfortunately, City Council’s vote was on a resolution which isn’t binding, so demolition continued until a judge intervened on Thursday.
KW: Besides the city council, who else have you talk to on the legislative side?
KK: I’ve reached out to my city council representatives, my county commissioner Natalie Hall of District 4, and my state reps – Nan Orrock and Pat Gardner.
KW: What about the Mayor or Tim Keane? Have you spoken to either?
KK: I’ve reached out to both but have only heard back from Commissioner Keane.
I’ve also reached out to the Georgia Department of Economic Development and spoke to people in Fulton County who are currently funding a study to bring a GRAMMY Museum to Atlanta.
And Thursday, a week before the serious demolition began, I went to the Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services attempting to make sure the Mayor and her team were aware of this situation. The director of that office said he hadn’t heard anything about it.
But a common refrain from those who did know was that the city couldn’t do anything because of the legal agreement that was put in place in November 2017.
KW: So, what happens for you now? The building is halfway standing and what will you do if the rest of the building is demolished or destroyed in the time between now and Aug. 29?
KK: I will continue to advocate for the preservation of these landmark buildings and will continue telling the story of musicians who made American music history in 1923 at 152 Nassau Street.
Kessler and I both agree – 152 Nassau Street and 141 Walton deserved better.
Atlanta deserves better.
The decision to demolish these two historically significant structures is asinine. To destroy these historic buildings to make way for Margaritaville’s garbage is beyond the pale.
The future of Atlanta is being held captive by developers who don’t care about our city’s history and have a lack of vision. It’s time to start standing up to bad deals, implement real design standards, and grow a backbone when it comes to preserving our historic places.
When it comes to economic development and historic preservation, Atlanta isn’t a city, it’s a white board.
We’ve reached the end of the Old Town Road and it ends at Margaritaville.
*Update: 152 Nassau Street is recognized as the first home of the first recorded Country song with vocals and lyrics performed by ‘Fiddlin’ John Carson for Okeh Records in 1923.
A year prior in 1922, by Alexander ‘Eck’ Robertson. The singles ‘Arkansas Traveler’ and ‘Sallie Golden’ were recorded as instrumental records.