Do not disturb... please!
How long can the Clermont Hotel hold back the flood of developers and gentrifiers? A CL reporter checks in for a week to get an inside look — before it's too late.
Blondie doesn't live at the Clermont Hotel.
Atlanta's best-known stripper/poet/beer-can recycler has worked the boards at the hotel's namesake lounge for the past 23 years, yet she bristles at the notion that she also resides upstairs.
"People often ask me if I live here and I say, 'Are you kidding? I live a mile-and-a-half from here and that's not far enough!'" she says shortly after making a dismount from the lounge's storied stage.
It's Friday just past 6 p.m., a not-yet-fashionable hour at Atlanta's oldest strip club. Later this evening, the middle-age men now warming the bar stools will give way to a crush of tattooed hipsters, frat boys and giggling coeds who come to dip their toes in the surreal seaminess that is the Clermont Lounge.
The twentysomething crowd will hang out, drink $2.50 Buds straight from the can and extend dollar bills to naked women old enough to recall where they were the day Kennedy was shot.
Then, like Blondie, the nightclubbers will go home. If they're unfit to drive, they may crash on a friend's floor or even take a taxi to Roswell. But under no condition will they venture across the threshold of the lobby upstairs to inquire about accommodations. Which proves that, even to a frat rat, there's a sharp distinction between seamy-fun and seamy-gross.
Outside, two young women who've just left Dugan's sports bar are walking through the Clermont's front parking lot. One tugs the other by the hand toward the hotel door, playfully urging, "C'mon, let's go in." When the tuggee pulls away, her friend taunts her: "Oh, you're just scared."
Scared? Of what? What is it about this Ponce de Leon landmark that simultaneously fascinates and repels Atlantans? After all, who among us hasn't driven by when the art-deco neon letters spelling out "CLERMONT MOTOR HOTEL" are at full glow without wishing we could peer, X-ray-like, at the freakiness within those walls?
Let's face it: Over the years, the Clermont has been tagged in the popular imagination with having helped put the "ho" in hotel.
And yet, in this era of strip-mall homogeneity, corporate urban renewal and don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it construction projects, there's something about the Clermont Hotel's defiant backwardness that we find almost comforting. In a city too busy to preserve its past, the Clermont is an architectural dodo bird, a living, breathing, warts-and-all connection to a simpler, bygone time.
We wouldn't necessarily book our parents into the Clermont, but we place an almost indefinable value in the fact that it still exists. And if it were to close its doors, we would mourn it.
That said, I certainly wasn't going to be satisfied with yet another frustrating drive-by of this mysterious icon, this throwback to mid-century, working-class Americana. So I checked in to check it out.
Along the way, I learned the truth about persistent rumors that the hotel has been sold; found out which room was occupied by the late punk-rocking scatologist G.G. Allin; discovered a disturbing new use for TV rabbit ears; and suffered a bizarre, embarrassing bacterial infection.
"Do I look convincingly down and out?" I ask my wife on my way out the door, carrying a stained rucksack packed with clothes and bed linens.
"You might want to remove the Lufthansa airline tag from your bag," she advises.
Doh! That small detail could've betrayed me as un poseur bourgeois before I'd even gotten my room key. I'm concerned about this because the Clermont ownership and staff are famously distrustful of the press.
That, and they loathe the Loaf. Seems a cynical forebear of mine stayed there over a weekend and wrote a caustic, mean-spirited diatribe trashing the hotel as a filth-encrusted haven for cockroaches, junkies and two-dollar streetwalkers.
Now, in our defense, please keep in mind that this article ran, oh, a decade ago. Some people need to learn to move on. In the meantime, however, I've got to keep a low profile or risk being turned out on the street.
I arrive after work in the Clermont lobby, whose linoleum tile and stark walls have the feel of a community rec center; approaching the enclosed registration desk brings to mind going up to rent shoes at an old bowling alley.
The clerk turns around to select a room key from one of the dozens of ancient, numbered pigeonholes containing letters, broken door locks, flashlights and other bric-a-brac. On the top shelf, two antique kerosene lamps gather dust.
"Can you show this guy Room 406?" he half-shouts to a small, older woman wearing red sweats and resting in a high-backed vinyl chair. She leads me onto the hotel's elevator and into a time warp.
The Clermont operates two of only three antiquated "car switch" passenger elevators — controlled by a hand throttle instead of buttons, and largely phased out in the 1950s — still known to be in use in Atlanta. Three shifts are needed to carry hotel guests to their floors around the clock. (Think about that for a moment: There are at least four people in Atlanta whose full-time job is elevator operator at the Clermont Hotel.)
The first thing that hits you when you step into the hallway is the odor, a seriously palpable funk, as if every resident has left a pan of ramen simmering on a hot plate.
Located on the northwest corner of the high-rise, Room 406 is decently sized and ideally situated for people-watching along Ponce, with large windows on two sides. A cursory glance around the room reveals black marks along the rim of the dresser where guests apparently neglected to use the twin glass ashtrays, as well as a threadbare carpet pockmarked with dozens of small holes where dozing smokers allowed their still-smoldering butts to drop. The only luxuries are the TV remote control and an old-school bottle opener attached to the bathroom door frame.
Only later does it occur to me to wonder if I'm supposed to tip the elevator operators. But none of them send out any non-verbal signals to that effect or offer help with my luggage, so I forget about it.
That night, I throw caution to the wind and decide not to bother using the sheets I brought from home. As I fall asleep to the whoops of lounge-goers making their way down the side staircase and the muted sound of TVs down the hall, I'm convinced that I can feel every individual spring in the mattress.
Over the next day, a small tenderness in my right cheek grows into a grotesque swelling so that I resemble a bad summer-stock version of Quasimodo.
I'm forced to check out early and seek immediate medical attention, putting my undercover activities on hold until I complete a course of powerful antibiotics. Although the cause of my raging facial infection is never pinpointed, I vow to use both sheets and cootie-resistant pillow cases when I'm able to return to unlock the secrets of the Clermont.
The seven-story high-rise that houses the hotel made its debut as the Bonaventure Arms apartments — complete with a basement cafe — in 1924, the same year that the plush Biltmore Hotel opened on Spring Street, and five years before the Fox Theatre premiered its first film. At the time, its corner of Ponce de Leon Avenue lay just beyond the eastern outskirts of the city.
But as the automobile, the Great Depression and, finally, World War II conspired to make transience the norm in American cities, the 130-room building underwent its first — and, to date, last — significant change, becoming the Hotel Clermont in 1940. It was apparently aimed at middle-class travelers and, as with most large Southern hotels of the era, was restricted to white guests; "colored hotels," such as the Savoy, could be found a few blocks away on Sweet Auburn.
By mid-decade, the new hotel was advertising itself with the forward-thinking tagline, "As Modern as Tomorrow." If one liberally interprets this to mean, "As Modern as We're Ever Gonna Get," it's an amazingly prescient statement, given the fact that the room bills still have line items for telegrams and C.O.D.
In 1955, the swanky Continental Room opened in the Clermont basement to compete with cocktail lounges at the nearby Imperial and Frances hotels and other Midtown night spots. By 1960, the ambitious Anchorage Supper Club brought dining, dancing and three tasteful burlesque shows nightly to the Clermont's back side.
The Anchorage's ads boasted "Fine Food in a Refined Atmosphere," but, as we all know, that didn't last. By '65, the kitchen had closed for good and the basement club had become the Jungle Lounge and, finally, the Clermont Lounge, a jiggle bar with pasties and G-strings in the mold of the Imperial's popular Domino Lounge.
Meanwhile, the once-regal Ponce de Leon Avenue itself was sliding headlong into seediness, a trend that continued through the '70s. By the height of the disco era, the art-deco Plaza Theatre hung on by showing porn films; across Ponce, the formerly swank Briarcliff Hotel sat boarded up (it's now an old-folks' home); the Clermont Hotel and Ray Lee's Blue Lantern Lounge (now The Local) were busy earning reputations for attracting a shady clientele; the Ponce de Leon ball field was overgrown with weeds; and the Majestic was, well, the Majestic.
It's an environment that held great appeal for George Mitchell, a local writer, photographer and ethnomusicologist who spent much of his time trolling the sketchier haunts along his favorite stretch of road. In 1983, he published Ponce de Leon: An Intimate Portrait of Atlanta's Most Famous Avenue, complete with photos taken at the Clermont Lounge during Blondie's early days as a dancer.
"The Clermont Hotel served as home to all kinds of folks, from working-class to hookers," says Mitchell, who now teaches photography at the Paideia School. "My feeling was, as long as you were cool, you were welcome," he adds, invoking a largely archaic usage of "cool" that here translates roughly to "kept your mouth shut and minded your own business."
Speaking of all kinds of folks, the Clermont's most infamous guest was of another kind altogether. Legendary cult rocker G.G. Allin lived in Room 216 for several months in 1993 while in Atlanta to record what would prove to be his final single; its B-side is a song titled, "Hotel Clermont."
(Allin, whose outlook on life made Sid Vicious seem like Norman Vincent Peale, died a few weeks later of a heroin overdose after a New York concert during which he stripped naked, crapped onstage, dove through a glass door and ran screaming down the street.)
Both Jeff Bakos, who produced and played bass on Allin's swan song, and Paul Cornwell, the marijuana activist and former Metroplex owner who released the record, say they never felt particularly compelled to visit the self-destructive sociopath during his stay at the Clermont.
Surprising as it may seem, the Clermont isn't especially cheap, considering there's no cable TV, no pool and no complimentary shower cap. With a nightly rate of $51 for a no-frills, single room, this is no flop house.
I have to lay down $158.90 in cash up front to check back in for a week. This time, I draw Room 508, which is stiflingly minuscule, with one small, intensely grimy window that's caulked shut against a fitfully functional A/C unit. Apparently, a room this tiny doesn't rate a TV remote.
The toilet seat has been worn to the bare wood by decades' worth of derrieres. Inside the sanitary wrappers intended for drinking glasses are a pair of Styrofoam cups. Hand-lettering on the back of the wall mirror propped on top of the dresser reads, "Aaron Rents, 1971."
Room 508's one saving grace is the bed, which boasts a firmer, comfier mattress than some B&Bs I've visited. I decide to settle in before doing a bit of exploring.
Exact figures aren't available, but most of the rooms at the Clermont are occupied by long-term residents: cooks, waiters, grocery clerks, airline workers and a collection of retirees and others who don't appear to have day jobs. At 2 p.m. or 2 a.m., every hallway in the building buzzes with fluorescent lights and the tinny piping of a dozen TV sets, punctuated by the metallic hum of the elevators.
The Clermont is an eavesdropper's paradise; whole conversations can be heard through the room doors, none of which are equipped with peepholes. About half the rooms have slatted, exterior privacy doors, but their placement appears utterly random.
There are only two rates, daily and weekly, based on what type of room you have. Efficiencies have a small galley kitchen, while one-bedroom apartments also boast a living room.
Making a local phone call costs 50 cents, payable only by advance deposit — a fee that's easily enforced since the hotel still employs an antiquated switchboard of the kind last used by Lily Tomlin on "Laugh In." It costs two bits simply to fill up your ice bucket.
A few of the preconceptions Atlantans may have about the Clermont are not reinforced during my week here. I spot only one woman who obviously looks to be a low-rent prostitute, and she was merely using the lobby pay phone one morning. I never see a cockroach, nor am I kept awake by loud music, midnight love sessions or gunplay.
In addition to the elevator operators, some of the faces I get to know during my stay in the "penthouse," as the top floor is known, include a brusque, impatient housekeeper who seems always to have an inch of ash hanging from her cigarette as she changes sheets; a Busta Rhymes lookalike with a Buckwheat 'do whose room emits a ganja cloud worthy of Cheech & Chong; and a legless Vietnam vet who warns me away from brunch at the retro-hip Java Jive across the street. "It's mostly yuppies who eat there," he says.
The hotel's own private celebrity is Miss Rogers, a loyal, longtime front desk clerk who, when she grew too frail to work, was given a room at the Clermont by the hotel's owner. Now cared for by the housekeeping staff and seldom seen by other guests, Miss Rogers turns 100 this year.
One four-year Clermont resident who asks not to be named has a well-paying job that easily would allow him to buy a house or condo. Instead, he opts for the simplicity that comes from having a single weekly bill that covers the bulk of his living expenses.
"All I need is a chair, a bed and a stove," he explains. "It's like the ultimate dorm room: You got your freedom, your privacy and your own little space that doesn't require much attention."
Much like a dorm, the hotel has myriad rules that seem a tad intrusive: Paying guests are not allowed to linger in the lobby after 8 p.m. Visitors must show I.D. and sign in at the desk. A lobby sign scolds, "Please don't stand around in front of the hotel or the parking lot." The shabby laundry room is off-limits much of the day. Getting behind in the rent quickly lands your belongings in the lobby in trash bags.
Unfortunately, such rules are necessary when you're running a residential hotel in intown Atlanta, says Edwin Porterfield, owner of the venerable Ponce de Leon Hotel just west of the old Sears warehouse. He closes his lobby at 11 p.m. to avoid the drunken altercations that invariably take place if people are allowed to congregate.
Porterfield believes his 52-room hotel and the Clermont share the same customer base: those who need transitional lodging while they overcome some setback, and working-class folks who, for one reason or another, simply want to live in the thick of things down on Ponce.
Another institution whose glory days are long behind it, the Ponce has the distinction of being the one-time home of one of Atlanta's first gay-friendly restaurants, Mrs. P's Cafe, in the '40s and '50s. More recently, its basement housed the original MJQ.
Although it's clear that Porterfield has great affection for some of his longtime residents, he's realistic about many of his customers' weaknesses, such as booze, drugs, mental illness and chronic irresponsibility. There usually are several who have been placed in the hotel temporarily by private social-service agencies.
Porterfield often finds that guest-room carpets have been pulled up so something could be hidden underneath. He laments that having phone service in guest rooms "just didn't work out." And he can't seem to keep a new set of TV antennae in a guest room for more than a few days.
"They'll break them up into pieces and use the hollow tubing to smoke crack," he explains matter-of-factly.
Later, in my room at the Clermont, I look behind the dresser to find a thin, sharp knife (or shiv, in prison parlance) and what remains of a set of rabbit ears with the tubing missing.
According to Atlanta police, in 1999 and 2000, respectively, there were 52 and 54 documented crimes against people or property at the Clermont, numbers that a police spokesman notes are relatively high for a property of its size.
Theft and assault with a deadly weapon typically lead the list of offenses, but there also were murders at the hotel in both 2000 and 2001 — in one, a woman shot her boyfriend; in the other, a guy was found with a bullet in his head on the outside stairs. Neither case aroused anywhere near as much media attention as in 1987, when a 15-year-old runaway girl from the northern suburbs was stabbed through the heart in a hallway.
But crime at the Clermont appears to be on a downward trend since Atlanta police moved their headquarters to City Hall East, less than a mile away. Certainly, the Ponce corridor has a fraction of the prostitution busts of a decade ago.
Sometimes, Porterfield says, he wonders if the hotel business is worth the hassle, but then adds: "I don't know of any other business besides bank robbery where you can make the kind of money you can with a small hotel."
With rent averaging $165 a week and nearly every room filled, his hotel took in nearly $400,000 in revenue last year, Porterfield says. Although it's nearly three times larger, the Clermont grossed about $515,000 last year, according to county property tax documents, for an estimated net income of only $260,200.
Porterfield isn't familiar with the finances of his closest competitor; he has difficulty even getting the hotel manager to come to the phone to discuss matters of mutual interest, such as utility rates.
"I've dealt with them a few times and they just won't talk about anything," he says, shaking his head. "They won't talk to anybody, I guess."
Henry Hollis doesn't come across like anybody's idea of down and out. Thoughtful and well-spoken, with neatly trimmed, graying hair, the 67-year-old has an open, friendly manner, standing straight and making eye contact when he speaks.
He retired from Sysco foods last July, but hasn't made good yet on a pledge to himself to spend his golden years somewhere other than the fifth floor of the Clermont.
"I'm almost ashamed to say how long I've been here," he admits, but then does say: 15 years. He can think of only one other resident who's been here longer. Before that, he spent 10 years at the Ponce de Leon Hotel, until it began a downhill slide in the late '80s.
That hotel has since been refurbished and Hollis believes the Clermont would likewise benefit from replacing the torn, stained carpeting that predates his arrival, freshening up the ancient paint and repairing some aging fixtures.
"It's a beautiful building but, if it were up to me, I'd at least fix it up one room at a time," he says.
Hollis says he's made a couple of acquaintances on his hall, but mostly keeps to the efficiency he shares with his "lady friend"; he no longer bothers trying to cultivate friendships among the secretive owners and staff.
"I'm not trying to be anti-social, but I'm not sure the people here are folks I want in my business," he explains.
When he moved in, Hollis chose the Clermont for its convenient location along major bus routes and within easy walking distance of supermarkets, restaurants, pharmacies, video stores, even a movie theater. He takes daily walks to stay in shape and looks forward to attending a few Braves games. The Clermont feels safe and comfortable to him, but he never intended to remain here this long.
"Friends have asked me, 'Why do you stay at that place?' I tell them, 'I don't know. I'm just there,'" he says wistfully. "Some people get trapped here, paying the rent week by week. I don't make any excuses for being here, but I can't fault nobody else. My consolation is, I'm here, but it's not because there's nowhere else I can go."
Rumors that the Clermont has been, or will be, sold have circulated for as long as Anna Copello can remember. A lifelong resident of nearby Linwood Street and president of the Poncey-Highland Neighborhood Association, Copello feels certain that the hotel isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
"The neighborhood joke is that the old lady who owns it won't sell it at any price and they'll have to pry the deed from her cold, dead hands," Copello laughs.
Yes, that's certainly a knee-slapper, all right. And, according to the children of Glenn and Lillian Loudermilk, it's quite accurate.
Glenn, who also was the one-time co-owner of the historic Imperial Hotel, bought the Clermont Hotel in the 1950s. Lillian, now in her 70s, took charge of the Clermont when her husband died two decades ago. (The lounge has been separately owned and operated since the '50s, doesn't have a lease and pays its rent month to month.)
The widow Loudermilk is known for being tightlipped, and her three adult children are only slightly more forthcoming. Their mother, they contend, has fielded as many as four or five calls a week about the hotel from prospective buyers, but has a strong emotional attachment to the building and simply isn't interested in selling.
"(People) keep calling and offering and I keep telling them I will not sell it," Loudermilk says before cutting short a very brief interview.
Copello isn't surprised. "This is the South and, among older people here, hanging onto land is almost a religious thing," she explains.
Todd Prinke, a commercial real estate expert with intown developer Weaver & Woodbery, says condos would seem an obvious redevelopment option for the Clermont, but he believes the intown market has been overbuilt in the last couple of years and will need some time to absorb the excess product.
"The building is an icon and I definitely think it's a desirable location," he says. "I just don't know if it's desirable right now."
Maybe in another couple of years, we'll see more town homes like those that shocked many intowners when they went up across the street from the Clermont two years ago, quickly selling for upwards of $300,000. One unit facing the hotel is already back on the market for $360,000; its owner, Chad Dickinson, says the hotel and its residents never caused him any problems.
Reflecting that his beloved Ponce de Leon Avenue has become downright respectable again over the past few years — with gourmet groceries, new bookstores and restaurants under construction — George Mitchell seems to admire both the hotel and its fabled lounge for swimming against the tsunami of change.
"It does amaze me," he says, "that in this day and age, the Clermont is still what it is."
On my final morning, I'm awoken by a knock on my door. The smoking housekeeper tells me that, since I'm leaving today anyway, she needs my sheets now so that she doesn't have to come back to this floor. Packing up, I notice that every item of clothing inside my bag, worn or unworn, smells strongly of stale cigarettes, despite the fact that I don't smoke.
At 11:13 a.m., I receive my first call of the week on the rotary phone next to the bed. It's the front desk, letting me know I'm 13 minutes late for my 11 a.m. check-out time. On the way out the Clermont's front door, I collect my $5 key deposit, step into the warm sunshine and am enveloped in the noisy bustle of Ponce.
I think I miss the place already.