Built nearly 50 years after Union Gen. William Tecumseh
Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground during the Civil War,
the Winecoff Hotel represented a measure of sophistication
for the rebuilding city, said Sam Heys, co-author of the
1993 book "The Winecoff Fire."
"When it was built in 1913, it was probably the premier
hotel in Atlanta," Heys said. "It was a great
source of pride for the city."
The hotel lacked the fire-safety measures now common in
public buildings, such as sprinkler systems and corner stairwells
or other fire escapes. The $24 million renovation project,
of course, will be complete with those modern safety devices.
"It's amazing to me that the hotel was able to go
with such archaic fire safety from then to 1946," Griffin
said, referring to the building's first 33 years. "I'd
say you could call that lucky."
On the night of Dec. 6, 1946, the hotel was full with 280
people. The end of World War II had brought American soldiers
home to growing cities like Atlanta that didn't have the
extra housing to accommodate them yet.
"In 1946, Atlanta was a city that was busting at its
seams," Heys said. "The hotels in the city in
December 1946 were just full. Some people were having to
live in the hotels week by week trying to find an apartment."
The fire started just after midnight on Dec. 7, 1946, in
the west hallway of the third floor. Officially listed as
a fire of "unknown origin," Heys and co-author
Allen B. Goodwin suspect it was caused by arson because
the fire quickly spread with unnatural speed to the east
hallway two floors up.
Smoke inhalation was blamed for most of the deaths. Others
died from falling or jumping out of windows to escape the
flames and smoke, Heys said.
Janet Cox's mother, Dorothy, survived her seven-story jump
from the building. A 16-year-old high school student from
Columbus who was staying at the hotel while participating
in a state YMCA mock legislature, Dorothy Mowen Cox leapt
from her room when the flames got too close. Among those
killed in the fire were 30 of the high school students.
The teenager landed on top of a two-story building next
to the Winecoff. She lost her teeth and broke her jaw, pelvis
and legs. She had complications from her injuries the rest
of her life.
"My mom was not supposed to be able to have children.
She would have nightmares once she got home about getting
out of her room _ she lived in a two-story home. She was
frightened about it," said Cox, whose mother died three
The Winecoff fire _ combined with two other deadly fires
earlier in 1946, in Illinois and Iowa _ led officials to
create model documents that cities could use for fire safety,
said Casey Grant, assistant chief engineer for the National
Fire Protection Association.
Those new codes included required sprinklers and multiple
exits and bans on flammable materials in buildings.
"The Winecoff was part of the string of fires that
really helped be a catalyst for the public conscience to
help these changes occur," Grant said. "The hotel
industry has really taken it upon themselves. They've really
made sure that collectively, hotels are among the safest
places to stay, at least the big chain hotels."
After the fire, the hotel reopened in 1949 as The Peachtree.
In 1967, as brand-new luxury hotels gained prominence in
downtown Atlanta, The Peachtree closed and its owners sold
the building to the Georgia Baptist Association. That group
used the building for 15 more years as a senior citizens'
home, until it was closed in 1982.
Since then, there have been many plans for the building
that ultimately never materialized. Heys said this latest
plan likely will give new life to the property.
Cox said her family is supportive of the new plans for
the old hotel because her mother would have approved.
"She would have been very glad to have seen it,"
she said. "I think she would be happy that it would
be something else, another hotel even."