The site where the first country music hit was recorded stands at the center of a legal battle in Atlanta that pits local preservationists against a major resort developer. At stake is nothing less than a $100 million-plus hotel project and—at press time—a half-demolished building where music history was made.
In 1923, New York record label OKeh Records set up a “recording laboratory” on Nassau Street in Atlanta, where engineer Ralph Peer recorded numerous regional musicians. Though in service for only one week, it was the first studio in the South, and moreover, it was where Fiddlin’ John Carson recorded “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” on June 19, 1923. Peer wasn’t impressed by the song, but OKeh pressed it anyway—a smart move, as it sold more than 500,000 copies and is now considered the first country music hit.
On Aug. 8 of this year, demolition crews began tearing down the building to make way for a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville hotel. They stopped just hours later, however, when a temporary restraining order was issued by Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua, preventing further work until an Aug. 29 hearing. To obtain the order, preservationists argued that a Nov. 6, 2017, agreement between the city and developer Strand Capital Group of North Myrtle Beach, SC, was unlawful because it sidestepped the city’s zoning processes, depriving the public of due process.
Ironically, the contested agreement with the city was reached less than six months after Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane announced in May 2017 that the building would be designated a historic landmark.
According to local news site Saporta Report, the Atlanta Urban Design Commission confirmed the building as a landmark in July of that year—the same month that the City Council unanimously voted for the Zoning Review Board and Zoning Committee to officially give the building its historic designation. The Review Board quickly approved the designation, passing it on to the Zoning Committee for the final stamp of approval.
• Sad Song: ‘The Old Town Road’ Ends at Margaritaville, by King Williams, SaportaReport, April 9, 2019
• We Really Did This for a Margaritaville?, by King Williams, SaportaReport, Aug. 12, 2019
• Preservationists Urge Atlanta to Stop Demolition of Two Downtown Buildings, by Maria Saporta, SaportaReport, July 28, 2019
Initially sailing through City Hall, the designation inexplicably stalled out at the final stop—Zoning Board approval—until the city, under then-Mayor Kasim Reed, reached a deal with Strand Capital Group to build a 21-story, $100 million-plus hotel on a plot of land adjacent to the former studio. The current project design wouldn’t demolish the building to make way for the hotel; instead, it would be torn down to create a space for Margaritaville’s dumpsters.
Local preservationist group Historic Atlanta claimed on Facebook that “this sweetheart deal gave Margaritaville a ‘golden ticket’ through the demo permitting process and was done without any review by the public or even City Council.” When reached by NPR station WGPB in July, J. Patrick Lowe, representing developer Strand Capital Group, commented, “We care about the history of country music and the rich, diverse history of Atlanta. As part of the development, we are considering ways to respectfully acknowledge that OKeh Music recorded an early country music song there.”
The courts may have reached a decision about the site by the time you read this, as we go to press just days before the hearing on Aug. 29. (Editor’s note: The court hearing has been postponed.) Certainly many aspects will have to be considered, not least that the building has already been partially demolished—though, crucially, its street-facing façade is still standing. No doubt the ongoing economic benefits that a $100 million-plus hotel will bring the area, too, will be weighed. There’s also the fact that the studio was there for only one week nearly 100 years ago.
Still, who gets to decide just how historically important a site is and how worthy it is to be preserved for future generations? Unfortunately, those calls tend to be made these days by whoever has the deepest pockets; that’s not always fair, especially if the public gets left out of the process, as it was in this case. Other areas around the country—most prominently Nashville’s Music Row—are facing their own “music history versus redevelopment” crises, so whatever the courts decree about 152 Nassau St., it will likely be considered an important legal precedent. Here’s hoping they make a wise decision.