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Urban Sleuth :

January 13, 2013

Bawdy to Boutique? What Might Be In Store for The Clermont Under its New Owners

Will Clermont’s new developers apply spit and polish to this run-down property without diminishing its iconic status? Read on.

By Nancy Staab

The twitterverse and blogosphere blew up this past week when it was announced that developers Philip Welker and Ethan Orley of the Nashville/New York real estate firm BNA Associates had recently acquired the distressed property The Clermont Hotel in Poncey-Highland. (The sales price was not released.) It’s going to take a sensitive developer to clean up the slightly seedy property without surrendering its, ahem, beloved local color. But partners Welker and Orley have at least one similar success story on their resumé. They recently turned a historic brick building with a similarly storied history into the boutique hotel The Oliver. The Knoxville hotel is now a centerpiece of the downtown market area, complete with a buzzy speakeasy bar and a Tupelo Honey Café. Will Welker and Orley give The Clermont a similar makeover? And will the famed, tawdry-cool Clermont Lounge be revamped in the process? Stay tuned!

Images of the colorful Clermont Hotel & Lounge, in Atlanta, including celeb patron Morgan Freeman. Images of the colorful Clermont Hotel & Lounge, in Atlanta, including celeb patron Morgan Freeman.

When it was announced this past week that the long-distressed Clermont Hotel property (circa 1924) had been sold, the news went viral, Clermont fans pondered the new fate of the hotel and the fate of beer-can-between-breasts-crushing stripper Blondie’s second home, Clermont Lounge, lodged in the hotel’s basement. The property is our little version of NYC’s Chelsea Hotel and understandably there’s some colorful history here that Atlantans are loath to lose—particularly in a city that has so few historic relics thanks to Sherman and a gung-ho era of teardowns in the late 20th century. Ok so Clermont Hotel never hosted a range of beat poets or the punk prodigies Sid and Nancy, like the Chelsea, but it did have its share of colorful visitors participating in its bawdy atmosphere, such as Marilyn Manson, Kid Rock, Bill Murray (who performed a mock striptease in the lounge), Anthony Bourdain, Lady Gaga, André Benjamin, Woody Harrelson, Big Boi, Jon Stewart, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Ben Stiller. It’s pretty much a rite of passage for any bad-boy (or girl) celeb passing through our fair city, who then mix with a native crowd of blue collar and service industry types, frat boys, hipsters, and the stray, bored “real” housewife.

Actor Woody Harrelson has observed, “ I have heard it said that it’s a place where old strippers go to die, but I would say it’s where they go to live again. The Clermont is the perfect mix of the haves and have nots, freedom and danger.”

This quintessential dive bar was even named one of the “Best Bars in America,” cheek by jowl with such dignified Atlanta watering holes as Holeman and Finch, One Flew South, and Manuel’s Tavern in a 2011 issue of Esquire magazine. Atlanta journalist Felicia Feaster writes: “From the glue-trap floors that testify to decades of spilled beer, to the faux wood paneling and the booty shakers-of-a-certain-age, Atlanta’s oldest strip club, the 44-year-old Clermont Lounge, has mellowed from a mere dive into a certifiable institution. Since its opening in 1965, the Clermont Lounge has transformed from a burlesque supper club featuring comedians, scantily-clad dancers and chicken dinners, into a rock-and-roll sleaze Vahalla known for it’s $2-and-change Pabst Blue Ribbons (the unofficial house brand) and a poetry-reading stripper named Blondie.”

The down-on-its-heels hotel portion, which verged on a flop house, was closed in 2009 by Fulton County health officials, and at one point in 2010 it was rumored that the owners of the hipster-boutique Ace Hotels (NY, Portland, Seattle) were interested in managing the hotel but this hipster-redo never materialized. Now Chelsea Hotel may have a second opportunity for resurrection with developers Philip Welker and Ethan Orley of BNA Associates at the helm.

The developers will probably do a similar spit-and-polish that they did to the circa 1876 building housing the boutique Oliver Hotel in Knoxville. ( The building was formerly a confectionary and ice cream saloon owned by German cobbler-turned-sweets purveyor Peter Kern).  Over the years, the property also functioned as a hotel with its own illustrious history of residents such as actress Patricia Neal or Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert. Its new owners were charged with revamping the historic brick property without losing it’s burnished legacy and quirk factor. For Oliver Hotel the developers Welker and Orley tread very lightly and tastefully, outfitting the 28 rooms with a modern minimalism of padded velvet headboards, white subway tile bathrooms, heightened 15-foot ceilings, local art on the walls, craft wood furnishings,  and of course 21st-century amenities like free Wi-Fi and 100-plus HD channels. The “classic-moderne”-style hotel opened in the summer of 2011 and is now a centerpiece of the downtown market area.

Welker and Orley also  furnished their Knoxville-based, boutique hotel-rehab with a buzzy speakeasy bar, called The Peter Kern Library, that retained the vintage charm of the building with a veneer of 21st-centry cool. Think: hidden entrance, fireplace and bookshelves, wooden paneling, leather banquettes, apothecary jars of house-made juices and tinctures, and a vintage cocktail menu hidden within old encyclopedias. Could a similar gin-joint be in the works for The Clermont?

Peter Kern Library Bar in Oliver Hotel Peter Kern Library Bar in Oliver Hotel

The libations at Peter Kern Library  are based on a literary characters like a Holden Caufield (fireball cinnamon whiskey, amaretto, fresh sweet and sour, fresh orange or lemon juice) or Atticus Finch (St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, ginger, cucumber and mint)  and the retro bar mistresses could have stepped out of a 19th century burlesque show.

Speaking of burlesque, given that Clermont once housed a burlesque show, we could see the developers adding a slightly more upscale burlesque element to The Clermont, either as part of, or complimenting Clermont Lounge’s current salacious fare, but that’s pure conjecture. “There’s a lot more [about the plans] that we’d like to get out, but it’s really not the right time to comment on the Clermont Lounge,” Orley told Atlanta Business Chronicle on Jan. 9. “I’d rather make a comment when we are ready in few weeks.”

And when social media exploded over conjectures that Clermont Lounge might close, Orley released a second statement on Jan. 10 to pacify the city’s avid lounge lovers: “While the details of the redevelopment of the Clermont Hotel are still being worked out at this time, we are very excited to be involved with this Atlanta landmark. The Clermont is important to the Atlanta community, and the beloved Clermont Lounge is part of our redevelopment, as we do not plan on interfering with it.  We look forward to this project and believe the community will like what we have in store.”

No word yet on any restaurant attachment to the project, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see that develop, since their other project, the Oliver Hotel, boasts its own Tupelo Honey Café. While the Tupelo Honey Café is wildly popular in Asheville, Greenville, and Knoxville, the menu of gussied up Southern classics like fried catfish and grit cakes and banana cream pie reads a little regressive, chain-like, and “been there done that” in our over-saturated Atlanta market of authentic, Southern farm-to-tables. The developer’s original thoughts on a signature restaurant for The Oliver hotel would seem more in keeping for The Clermont Hotel as well. In an article in Knoxville’s Metropulse, Welker and Orley promised an unpretentiously upscale, chef-driven, one-of-a-kind spot, citing the hip American restaurant Smith & Mills in NYC as an inspiration.

Indeed, with the continued revitalization of the Ponce de Leon corridor and Jamestown Properties’ massive, $180 million overhaul of Ponce City Market (formerly City Hall East) in the pipelines with it’s own ambitious program of top-chef restaurants and festival food market, The Clermont might need to boast its own signature restaurant to keep up. Either way, it is perfectly poised to take advantage of the increasing gentrification of Poncey-Highlands—a delicate process that will attempt to clean up and add green spaces, but not homogenize this alterna-neighborhood rife with divey-cool eating and drinking spots, a vintage movie theater palace, tattoo parlors, and dance clubs.

“We are thrilled to have the chance to reimagine The Clermont as a great hotel,” said  Welker, Principal of BNA and Clermont Hotel Partners. “We truly believe it represents one of the best opportunities in Atlanta. The property has all the right ingredients to become not only a destination boutique hotel for Atlanta, but for the Southeast.”   



Oliver Hotel, Knoxville, by the same developers who will now tackle Clermont Hotel Oliver Hotel, Knoxville, by the same developers who will now tackle Clermont Hotel