When Ethan Orley bought the formerly decadent Hotel Clermont in 2012, the Atlanta landmark was in disarray, a mess of rusted plumbing, busted kitchenettes, heavy terra cotta walls, and dingy road-motel carpeting. So famous was the lodge’s nefarious past, Orley was surprised to not find it riddled with hypodermic needles.
“You’d have probably wanted to put a Hazmat suit on in here,” jokes Orley, a principal with developer Oliver Hospitality, seated in a floral-wallpapered corner of the cozy, boutique property.
Around Orley are interiors by New York-based studio Reunion Goods and Services described as “eclectically lavish” or “rock-n’-roll meets grandma’s-living-room,” an ode to the hotel’s punk-y past. It’s hip without glossiness, genteel without pretension, and it feels unmistakably, alluringly old.
After several years of construction setbacks, Orley smiles in knowing the nearly $30 million project is finished, with elements retained such as Georgia pink marble at the entrance and a terrazzo staircase. The Hotel Clermont is marketed as a “den of good times,” and while the hotel, bars, and restaurant are taking guests, the hullaballoo doesn’t officially begin until a minute after midnight Thursday, when a switch will be flipped, the red-lit rooftop tower (visible from across the city) will shine, and a long-ailing icon will finally be reborn.
Atlanta newcomers might know the hotel property only as a sinful fleabag turned vacant eyesore with a famous strip club in the basement, where dancers of advanced ages are capable of crushing anatomical feats.
But at its roots, the Clermont is prestigious.
It was built as the stout, high-end Bonaventure Arms Apartments, with substantial amenities for the time such as two elevators. In 1939, it reopened as the Hotel Clermont, catering to travelers on Ponce de Leon Avenue, then a fancy thoroughfare.
Around the midcentury mark, the first iteration of a dinner club opened downstairs, followed by the Gypsy Room (where dancer Tiny Lou headlined in 1952), and the Playboy Club. Black ties, bunny outfits, and pricey steaks once reigned where Blondie now operates.
“[Ponce] was always kind of swanky, the tantalizing strip of the ’40s,” says Orley. “It was burlesque. It was high-end. It was only when it got to the late ’60s, early ’70s, when it really started going downhill. Kind of a biker bar, dive bar, strip club [scene].”
The Clermont Lounge opened in 1968, as surrounding neighborhoods began a slide through decades of disinvestment and decline.
By 2012, as the Great Recession was petering out, Nashville-based Oliver Hospitality had just wrapped work on a sister concept, the Oliver Hotel in Knoxville, and the Clermont property was being marketed as a smart commercial buy.
Orley and cohorts did a cursory Google Street View search of the area—substantially different in its pre-Beltline, pre-Ponce City Market state—and weren’t impressed.
But a friend of Orley’s development partner, Philip Welker, who lived in Atlanta nudged them to reconsider, insisting Atlanta lacked branded boutique lodging, and the Poncey-Highland area was poised to rapidly change. Welker paid an impromptu visit, calling Orley that night, after a visit to the downstairs lounge: “This place is awesome!”
In the bedraggled hotel Orley saw sturdy concrete construction, inimitable character, and—with the likelihood of historic tax credits—an attractive deal. Their offer beat several others.
And then came six years of complications.
“One thing after the next,” Orley says.
Oliver Hospitality had bought the building at the end of the recession, but Atlanta still ranked among the country’s most sluggish hotel markets, with few investors interested in funding such a lodge—especially an independent concept with a strip club in the basement, albeit one beloved by the city.
“I like to say keeping the lounge cost me more money than I’ve made in my life,” Orley laughs. “But without that lounge, you don’t have the whole story.”
Once financing was secured, construction costs became more expensive as the economy zoomed; to counterbalance that, Oliver Hospitality joined other Georgia developers in successfully lobbying legislators to lift a cap on state historic tax credits.
Then parking issues caused delays (more on that below), and painstaking construction—to exacting National Historic Register standards—took longer than anticipated.
“Considering that the building never had central heat and air, and wasn’t up-to-date with current building codes, it’s pretty hard for the first-time visitor to understand how challenging a restoration of this scale is,” says architect lead Lee Ann Gamble, of Atlanta’s Gamble + Gamble firm. “The goal of the entire team was to make it look and feel as authentic as possible.”
Restoration of the building’s recognizable steel rooftop tower—performed in central Georgia—took six months alone.
Now, attractions beyond the basement lounge include a cafe, chill “library” space, a 1,500-square-foot lobby bar, and Tiny Lou’s restaurant, named in homage to the dancer of yore and accessible to pedestrians via an entry off Ponce.
The bulk of the hotel’s 94 rooms are standard options (from $199 per night), with colorful art, carpeting, and wallpaper, sharply vintage bathroom finishes, and La Bottega bath amenities exuding a decidedly not by-the-hour feel.
Various packages are available that invite guests to, well, get responsibly hammered on a Beltline bar crawl, as one example.
Behind the building, a mechanical car-lift—to Orley’s knowledge, the only such lift in Atlanta—was a substitution to original plans, requiring a city variance.
A 150-car parking deck had been permitted for the site, but plans were scrapped when developers discovered the deck’s weight could potentially damage a century-old sewer line. Rerouting the sewer would have cost more than $2 million and delayed the project by another couple of years, Orley said.
Unaffiliated with the hotel, the basement dive-bar strip club defies description for the uninitiated, though the late Anthony Bourdain once tried, saying: “This place should be a national landmark.”
Save a few safety upgrades and bathroom fixes to comply with fire code, the Clermont Lounge was virtually unchanged by the property’s renovations, remaining as gloriously scuzzy as ever.
“People like it for its authenticity,” Orley says. “What will happen to the Clermont Lounge 20 years from now, I don’t know. But we want them to be here as long as they want to be here.”
After the six-year revival process, the Hotel Clermont’s literal crowning achievement is the rambling, sunny, quirky, no-cover-charge rooftop hang, which throbs with music and is open to neighbors (with special key rings) even when it’s closed to the public.
Find throwback furniture, a food cart, and a rum-centric bar that serves libations in plastic coconuts and bills in cassette tape cases. As of 12:01 a.m., this space will glow red with the tower lights, as the amorphous skyline twinkles beyond.
“I think the Clermont will herald a new wave—another wave—of great independent lifestyle hotels that have been successful in other markets,” says Orley, a Nashville resident. “We’re not the first group to come in and do something fantastic in Atlanta. I think that story’s been developing for the last several years, and it’s becoming a place you actually want to spend your weekends, and your vacation. I love Atlanta.”