When I arrived in Atlanta for my first job out of college in the spring of 1984, I didn’t realize that my workplace would be a formidable structure referred to by some as “Tara on Techwood,” a nod to the fictional plantation in the blockbuster 1936 novel-turned-film, Gone With the Wind. I was just happy to have graduated so I could start my career in television news. From the outside, the building where I reported for duty on the graveyard shift at 1050 Techwood Drive looked more like a stately Southern plantation than what it had become, the location of the world’s first all-news channel.
“An old country club” is what I was told the place had been. To a young woman from Flatbush, Brooklyn who’d never seen a country club, it sure looked like what I’d imagine one might be, with majestic columns, a circular driveway, and a burbling fountain outside the front door. (Most employees entered the building on the side for faster access).
None of us ever had the time or inclination in those early days of Cable News Network to ask more about it. The news of the moment was more important than history, particularly to the group of 20-something-year-old newbie journalists (loftily called “video journalists”) who largely staffed the place for slightly above minimum wage.
We also were on high alert, never knowing when we might encounter founder Ted Turner, for he kept a place on the top floor and was infamous for padding about in his bathrobe in the middle of the night. What’s more, on weekends we grew accustomed to the thuds above us as Georgia Championship Wrestling was taped in the WTBS studio.
Those of us who arrived a few years after the network’s launch in 1980 never had the pleasure of visiting the ramshackle building at 1044 W. Peachtree Street where the CNN Originals first hashed out plans for the network. That building was just north of 1018 W. Peachtree Street, headquarters of Turner’s Superstation WTBS, formerly known as WTCG.
In 1970, Turner had rescued an ailing independent station, WJRJ, and, through a combination of might, inventive technology, crafty salesmanship, and, most of all, a merry band of broadcasters intent on having fun, transformed it into a national sensation.
(The most notable thing about 1018 Peachtree, besides the TV revolution it incubated, was the thousand-foot transmission tower—and the fact it had been built to house Atlanta’s second TV station, then a CBS affiliate, WAGA-TV).
When Turner announced he was launching the first all-news cable network in 1979, there were many issues to address, not the least of which was where the network would be housed. With only about a year until the proposed launch date, there was no time to build from scratch.
In a race against time, a proper headquarters was sought. Station manager Sid Pike writes in his memoir that originally Turner had favored the old Brookwood Hotel in Buckhead, a location that would cost $1 million. In Pike’s estimation, that space was woefully too small to accommodate the nascent network, plus WTBS, and the-then Jetsonian satellite “farm” necessary to the entire operation. The fact that the hotel was purportedly haunted likely had nothing to do with his resistance.
Pike writes that he soon convinced Turner to choose an abandoned country club on Techwood Drive. It had been sold twice in the early ’70s to developers who intended to use the acreage to build towers of condos, office space, and a 1,000-room hotel, a precursor to Atlanta’s mixed-use mega-builds of today.
Despite its loftier $4 million price tag, with 90,000 square feet of interior rooms, the Tara-esque site had more space than the Buckhead property, and was near the existing studio. Turner was sold.
What became the first on-air home of Cable News Network in 1980 had been constructed as the third home of the Jewish Progressive Club, built 40 years earlier.
The club, a refuge for Russian Jews who felt unwelcome at the Standard Club founded by German Jews in 1867, had outgrown its former headquarters on 420 Pryor Street, where it had been residing since 1916, replete with dance hall, billiard room, and swimming pool—and dues of $3 a month.
According to a report in the Southern Israelite newspaper, member I. M. Weinstein lead the charge in raising the money necessary to build larger quarters to accommodate a growing membership. The capacious new headquarters boasted tennis courts and three swimming pools.
The 32-acre site chosen for this splendor sat not far from the new Techwood Homes, the first public housing project built in the United States, which opened in 1935.
In August 1940, a ceremony celebrated the Progressive Club’s grand new quarters. Prayers were lead by Rabbi Harry Epstein. Papers were hidden away in the cornerstone, a time capsule for a day in the distant future when another new facility might be needed. The newspaper reported, “It will be some time before the new club home outgrows demands of its members.”
From the minute it opened, the place was thrumming with life. Sounds of dances, card games, the successes of a winning basketball team, and Hadassah Club meetings filled the rooms.
By the mid-1970s, however, as is evident in what’s left of the Club’s archives, now held at the Breman Museum, club leaders followed members as they migrated in a new direction, north from the city to 1160 Moores Mill Road. (As for the the Progressive Club, it ultimately closed and, ironically, became a branch of the YMCA.)
Having settled on the Midtown property, Turner enlisted his childhood friend and sailing buddy, architect Bunky Helfrich, to convert the abandoned club from a space of leisure to one of ’til-then unimaginable 24/7 news toil. The money-making WTBS would get the plum first-floor digs, with space to house weekend wrestling matches; CNN, as the newbie gamble, would be relegated to the basement.
CNN’s first president, Reese Schonfeld, insisted on an open newsroom concept, so the viewer could glimpse all aspects of production—as wild an innovation at the time as the idea of broadcasting news round-the-clock.
Wild, too, was the timetable: Less than a year from acquisition to the day the switch was flipped on June 1, 1980, to beam CNN on the air for the very first time.
A garden was planted in one of the old swimming pools out back, from which reporter John Holliman delivered a farm report. Engineers were still toiling away on opening day, and porta-potties were the only restroom facilities available for the staff. And a military band provided fanfare with their rendition of the hymn, Nearer, Thy God, to Thee—said to be the last song played as the Titanic sunk—recorded for posterity’s sake and held in company archives, to be replayed, Turner told the guests, at the end of the world.
While some believe the world ended when Turner sold out to Time Warner in 1996, Tara on Techwood had ceased to be CNN’s home nearly a decade earlier, when the network expanded, famously, to what’s now known as the CNN Center downtown.
Though it no longer serves as a news machine, the old mansion remains in the corporate family as the centerpiece of a campus for Turner Entertainment Group, a nearly 80-year-old fixture in a rapidly changing city.
Journalist Lisa Napoli, currently based in Los Angeles, is at work on a book about the creation of CNN.