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Exploring the lost dream of Cabbagetown’s own Ponce City Market-style mega-attraction

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The Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts have a rich history, but what didn’t happen at the former factory is fascinating

An early blueprint of the plan to revitalize Cabbagetown’s Fulton Cotton and Bag Mill with restaurants, retail, office space, and more.
Before there was architecture software, there was pen and paper.
Photos: Sean Keenan, via Patch Works Art and History Museum

Imagine if Cabbagetown’s Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts, a nearly 140-year-old red brick complex now home to hundreds of deluxe condos and apartments, featured restaurants, art galleries, a museum, and “the longest bar in the world.”

Today, that might seem far-flung—an adaptive-reuse project in the vein of Ponce City Market in quiet Cabbagetown.

But in 1980, that idea showed signs of coming to life.

It cost developers in the ballpark of $300 million to turn the former Sears, Roebuck and Co. department store—and later City Hall East—into the bustling mixed-use destination it is today.

The former Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill on Boulevard—considerably smaller than Ponce City Market—was once in for a redo worth $19 million. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $60 million.)

And the concept was fascinating.

The cover of the economic development plan, with a sketch of 1881 Atlanta, featuring an old steam engine, on the front.
The cover of the economic development plan, with a sketch of 1881 Atlanta, featuring an old steam engine, on the front.
A table showing the square footage of each building on the site.
A table showing the square footage of each building on the site.

As part of an initiative spearheaded by city officials from then-Mayor Maynard Jackson’s administration, as well as neighborhood advocates from an organization called The Patch, Inc., redevelopment plans were drafted that would have seen the mill come to life as a hub of arts, history, and culture.

With a flea market, senior housing, and a “country store” to boot.

A table showing the square footage of each new element of the project.
A breakdown of prospective uses.

It was called the “Ole Cotton Mill Project,” part of an ambitious effort to revitalize the struggling neighborhood.

Cabbagetown had long relied on the mill—it shuttered in 1974 due to a recession—as its economic engine.

Atlanta-based architecture firm J.W. Robinson & Associates—still active today—helped draw up the adaptive-reuse project that would have anchored the “Cabbagetown: A Strategy for Restoration and Economic Revitalization” plan.

The lead image shown again, with the visual plans for the project.
Imagine what “Museum of the South” might have entailed.

The $18,988,013 project would have yielded a more than 762,000-square-foot community replete with, among other things, a flea market, a “Museum of the South,” a country store, elderly housing, hotel rooms, and space for artists to create and perform.

And then, of course, there would have been the “Ole Cotton Mill Music Hall & Mule Bar,” which could have boasted the world’s longest bar.

The wooden bar itself would have spanned 400 feet and featured dozens of taps, flanked by a Mexican and Italian restaurant, a stage, and a dance floor.

A description of the Mule Bar plan above a sketch of eight mules surrounding a bar, drinking and serving cocktails.
The four-legged gentry that wasn’t.
A floorplan of the bar area, which would have featured two restaurants, a stage, and a dancing area.

The only new construction the Ole Cotton Mill Project would have entailed would be the senior housing, which would have comprised 80 units.

The guest quarters—a 120-room hotel, by the look of it—would have been the only other piece of the puzzle where patrons could rest their heads.

It’s all quite the departure from the apartment and condo complex the mill eventually became in the 1990s, a massive and pioneering venture of adaptive-reuse for the Southeast.

A sketch of the proposed country store.
Cabbagetown’s Cracker Barrel?

Little is known about why the project never panned out.

After nearly four decades, many of the city and neighborhood leaders who helped develop the blueprints have passed away, according to Jake and Nina Elsas, curators of Cabbagetown’s Patch Works Art and History Museum, where the Ole Cotton Mill Project plans and myriad other historical documents can be explored today.

Perhaps the culture-focused redevelopment was too ahead of its time?

For now, though, historians and city planning wonks can ponder the lost future of Cabbagetown’s most prominent landmark via these artifacts left behind.

More sketches of prospective uses of the site, including a “textile maze” and a “riverboat excursion” feature.
A map showing Cabbagetown’s location, relative to places like downtown and Oakland Cemetery.
A letter from the leader of The Patch that lays out the ambitions of the economic development plan.