Renovation complete at blighted US hotel

The site of the deadliest hotel fire in United States history — a tragedy that led to nationwide fire-safety reforms — will open to guests next month as a new boutique hotel after a $28-million makeover.

The Ellis Hotel is expected to open on October 1, said Susan Griffin, owner and partner of Kelco/FB Winecoff LLC, a New York-based real-estate group that renovated the 15-floor hotel. In 1946, when the once-luxurious building was called the Winecoff Hotel, 119 people died in a fire that helped forever change fire codes across the country.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for October 17, while a tour of the new hotel is planned for fire survivors in December, on the 61st anniversary of the blaze.

”We’re very respectful of the history of the building and very reverent of the magnitude of the event,” Griffin said. ”We can’t forget it, but we are very proud of relaunching something new.”

The 15-month renovation preserved the exterior of the hotel, built in 1913 on downtown Atlanta’s highest hill as the city’s premier place to stay. The Ellis will have 127 rooms.

”It looks more now like it did [then] than it had since the fire in 1946,” Griffin said.

On December 6 1946, fire broke out on the third floor of the Winecoff, which had 280 occupants at the time. Most of the deaths were caused by smoke inhalation, but some people died from falling or jumping out windows to escape the flames and smoke.

The fire’s cause was officially listed as unknown, but in their 1993 book The Winecoff Fire authors Sam Heys and Allen Goodwin outlined suspicions that it was arson.

The hotel lacked fire-safety measures now common in public buildings, such as sprinkler systems and corner stairwells or other fire escapes. The Winecoff fire, combined with two other deadly fires in the US that year, led officials to create model fire-safety codes for cities. The updated codes required sprinklers, multiple exits and bans on flammable materials in buildings.

The Ellis fits in well with the revitalisation of downtown Atlanta, said Mark Vaughan of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.

”We really lacked some of the smaller boutique hotels that some of our competitors have and we’re getting those now,” Vaughan said. ”They provide the uniqueness and personalised service that travellers are looking for now.”

The property struggled in the decades after the fire and has been vacant for the last quarter-century. The hotel reopened in 1949 as The Peachtree and was sold in 1967 to the Georgia Baptist Association, which used it for 15 years as a senior citizens’ home before it closed in 1982.

”It was for many years a blighted property,” Goodwin said. ”I think everyone will be pleased to see it put to good use.” — Sapa-AP

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