Hal Hamilton served for three decades with the City of Vancouver Police Department, retiring as a sergeant in 2015. During that time, he was in charge of the Forensic Identification Unit for the Canadian force. Suffice it to say, he likes solving a good mystery.
Hamilton’s curiosity—and a yellowed page in an old book—have led him to believe the former Northwood Hotel, an abandoned and ailing structure set amid construction cranes and Midtown’s ever-changing skyline, once served as the secret writing place of the most famous writer in Atlanta history—author of one of the most popular, if controversial, books of all time. That information comes as news to the city’s leading historic preservation agency and Midtown Alliance, a coalition of business and community leaders. But they're not discrediting it.
The old hotel, however, appears set for a date with the wrecking ball.
The building has become a trespassing magnet and hassle for its owners, a multi-state development firm. The two-story, 17th Street structure’s possible ties to Atlanta native Margaret Mitchell, and her book Gone With the Wind, could have no bearing on whether it remains standing, preservationists tell Urbanize Atlanta. Razing any landmark associated with the author would be a stark contrast to the historically protected Margaret Mitchell House and Museum, once a more famous writing haven for the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, located a few blocks south.
“It is, at this point, a potential marker or plaque at best,” says David Y. Mitchell, Atlanta Preservation Center executive director, of the former Northwood Hotel’s prospects.
Hamilton, who lives in a small city outside Vancouver called New Westminster, had the misfortune of losing both of his parents this year. Before his father died, he encouraged Hamilton to read a 1977 book, Blue Ridge Mountain Memories.
The author, Alice McGuire Hamilton, was married to Hamilton’s great-grandfather, RJ Hamilton, who'd moved from Canada to Atlanta during the Great Depression in search of work. RJ Hamilton found his calling—and his future Southern wife—at the Northwood Hotel, which he leased and began a new life as a hotelier.
Alice McGuire Hamilton’s book chronicled life growing up in Jackson, North Carolina. That all helped Hal Hamilton answer questions about his family tree, but it was copy on the back cover that intrigued him most:
Those paragraphs sent Hamilton on what he calls a mission to uncover his family’s connection to Mitchell, and hers to the Midtown building. Which led him to recent news the former Northwood Hotel was destined to be razed soon.
Gone With the Wind published in 1936 and made Mitchell a celebrity overnight. RJ Hamilton (who became known in Atlanta as Captain Robert J. Hamilton) ran the hotel until his death in 1942. Mitchell died seven years later at age 48, after being struck by a drunk, off-duty taxi driver on Peachtree Street in Midtown.
“As my research progressed, I wondered about the proposed demolition of the [hotel] building, and considered that perhaps no one knows about the Margaret Mitchell connection,” Hamilton wrote in an email. “[It’s] no doubt an important part of cultural history.”
The 14 17th Street building was built in the 1930s at the southern end of Pershing Point, first serving as apartments and then the Northwood Hotel. In its later years, it was office space, but it’s been left abandoned and in disrepair since Dewberry Capital acquired the 1.7-acre lot for $6 million a decade ago. Dewberry is one of Atlanta’s more controversial development groups, led by former Georgia Tech quarterback John Dewberry, whom national business media have coined “Atlanta’s Emperor of Empty Lots.”
Dewberry officials came before the Midtown Development Review Committee last month with plans to tear down the former hotel and leave the space empty, like the rest of the grassy lot. The building is now beyond repair and has been invaded by trespassers, according to Dewberry’s team, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Karl Smith-Davids, Midtown Alliance’s senior project manager of zoning and urban design, said Dewberry’s demolition permit filing cleared the Midtown DRC and underwent a Special Administrative Permit hearing with the City of Atlanta earlier this month. It’s now under administrative review by Nathan Brown, a planner with the city’s planning staff, according to Smith-Davids. Brown didn’t respond to an email request for comment.
Smith-Davids said Hamilton’s theory is “quite interesting” but added, “I believe it will be very hard to determine if there’s a definitive connection to the 17th Street building.”
Hamilton’s hunch “may very well have merit, but it has no bearing on whether or not this building will be protected or saved,” said APC’s Mitchell. “This information would have been impactful months or years ago, but [currently] there are no protections for this site or structure.”
Wandering deeper into the wilderness of fun but improvable theory, perhaps, Hamilton finds it interesting that one of Gone With the Wind’s early central characters—Charles Hamilton, Scarlett O’Hara’s first husband—shares his family name. He wonders if it isn’t a nod to his great-grandfather and his wife, who provided the famed scribe with a burrow in which to quietly write without distractions, according to a different book.
“Here’s hoping,” says Hamilton, “a bit of history can be preserved.”
Frankly, even from nearly 3,000 miles away, he gives a damn.
• Recent Midtown news, discussion (Urbanize Atlanta)