Historic Structures

Building Description Rich's Downtown Department Store, Atlanta Georgia

Exterior Architecture

The Rich's Department store complex consists of at least eight distinct additions to the original 1923/1924 building located on the block bounded by Broad, Alabama, and Forsyth Streets. The total complex includes the two city blocks bounded by Broad and Alabama Streets, Spring Street viaduct, and M.L.K., Jr. Drive. Of these numerous additions, the two most architecturally significant portions were built in 1923/1924 by the firm of Hentz, Reid,and Adler, and the 1946/1948 Store for Homes designed by the firm of Toombs and Creighton.

The original building reflects the historical appearance of an Italian palazzo, a favorite theme for mercantile stores in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The 1946/1948 Store for Homes is one of Atlanta's earliest and most dramatic examples of the International Style.

The overall dimensions of the 1923/1924 building are 210.78 feet north/south and 177.87 feet east/west. For the entire building between Broad and Forsyth Streets, the dimensions are approximately 408.69 feet along Broad Street, 177.87 feet along Alabama Street. The dimensions of the 1946 Store for Homes without additions are 192.37 feet north/south and 205.26 feet east/west. With additions, the Store for Homes is approximately 192.37 feet along Forsyth Street and 425.49 feet along MLK. Jr. Drive from Forsyth Street to Spring Street viaduct.

The original 1923/1924 building employed spread footings. Pile foundations were employed on all of the subsequent additions and in the 1946/1948 Store for Homes.

A variety of materials was employed on the project, all keeping within the original color range of Indiana Limestone. The 1923/1924 building originally employed Indiana Limestone and a medium tan brick. The limestone is used for the diagonally cut corner at Alabama and Broad Streets, for the pilasters separating bays along Alabama and Broad and for trim around the windows. Two significant architectural details are incorporated in the facades, the corner clock and the two Broad Street entry compositions, and each is carved in limestone. The well-known Rich's clock is a circular design surrounded by a wreath motif. The two entry compositions employ rusticated surrounds with prominent keystones and unusual broken pediment motifs inspired by Francesco Borromini's Collegio di Propaganda Fide in Rome.

The structural systems employed in the complex are reinforced concrete frames throughout, except for a steel structure used on the four-story Crystal Bridge. The exterior walls are brick and limestone cladding on a reinforced concrete frame. The floors are reinforced concrete slabs.

The entry doors of the 1923/1924 building are not original and are standard bronze anodized aluminum storefront systems. The display windows have also been replaced with a more recent system and most above-entry level windows have been filled in with glass blocks on the Broad and Alabama elevations. Numerous original wood windows exist on the Forsyth side of the 1924 building. Original 12/12 lighted windows with wood frames exist only on the fifth floor in the store's management offices. All later additions employ modern aluminum storefront and window systems. The Store for Homes employs a natural finished aluminum storefront system for windows and doors.

The building has flat roofs throughout the complex and a portion of the original copper cornice exists on the 1923/1924 building, facing Forsyth Street. The remainder of this original cornice was removed when eighth floor was added in 1946.

Interior Architecture

The floor plans may be generally described as a typically open mercantile arrangement with unobstructed floor space. Each addition to the original building employed a slightly different bay spacing. The original building employs a 23-foot square bay, the Store for Homes employs a 28-foot square bay system and the other additions employ a variety of regular and irregular bay systems between these two sizes. The building does not include any elegant stairs for vertical movement, instead all stairs are utilitarian fire stairs with simple balustrade treatment. The major movement system in the complex is the bank of escalators located in the 1923/1924 building. The escalator system, added during the 1935/1936 renovation, may be characterized as streamlined modem with smooth flowing details that characterized work of that period.

The flooring, wall and ceiling finishes have been renovated numerous times in the history of the building. A typical example is the Magnolia Room, a lunchroom well known to Atlantans, which has roughly 12-inch false walls covering the original wall surface. These new walls provide space to accommodate improved heating and cooling systems. The original base molding is all that remains intact in this important public space. The structural columns in this room are approximately 24 inches in diameter with simplified Doric derived capitals. All the originally round concrete columns in the dining room area have been transformed into square piers with the addition of wood wainscot below and mirrors above.

The solitary example of original finishes in the 1923/1924 building exists on the fifth floor, in the executive office area. These offices include a conference room, executive offices, and the Chart Room. Pine paneling is used in each of these rooms with simplified classical details. The conference room has a cornice approximately 24 inches deep. The Chart Room is an irregularly shaped room located in the diagonally cut corner detailed by the Rich's clock. This room has pedimented overdoors with cushion moldings, and recessed arches with prominent keystones. The original 12/12 lighted wood windows exist only in these offices.

Building Complex Development

Prior to construction of the 1924 building, the blocks subsequently occupied by the Rich's complex were numerous smaller buildings, 2 to 6 stories high, usually with brick load-bearing party walls. The site of the 1924 building alone was occupied by 14 different storefronts. The area immediately northwest of the site was occupied by a large railroad yard with numerous siding and freight areas. The viaducts on Spring, Forsyth and Broad streets were already built.

The first building constructed, completed in 1924, was designed by the firm of Hentz, Reid & Adler, and consisted of a partial sub-basement, basement, first floor, mezzanine and floors 2 through 6. The exterior facing Broad and Alabama Street was an imposing design based on Italian Renaissance precedents and featured a limestone base with rusticated attached columns, a beige brick central segment with large double hung wood windows, and a generously scaled cornice made of sheet copper finished to appear to be stone. The corner at Broad Street and Alabama Street was beveled 45 and featured the famous Rich's clock. (Interestingly, the construction drawings indicate a wrought iron grille instead of the clock, which was apparently incorporated as a change). The less imposing Forsyth Street facade was designed with a lesser degree of ornamentation. The Broad Street facade featured two entry points designed with a large limestone arch infilled with glass, and a canopy (or marquee) made of wrought and cast iron with wire glass panels. Two smaller entries were located on Alabama Street and Forsyth Street. Elaborate display windows were located on Broad and Alabama streets with back walls featuring classical ornamentation made with plaster finished to look like stone.

The entry vestibules were finished with dark stained wood, variegated green marble benches, and marble floors. A mezzanine above the first floor ran the entire length of the Alabama and Broad Street sides and stepped up and down over the display windows and entries. The head room in the mezzanine was too low for usable space so it may have served mainly to promote natural ventilation. A bank of five elevators was located adjacent to the party-wall with the Atlanta Constitution building (northwest corner of Alabama and Forsyth Streets) and featured carved wood classical columns and wire glass elevator doors. All floors in the building were concrete with cinder fill topped with a finish floor of wood. Ceilings were plaster and interior columns were finished in plaster with classical molding at top.

The sub-basement level was used mainly for mechanical equipment. The basement contained retail space and a shipping and receiving area with a door to Forsyth Street. The rest of the floors were mainly retail. There was some office space on the fifth floor and some stock space on the sixth floor. Also on the sixth floor was a restaurant and kitchen at the location of what was to become the Magnolia Room at a later date.

The structure was poured-in-place concrete on spread footings. The roof was poured flat, probably to accommodate a future floor. The exterior walls were masonry with plaster on interior surfaces. Heating was provided by steam radiators. A fire sprinkler system was provided, and a sprinkler system continued to be provided in all subsequent building additions.

In 1935-1936, a seventh floor was added on top of the 1924 building, designed by Hentz, Reid & Adler. The drawings indicate a somewhat utilitarian looking exterior of beige brick with operable wood windows and the retention of the large copper cornice on the Broad and Alabama sides of the 1924 building. The structure was poured-in-place concrete.

In 1936, an air conditioning system was installed in the 1924 and 1935 buildings. The extant mezzanine above the first floor at the Forsyth Street side was probably constructed at this time to accommodate air conditioning equipment. Air conditioning systems continued to be installed in all subsequent additions.

In 1940, an addition immediately south of the 1924 building was constructed, along with a number of modifications to that building. The work was designed by Hentz, Adler & Shutze. The building contained a subbasement, basement, first floor, mezzanine, floors 2 and 3, and partial floors on 4 and 5.

The 1940 building was a generally modernist design but featured beige brick compatible with the 1924 building. A canopy was included that extended northward across the first three column bays of the 1924 building on Broad Street and the entire Forsyth Street facade. The southern Broad Street entry of the 1924 building was moved two column bays south to the last bay of the original building, and limestone infill panels were installed in the arched opening above the original entry and the mezzanine windows in the two southernmost bays. The first floor and basement windows in the Forsyth Street facade were also filled with limestone. The mezzanine in the 1924 building at Broad Street was demolished between the north Broad Street entry and the south end of the building, and a new mezzanine at a lower height (allowing more headroom) was built. Escalators were installed in the 1924 building at this time. By 1940 Rich's owned several buildings on the block between Forsyth and Spring Street, which were evidently used for stock, shipping and receiving and were connected to the 1940 building via a tunnel under Forsyth Street. The freight entry doors on the 1924 building were closed and the area on Forsyth under the canopy mentioned above was converted to display windows.

The sub-basement was utilized for stock areas. but the basement and upper floors were retail space. An additional entry point was incorporated into the Forsyth Street facade.

The structure was poured-in-place concrete supported on steel pipe piles. The exterior walls were masonry with plaster finish on the interior.

Sometime between 1940 and 1944, Rich's acquired an adjacent existing building at the comer of Forsyth and M.L.K. Dr. (then called Hunter St.) and incorporated it into the complex:. Very little information is available on this building which was known as the "Corner Store."

In 1944, an eighth floor was added to the 1924 building. The only drawings discovered are structural engineering drawings by Robert G. Lose. This addition was even more utilitarian in appearance than the 1935 addition but continued the use of beige brick. The drawings do not indicate the addition's oriiginal function, but the escalators did not extend to this floor, and its final use was for support functions.

1946 saw the start of construction on the "Store for Homes" located on the west corner of Forsyth and M.L.K. Jr. Drive (then called Hunter Street), the largest addition at one time in the history of the complex. The architects were Toombs & Creighton. The building contained a sub-basement, basement (which aligned vertically with the sub-basement level of the 1940 store), first floor, plaza floor (which aligned with a future plaza area on Spring Street), floors 2 through 5 and partial floors on 6 and 7 and was connected back to the original complex by a glass walled bridge on floors 2 through 5.

This building was an early example of modernist design in Atlanta. The Forsyth Street facade, the bridge and the west facade were finished with a glass-and-aluminum curtainwall system, and an elaborate curved support rail system for a window-washing car was installed on the roof. The M.L.K. Drive and north facades featured an undulating brick treatment, the brick was a beige color similar to the previous buildings across Forsyth Street.

The warehouse buildings which occupied the site were in effect replaced by equivalent area on the lower levels of the new building, and a new tunnel under Forsyth Street was built to facilitate better communication with the original buildings (now known as the "Store for Fashion"). The upper levels were mainly retail space with an entry located on Forsyth Street.

The structure was poured-in-place concrete on pilings, except for the bridge, which was steel. The exterior walls were either curtainwall or masonry finished with plaster on the interior.

In 1951 work was begun on the Store for Men, located on Broad St. adjacent to the 1940 building. The architects were Stevens & Wilkinson and the interiors were designed by the New York interior designer Elanor LeMaire. The building contained a sub-basement, a basement, first floor, mezzanine and floors 2 through 5.

The exterior and interior design of this addition were also modernist in character. The Broad Street facade was glass curtainwall and a new entry was built featuring a sloped luminous ceiling and perforated metal guardrails with wood trim. The mezzanine in the 1940 building was partially demolished to create one large interior space and a new mezzanine was connected into the remaining existing mezzanine. The canopies extending up to the 1924 building were also modified at this time, including the addition of partial floors on top of the 1940 building, with a beige brick exterior to match. A photograph taken at this time indicates that the copper cornice on the 1924 building had been removed and the original wood windows had been replaced with glass block.

The drawings indicate that the sub-basement through the second floor to be retail and, the fifth floor support space, but no information was discovered describing floors 3 and 4.

The structure was poured-in-place concrete on piles. The exterior walls were curtainwall or beige brick masonry.

In 1958, a three-story addition was constructed on the west side of the 1946 Store for Homes extending to the Spring Street viaduct. The architects were Stevens & Wilkinson. The exterior was all below the viaduct level and was utilitarian in appearance. The building replaced several existing warehouse buildings and contained a new truck dock facility and storage space, completing the trend established in 1924 for service and freight areas to be located on the west side of the site. The first set of drawings indicated a built-up roof on top, but a later drawing shows what was actually built, a rooftop parking deck accessed from Spring Street. A western entry to the 1946 Store for Homes was also constructed. The drawings show the area under the M.L.K. Drive viaduct used as unenclosed trash and truck areas, but at some later date, this area was enclosed and continued to be used for the same purpose. An existing building on Spring Street (constructed around 1910) was connected with a tunnel at the basement level. The structure was poured-in-place concrete.

In 1960 work was started on a parking deck attached to the north side of the Store for Homes. Architects were Stevens & Wilkinson. The deck was part of an effort to counter competition from suburban malls and featured a spiral exit ramp. Vehicular access was from Forsyth and Alabama Streets and shoppers could enter directly into the Store for Homes from each level. Access to the rooftop parking deck on top of the 1958 building was also provided. The structure was poured-in-place concrete, as were all subsequent parking deck additions.

The parking deck was expanded northward starting in 1962. The architects were Stevens & Wilkinson. Cars from this deck also exited onto the spiral ramp. Alabama Street was widened by one lane at this time to improve access.

In 1963 work was started on a sixth floor addition on top of the 1958 service building immediately to the west of the 1946 Store for Homes. This addition was designed by Stevens & Wilkinson and added retail space. The exterior was clad in beige brick and featured vertical elements (louvers and brick reveals) that, while not mimicking the 1946 building, created a similar proportional system. The structure was poured-inplace concrete and the column grid extended that of the 1946 building to allow for large, unobstructed interior spaces.

In 1965, two floors were added on top of the 1960 and 1962 parking decks, and a bridge from the spiral ramp to the Spring Street viaduct were added. The architects were Stevens & Wilkinson. At about this time M.L.K. Drive was widened and the "Corner Store" building was modified to remove the southernmost 13 feet and both the M.L.K. and Forsyth facades were reclad with beige brick to make them consistent with the other buildings.

In 1966, another sixth floor addition was added on top of the 1958 service building to the west of the earlier construction. The architects were Stevens & Wilkinson. This construction brought the Store for Homes almost all the way to Spring Street, only a small landscaped plaza was left. The exterior was, once again, beige brick and designed to be compatible with the 1946 building and the 1963 addition. The structure was cast-in-place concrete.

In 1969, a single-story addition was made on the site of the old Atlanta Constitution building (the northeast comer of Forsyth and Alabama Street). The architects were Stevens & Wilkinson. This project was evidently intended to enhance this very visible corner and the poured-in-place structure was designed to accept a multi-story addition on top. The top was a few feet above the Alabama Street level and served as a small park with planters and seating. The floor area, which aligned with the basement of the 1924 building, was used for office space. This was the last large addition made to the complex. When the Urban Walls program was begun in Atlanta a large mural design by artist Vincejia Blount was painted on the party walls of the old Constitution building that were left when that building was razed.

Given the nature of the retail business, department stores' interiors tend to be modified, updated and revised on a regular basis, and this is what happened to almost all portions of the Rich's complex. The interior modifications appear to have begun as early as 1936, and the last major renovation occurred in the early 1980s. By 1994, almost all interior areas had been modified.

With the continued shift away from downtown shopping in favor of suburban locations, the need for the amount of square footage represented by the downtown store disappeared. Additionally, the central shipping area that served the suburban stores from the downtown location was moved to a more efficient suburban warehouse in the 1970s. The functional utilization of interior spaces went through some transformations until, in the early 1980s, a large portion of the Store for Homes was leased out to the Fulton County Government and other individual lessees. Fulton County moved out into its own space, and then, in 1991, the decision was made to close the downtown store. The building was vacated by Spring of 1992, except for some continued storage use and the continued use of the parking decks by downtown workers.