When H. Harper Station announced it would be closing in April, it hit Atlanta's cocktail community hard .
The 80-year old train depot in Reynoldstown served as a restaurant during the height of Atlanta's cocktail culture when everyone had high hopes for the soon-to-come Eastside trail of the BeltLine.
More than a year after H. Harper Station took leave of the space, the BeltLine expansion is a reality and 904 Memorial Drive S.E. has a new occupant. Michael Lennox, of Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall, announced early this year that he would be opening not one, but two new restaurants in the building.
The Golden Eagle, "a workingman's tavern," and Muchacho, a West Coast influenced counter service hangout, will both operate in the space, divided by an interior brick wall. But now that development is underway, it is the brick on the outside of the building that has everyone talking.
This week, locals handed out some harsh criticism to Lennox, who decided to paint the exterior brick of the abandoned train depot turned restaurant. Images of the building with a fresh coat of white paint were shared on various social media platforms.
Some residents expressed concern that the building was under historic protection (it is not, more on this below), others argued that it was at least an architecturally pleasing building and should have been left alone.
Conversations ensued about what could be done, who to call for an intervention and if the paint job was really permanent or if the building was being sandblasted. A minority of residents spoke up in support of Lennox, suggesting that the community give his plan a chance.
Things took a really harsh turn when neighbors began logging negative reviews on the Facebook page of the yet-to-open Golden Eagle. It got so bad, the page was shut down. Residents also took aim at Elizabeth Ingram -- the award-winning designer who is working with Lennox on the project -- by giving her business a one star rating on her Facebook page.
"I get that people are upset, but trying to besmirch my integrity? That is really out of proportion," Ingram said. She followed the wishes of her client in painting the building, she said.
"Would it have been my first choice to paint the building? No. Was it my choice at all? No," she said. Ingram said she proposed a historical white that would work with the roof and the stone (which remains unpainted.)
The big picture, she said, is that Lennox is taking over a previously empty space and trying to make it work. Had the building's owner decided to cash it in and sell, she said, the community would be dealing with a much different scenario.
Residents hoping to return the building to its former appearance tossed around the idea of reaching out to the Atlanta Urban Design Commission with their concerns, but in this case, it would not have helped.
"This building it not a Landmark Building, therefore review of the exterior changes (in this case, the painting of the exterior masonry) does not fall under the UDC's purview," said city officials. The property is also not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the National Register program. And even if it were, that would not grant any regulatory protection.
Lennox, an Atlanta native, said he has "a deep appreciation of the city and its history."
“I’m looking forward to opening two new restaurants in Reynoldstown -- The Golden Eagle and Muchacho -- inside the historic Atlanta & West Point Railroad depot building that I chose because of its unique architecture, story and location on the Atlanta Beltline," said Lennox noting that the abandoned train depot has hosted two restaurants since 2007.
"Two restaurants have not made it there, and any time a building has trouble finding a sustained user it becomes vulnerable to disappearing. The restaurant industry is particularly difficult, and given the more recent history of the space as a restaurant and not as a train depot, my goal is to repurpose it in a way that delivers the best experience I can offer," he said.
Some things needed to change, he said, and the exterior of the building is just one aspect of many changes being made.
"Our decision to paint the exterior of the building was motivated by the intent to tell a clearer story with the overall space, while aiming to become a lasting gathering place in the community that can stand the test of time,” he said.
"I put a lot of thought into a plan that honors the original structure, opens the interior by removing soffits and other interior components that previously obstructed the vaulted ceiling and steel trusses in order to create a more inviting and usable space. Beyond this, we have opened up and resurfaced the patio with 2000 square feet of reclaimed brick from a historic mill in south Georgia, creating a more welcoming environment and interface with the adjacent BeltLine. All of these plans were approved and permitted by the city," Lennox said.
"While I am sensitive to the concerns and reactions of some of our neighbors, my hope is that the people of Atlanta will give us a chance to tell a new story in this beautiful space, and I look forward to having the opportunity to deliver a fun, delicious and memorable experience to our guests in the very near future," he said.