Here’s what happened.
Folks who walk past 176 Peachtree Street should take note of a huge stone marker nearby. It marks the address as the site of the deadliest hotel fire in USA history. On December 7, 1946, 119 people died at the Winecoff Hotel.
Two people—a hotel guest and a local university student—participated in one of the disaster’s most amazing stories.
Here’s why it mattered then.
The Winecoff Hotel was built in 1913, and was considered one of the finest hotels in Atlanta. It was a towering symbol of real estate expansion north of the city’s core that would eventually become Midtown.
The owner, William Fleming Winecoff, lived in the hotel. He was proud of its luxurious design. So he saw no need to mar the beautiful ediface with unsightly safety features such as sprinklers, alarms, and exterior fire escapes, despite the fact that the building was 15 stories tall. Ironically, Winecoff died in the fire.
Here’s why it matters now.
The fire occurred on Pearl Harbor Day, still fresh in American minds. Moreover, hotel guests included a large group of teenagers attending a youth conference, as well as tourists in town to view Song of the South, the Disney movie that had premiered in Atlanta during the previous month. Dozens of people were forced to choose between trying to survive the chaos on the upper floors or a fall to the street below.
One person who chose to jump was Daisy B. McCumber. The image of her leap from the 11th Floor was captured by Arnold Hardy, a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology. Hardy became the first amateur photographer in history to earn a Pulitzer Prize. McCumber required several surgeries to repair the injuries she sustained in the fall. But she lived to see her 86th birthday anniversary.
Here’s the latest update . . .
In 1951, The Peachtree Hotel opened at the Winecoff site. Over the next 50 years, the building was sold and resold many times, and for a time was even donated to the Georgia Baptist Convention as potential housing for the elderly. In 2007, 176 Peachtree Street opened in its current state, a boutique luxury hotel called The Ellis.
Hotels have been built tremendously taller since the Winecoff. As such, it may have remotely inspired one of pop culture’s most compelling disaster movies: The Towering Inferno. Moreover, several publications examining the Winecoff fire have been produced. The latest is a documentary called Peachtree Burning: America’s Worst Hotel Fire. The DVD and companion book are expected to be available in 2010.
. . . And here’s an interesting fact!
The Winecoff fire was particularly tragic since another fire disaster should have been enough to motivate comprehensive reforms in fire and building safety. On November 28, 1942, 492 people died in a fire at the Cocoanut Grove, a Boston nightclub. Nearly 1,000 people were inside (twice the building’s capacity) when the fire began. Firefighters found many exit doors locked or boarded shut.