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Atlanta Downey Building Binding the Past Into the Future

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[February 21, 2008]  ATLANTA -- In communities with residents of less mettle, the three great Atlanta fires of 1867 would have felled a small town. The huge wooden buildings that housed the hub of economic activity in the heart of Atlanta were principally destroyed in the spring and summer of 1867, leaving only ashes and lost expectations smoldering in their ruins.

Rather than give up and move on, the residents took the disasters and changed them into opportunities to rebuild their city, using bricks and mortar.

The people of Atlanta had confidence in their community and in each other. They believed that with the great train tracks of the Alton-Chicago Railroad nestled within their boundaries, there was no need to move on, but only to rebuild. With the trains came not only the probability of growth, but the possibility of prosperity. And so, collectively, they rebuilt their town and moved toward the coming 20th century with tools in their hands and faith in their hearts.

That same spirit of collective pride is again showing itself in Atlanta as the 21st century begins to embed itself in local history.

The Downey Building at 110-112 SW Arch St. was rebuilt during the great build of the 1860s in downtown Atlanta. Its predecessor, also owned by businessman Alexander Downey, had been lost in one of the fires that had ravaged the city.

The new brick building for years flourished as a grocery store, but it housed many businesses over the years, including a bank, a jeweler and the daily newspaper, The Atlanta Argus.

As the 19th century moved toward an end, the trains were a blessing as well as a source of contention for Atlanta merchants. Gone was the time-consuming need to traverse the dirt-patch roads that had been rutted out of the landscape by countless horse-and-buggy trips. A day's travel was now condensed into hours of comfortable transportation on the great iron horses.

But for every train that stopped with wares for retailers' shelves and unloaded its passengers to shop in Atlanta, as many residents clambered aboard the trains to visit and shop in what was now considered nearby: Bloomington and Springfield.

However, trains ran just so often and on a specific schedule.

The advent of the automobile gave Atlantans, as well as all of America, the individual freedom to move about at their own pace and on their own timetable.

The growth of the automobile from a novelty to a necessary means of transportation demanded better roads as America became mobile.

An opportunity for more growth

In the mid- to late 1920s came the new and forever storied Route 66. Route 66 developed by using existing city streets and coupling stretches of highways, creating the great singular trail from Chicago to Los Angeles.

The new highway mixed with the winding city streets. It gave Atlantans another opportunity, as well as a quandary, in maintaining their economy. For every family that drove into town, another took the highway to drive somewhere else.

In 1934 the Palms Grill Café was opened in the lower north section of the Downey Building and flourished. Travelers as well as residents embraced this new notion of eating out as the love affair between mobility and eateries was born all across the great highway.

As time went on, America became enamored with quicker, faster trips. Portions of the route running through the heart of the small towns were circumnavigated as bigger highways were built. Businesses created to fuel, feed and entertain the motorists found themselves off the beaten track rather than on it. 

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In time, Arch Street buildings began including "Old Route 66" as part of their address.

The end of an era and interim

In the late 1960s, the Palms Grill Café closed and the Downey Building seemed headed for lesser days.

The building just a few years ago housed only a small machinist shop operated by John Hawkins. When Hawkins died, the structure might have stood silent, save for the Hawkins family donating the building to the Atlanta Library.

The Atlanta Library and Museum board had been having their own unique problems while the Downey Building quietly awaited a chance to again become a proud part of the Atlanta community.

Lucille Pech has been the official curator of local history for years. She has been gathering local memorabilia and collectibles, as well as thousands of old photographs, since 1973.

The local museum has been housed in the basement of the Atlanta Library but is landlocked by available space.

The museum also has prevented the library from expanding and using the basement for additional library materials and books.

New life

The linkage of an empty historic structure, along with a need for the museum to find a larger home, became obvious. Residents began the great restoration of the Downey Building in 2006.

The huge endeavor consisted of literally taking the building down brick by brick. When rebuilding it, modern structural and utility needs were incorporated that would allow it to stand for another century.

The southern lower level, the entire back of the building and the entire second floor will be available for the museum to display its artifacts.


Included in this new space will be a visitors center for Route 66 buffs to get their information and bearings. A historic resources and genealogy section will be located on the second floor.


The lower north side of the building will have a completely authentic 1940s Palms Grill Café not only open for business, but used as a much-needed source of income to maintain the museum and help it grow over the years.

Sign of future

Motorists who drive down Arch Street in Atlanta can now see the distinctive "Cafe" neon sign outside the Downey Building's restored facade. It is hoped that by the end of 2008 the sign will be lit and the doors to Atlanta's past will be open for business. The exact date isn't as important as the fact that another portion of our history and heritage has not only been saved, but will be shared with future generations of Americans who travel America's Mother Road.


Readers can find more of Mike Fak's writing at and

(A Message From the Friends of the Atlanta Library and Museum)

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