Monday, January 25, 2010

25 January 1921: Fire Destroys Downtown Businesses

On this day in 1921, Athens fire fighters fought through the early morning hours to contain a blaze that threatened to sweep through all of downtown. Newspaper accounts indicate that by 2:30am, three business blocks had been destroyed, and flames were heading toward College Avenue and the University campus. The fire could be seen from as far away as Monore, and was so hot it melted coins in the safe of the Michael Brothers department store. A plea for assistance had been sent to the Atlanta Fire Chief, who sent men and equipment on a special train to Athens, though they did not arrive until 8am, at which point the small, 25-man force of Athens firemen had the situation under control.

The fire started in the four-story Max Joseph building at the corner of Wall and Clayton Streets. Unfortunately, also in that building was the Denny Motor Company, an automobile retailer who had drums of gasoline stored on their first floor. Explosions from the petroleum, as well as windy conditions, spread the flames quickly. The Max Joseph building was completely gutted within an hour and the Michael Brothers retail and wholesale stores were destroyed in just 45 minutes.

People who lived in the residential areas near downtown packed their things in case they needed to evacuate their homes, while others came to town to watch the fire burn, causing crowd control issues as well. The block bounded by Jackson, Clayton, Wall, and Broad Streets was entirely destroyed, with severe damage to many of the surrounding buildings as well. The only serious human injury suffered by the fire department was when Fire Chief George W. McDorman fell from a ladder at about 6am and broke both of his wrists.

Mayor Andrew C. Erwin estimated total losses from the fire at $2 million, with $1 million of it being entirely from the destruction of the Michael Brothers businesses. However, Michael Brothers immediately announced they would rebuild, and in the mean time, set up temporary business sites. Within a few days, the brothers had retail operations running out of the first floor of the Georgian Hotel and wholesale operations established in the Southern Mutual Building.

The new building was completed 18 months later, and was the first store in Athens to have an overhead sprinkler system installed. It operated as an independent department store until 1953, when the business was sold to Davisons, who closed the store in 1981 to move to Georgia Square Mall. The building currently houses office space on the top floors, the UGA Graduate School offices, a mezzanine level entertaining space, and on the ground floor, Doc Chey's Noodle House and Mellow Mushroom pizza.

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