Monday, December 20, 2010

20 December 1978: Downtown Varsity Closes Its Doors

On this day in 1978, the Varsity's downtown location served its last meals. Though the Varsity Drive-In on the corner of Broad Street and Milledge Avenue would remain open, the downtown location was packed in its last days as people returned to relive memories at what had been an Athens institution for over 46 years.

The Varsity opened in 1932 on the corner of College Avenue and Broad Street, across from the Arch (where Five Guys Burgers and Fries are today). The 1850s building had originally been built by Elizur L. Newton as the Newton House hotel, considered the most "pretentious and commodious" in town. In 1854, the University of Georgia hosted their commencement ball in the Newton Hotel Saloon. The building had a bellfry and "a bell almost the size of a locomotive bell" that would alert local residents at noon each day that dinner was being served.

At the time of the Varsity's opening, the buildings on North Campus included dormitories, and the Varsity would stay open to the wee hours of the morning to cater to their student customers. Though "ladies didn't come in" to the establishment when it first opened, they were served by car hops or would have their dates bring the food back to the car.

However, over the years, the buildings on North Campus were converted to Administration buildings while dormitories were built on South Campus and near Baxter Street. Parking became "a rare downtown commodity," according to Varsity owner Frank Gordy, and without nearby students, it was too expensive to stay open late. He repeatedly told reporters that "it breaks his heart to close the restaurant," but he didn't have a choice.

Gordy announced the closing on December 1st, the day before Georgia Tech came to town to lose 29-28 to the Bulldogs on national television. He thought closing before the Tech game "would be a little bit rude." The downtown location stayed open until December 20th, when lines of people caused waits of up to half an hour for lunches of chili dogs, hamburgers, chicken salad sandwiches, onion rings, grilled cheese sandwiches, milkshakes, pc drinks, and frosted oranges.

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