It's the largest brick structure in the Southeastern United States; it's been a fixture on the urban landscape for nearly a century; and, up until two summers ago, those 2.1 million square feet straddling Ponce and North Avenue have sat vacant for years, hiding acre after acre of forgotten history from everyone but intrepid urban explorers and ballsy photographers. Now, though, two years on the heels of the $27 million sale of the gargantuan structure to Jamestown Properties, the building once known as the Sears Building, now christened Ponce City Market, is slowly but surely coming back to life.
"When we bought it, the building was almost untouched from its Sears days," Jim Irwin, Jamestown's Senior Vice President, told us. "So, we've been able to piece together a lot of its history." The development group, which also lent its Midas touch to the Westside with the restoration of White Provision, has spent the last two years ever-so-carefully peeling off the paint (literally and figuratively) of the 87-year-old property. And in a town where history is sometimes bulldozed for the shiny and new, that's nothing to sneeze at.
Of course, if you're going to embark on a quest to restore a building that's been around for almost a century, you're bound to stumble upon a few discoveries and surprises. Surprises like, say, the pristine maple floors of the future Market Hall that were buried beneath not one, not two but five layers of carpeting. Discoveries like, for example, the original signage on the front of the building, which was hand-carved in stone and hasn't seen the light of day since Cyndi Lauper was on the radio. Or, perhaps our favorite revelation: a little something you may have heard of, made famous by one Ponce de Leon, called the Fountain of Youth. Okay, okay, so maybe the spring discovered beneath the site doesn't offer the mythical restorative powers of lore, but it is pretty neat that, by using the waters of the spring, Ponce City Market will be able to cut the building's annual water usage in half. Sounds like magic to us.
"There will never be another building constructed like this one again," Jim says. "The trick of what we're doing is to preserve as much history as we possibly can." And it's not just the architecture they're working to preserve. Jamestown has also launched Living History, a storytelling project that captures the experiences and tales of the many, many people who once spent their days working inside the building. (Jim estimates that, in the Sears building's heyday, there were about 3,000 employees working in the building on any given day.) "We've been able to piece together so many interesting tidbits about the building," Jim says, adding that when taken on a tour, the former employees are often the ones who end up leading the tours. "They have a sense of pride that this building is still standing, and that they were a part of it. We want to weave together that fabric of history."
The redevelopment project is slated to finish in 2014, but for the curious history buffs, there are plenty of ways to check out Ponce City Market (minus the trespassing charges). The virtual tour of the space is a dangerously easy way to while away an hour of productivity, as are the interactive before-and-afters on Timebenders. PCM also posts photo after glorious photo on Flickr. If 2D just ain't cuttin' it, keep an eye on Ponce City Market's Facebook page for updates on public tours, and/or hit up its brand-new Sunday afternoon food truck events for a peek at the Beltline Shed, the former depot for visiting trains. And, while you're soaking up all this historic goodness, take a gander at the fly-through below to see what PCM has in store for ATL. Looks like it'll be one for the history books.