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The first thing that hits you when you step into the hallway is the odor, a seriously palpable funk, as if every resident has left a pan of ramen simmering on a hot plate.
Located on the northwest corner of the high-rise, Room 406 is decently sized and ideally situated for people-watching along Ponce, with large windows on two sides. A cursory glance around the room reveals black marks along the rim of the dresser where guests apparently neglected to use the twin glass ashtrays, as well as a threadbare carpet pockmarked with dozens of small holes where dozing smokers allowed their still-smoldering butts to drop. The only luxuries are the TV remote control and an old-school bottle opener attached to the bathroom door frame.
Only later does it occur to me to wonder if I'm supposed to tip the elevator operators. But none of them send out any non-verbal signals to that effect or offer help with my luggage, so I forget about it.
That night, I throw caution to the wind and decide not to bother using the sheets I brought from home. As I fall asleep to the whoops of lounge-goers making their way down the side staircase and the muted sound of TVs down the hall, I'm convinced that I can feel every individual spring in the mattress.
Over the next day, a small tenderness in my right cheek grows into a grotesque swelling so that I resemble a bad summer-stock version of Quasimodo.
I'm forced to check out early and seek immediate medical attention, putting my undercover activities on hold until I complete a course of powerful antibiotics. Although the cause of my raging facial infection is never pinpointed, I vow to use both sheets and cootie-resistant pillow cases when I'm able to return to unlock the secrets of the Clermont.
The seven-story high-rise that houses the hotel made its debut as the Bonaventure Arms apartments -- complete with a basement cafe -- in 1924, the same year that the plush Biltmore Hotel opened on Spring Street, and five years before the Fox Theatre premiered its first film. At the time, its corner of Ponce de Leon Avenue lay just beyond the eastern outskirts of the city.
But as the automobile, the Great Depression and, finally, World War II conspired to make transience the norm in American cities, the 130-room building underwent its first -- and, to date, last -- significant change, becoming the Hotel Clermont in 1940. It was apparently aimed at middle-class travelers and, as with most large Southern hotels of the era, was restricted to white guests; "colored hotels," such as the Savoy, could be found a few blocks away on Sweet Auburn.
By mid-decade, the new hotel was advertising itself with the forward-thinking tagline, "As Modern as Tomorrow." If one liberally interprets this to mean, "As Modern as We're Ever Gonna Get," it's an amazingly prescient statement, given the fact that the room bills still have line items for telegrams and C.O.D.
In 1955, the swanky Continental Room opened in the Clermont basement to compete with cocktail lounges at the nearby Imperial and Frances hotels and other Midtown night spots. By 1960, the ambitious Anchorage Supper Club brought dining, dancing and three tasteful burlesque shows nightly to the Clermont's back side.
The Anchorage's ads boasted "Fine Food in a Refined Atmosphere," but, as we all know, that didn't last. By '65, the kitchen had closed for good and the basement club had become the Jungle Lounge and, finally, the Clermont Lounge, a jiggle bar with pasties and G-strings in the mold of the Imperial's popular Domino Lounge.
Meanwhile, the once-regal Ponce de Leon Avenue itself was sliding headlong into seediness, a trend that continued through the '70s. By the height of the disco era, the art-deco Plaza Theatre hung on by showing porn films; across Ponce, the formerly swank Briarcliff Hotel sat boarded up (it's now an old-folks' home); the Clermont Hotel and Ray Lee's Blue Lantern Lounge (now The Local) were busy earning reputations for attracting a shady clientele; the Ponce de Leon ball field was overgrown with weeds; and the Majestic was, well, the Majestic.
It's an environment that held great appeal for George Mitchell, a local writer, photographer and ethnomusicologist who spent much of his time trolling the sketchier haunts along his favorite stretch of road. In 1983, he published Ponce de Leon: An Intimate Portrait of Atlanta's Most Famous Avenue, complete with photos taken at the Clermont Lounge during Blondie's early days as a dancer.
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