Designated: Landmark Building Exterior
84 Peachtree Street
DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS
The English-American Building is an eleven story, triangular structure at the intersection of Peachtree and Broad Streets. Constructed in 1897, it is the oldest standing steel-framed "skyscraper" in Atlanta. Approaching its 100th year, the building continues to dominate its streetscape and is closely associated with its original central city function as an office building for businessmen and professionals. The design by Bradford Gilbert of New York City is one of Atlanta's most striking examples of the "Chicago Style" in urban architecture, establishing a pattern for much of the city's later downtown buildings while maintaining its architectural integrity. As stated by Dr. Elizabeth Lyon, "The building plays an important role in its urban setting by establishing a sense of dignity and scale and helping to create a visually interesting sequence of spaces and styles in the central business area of the city." Externally, the Flatiron Building remains essentially as constructed despite several renovations.
Often photographed, the structure is generally recognized as a distinctive part of the city's built environment. Located across from Woodruff Park, it is not, therefore, completely dominated by its newer and taller descendants. Furthermore, its location near the park and along the almost "mall-like" Broad Street has assured that the Flatiron Building remains at the center of a very active pedestrian confluence, reminiscent of nineteenth and early twentieth century urban settings. Approaching the beginning of its second century, the Flatiron Building provides a vital, urban continuum.
In addition to the above, the English-American Building is associated with some of Atlanta's most interesting and influential businessmen and city builders. The English-American Loan and Trust Company was organized around 1895 and quickly moved to construct the tallest building in Atlanta for its offices. The first president of the company was former governor of Georgia Rufus Bullock and the first cashier was Roby Robinson, who was a prominent Atlanta businessman during the twentieth century. The prime mover in the business, however, appears to have been Augustus Harrison Benning, vice-president and later president of the company. Benning was a late, "exotic" import to the Atlanta business scene, who came to the city from Savannah via several decades in the Chinese coastal trade. In 1921, the Flatiron Building became the Georgia Savings Bank and Trust Company Building, which was named for a business established by George Brown, son and brother of two Georgia governors.
By the late 1880s, Atlanta's growth and potential appears to have attracted increasing numbers of entrepreneurs. One of these was Augustus H. Benning, and he was to leave the English-American Building as part of his heritage to his adopted city. Although a native of Georgia, Benning had made his fortune as a ship captain in China, beginning in 1861. He evidently had three children (probably Eurasian since he never brought them to the United States) in Hong Kong when he returned to Georgia in 1888, married a relative Margaret Rowena Russell of McDonough, and settled in the Edgewood area of DeKalb County.
At this time, Atlanta was still an emerging commercial center and Augustus Benning's New York relatives were not encouraging. Their comments and actions provided an interesting "outsider's" view of Atlanta prospects. Brother Henry Benning lamented the move to Atlanta stating ". . . if you have made up your minds to settle in Atlanta, it can concern only yourselves. . . but I fear 'twill take some little time for you to feel entirely at home in such a slow place." Brother-in-law Walter Lawrence of New York City was also dubious, refusing to loan Augustus $10,000.00 to start a coal business.
Augustus and Margaret were not to be deterred, however, and began a long business and real estate career which lasted well into the 1940s when the latter died. The coal business was indeed started and the couple also began to purchase real estate. By 1895, the Bennings were successful enough that Augustus could join with some other Atlanta businessmen to form the English-American Loan and Trust Company, which advertised a capital of $100,000.00 and its business activities to be "Loans, Investments, Installment Debentures, Stocks, Bonds, Immigration, etc."
Benning's place in the city's business community was prominent enough to attract as the first president of the English-American Company one of Atlanta's most notorious and successful political and economic leaders, Rufus Bullock. This former governor (1868-1871) had had to flee the state in 1871 to avoid arrest for financial fraud involving state funds, but he returned in 1876, was vindicated, and became a business magnate. He was influential in the International Exposition of 1895, president and treasurer of the Atlanta Cotton Mill (first in the city) from 1881-1891, director and president of the Chamber of Commerce, president of the Commercial Club, and vice-president of the Capitol City Club.
By 1898, the Flatiron Building had a full and impressive list of tenants, including the English-American Co., architect Haralson Bleckley, Otis Bros. Co. (elevators), Rand McNally Co., Mutual Life Insurance Co., D.C. Heath & Co., Southern Bell, the Atlanta Society of Medicine, and National Cash Register Co. There were also many individual professional men such as doctors and lawyers. During these first years, the street floor contained a variety of businesses from retail (groceries, tea, meat) to a Western Union office, florist, and tailor.
One notorious organization associated with the Flatiron Building was the Ku Klux Klan. Historian Kenneth Jackson states in The Ku Klux Klan in the City 1915-1930 that the "hate" group had its first office in a loft of the Georgia Savings Bank Building (1920s name for the Flatiron) and that Imperial Kleagle Edward Young Clarke had a recruiting office in the building. City Directories show only that Clarke had a business office there and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan had prominently displayed addresses at other locations in the city--never in the Flatiron Building officially.
Sometime after 1900, Benning became president of the English-American Co. which included the building. Although the building does not seem to have lacked tenants in the first years of this century, there are indications that there were financial difficulties. On March 21, 1901, Augustus' brother-in-law wrote refusing to advance money left by his wife (A. H. Benning's sister) to the Benning children. He commented that the "English-American scheme looks to me shaky--in case that goes under, then what?" Furthermore, he added, "I don't wish to find fault but would like you to know, that your taking up residence in Atlanta has been a considerable detriment . . ." Shortly after A. H. Benning's death in November of 1904, this same relative wrote Margaret, "That Gus was as good as he could be goes without saying. At the same time he had no more idea of business than a goat . . ."
Margaret Benning proved to be an adept businesswoman following her husband's death. She pressured R. F. Shedden and Roby Robinson concerning loans totaling $56,000.00 from Augustus and secured with English-American Co. notes. In 1909, she owned 1,800 shares in the English-American Building and an additional 4,600 shares as collateral on loans to Roby Robinson among others (the shares were valued at approximately 80¢ each). In 1910, Margaret sold her last 232 shares of English-American Loan & Trust Co. stock for about $23,000.00. Nineteen-eleven was the last year that that company appeared in the City Directory and the Flatiron Building was officially named the Empire Life Insurance Building.
In 1920, Georgia Savings & Trust Company purchased the English-American Building and the name changed to reflect the new owner until 1974. Georgia Savings & Trust had been founded in 1899 by George M. Brown, son of Civil War Governor Joseph E. Brown (later United States senator) and brother of Governor Joseph M. Brown. George Brown was president of the company and Eugene Spalding was vice-president. This institution was an important facility during its lifetime, financing the purchasing, building or repairing of more than 30,000 homes in the Atlanta area. In 1974, the business was bought by Hamilton Bank and Trust Company, which failed in 1977 after extensive remodeling of the Flatiron Building. This led to the purchase of the building by the Canadian company Historic Urban Equities, Inc. for $2 million.
The English-American Building was dubbed the Flatiron Building because of its narrow, triangular shape. Atlanta's version of this unusual architectural design predates New York's more famous example by five years.
The structure remains virtually unchanged externally since its construction in 1897. The building, consistent with structures of the Commercial Style, has a distinct base, shaft and capital. The two-story base includes half columns and stone piers separated by large glass windows. The seven-story shaft contains vertical lines of bay windows along both the Peachtree and Broad Street facades. A heavy cornice divides the shaft and the top two stories, which continue the vertical lines established by the ascending bay windows. Another substantial cornice and a parapet complete the building.
The Flatiron Building was designed by Bradford Gilbert (1833-1911), supervising architect for the 1895 Cotton States Exposition. Gilbert was from New York and was familiar with the construction of steel-frame skyscrapers, as well as the designing of structures on odd-shaped or narrow lots. In 1888, he had designed the Tower Building at 50 Broadway in New York City on a twenty-five foot wide lot for Noble Stearns. The Tower Building was New York's first steel-framed building and the city's tallest at the time. Mr. Gilbert also designed a residence on Peachtree Street for his friend, Captain William Green Raoul. The Raoul House was completed in 1892.
City Directories for Atlanta, 1888-1921.
The English-American Loan and Trust Co., (Coffee table picture book of Atlanta. Undated but around 1895).
Garrett, Franklin. Atlanta and Environs, A Chronicle of Its People and Events, Vol. III. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1954.
Howell, Clark. History of Georgia, Vol I. Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1926.
Jackson, Kenneth. The Ku Klux Klan in the City 1915-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Memoirs of Georgia, Atlanta: The Southern Historical Association, 1895.
Shultz, Earle & Walter Simmons. Offices in the Sky, New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.
"A Rare Glimpse Into Yesteryear," Atlanta Journal, Nov. 9, 1978.
"Canadian Group Buys the Flatiron Building," Atlanta Constitution, Aug. 9, 1977.
Augustus H. Benning MSS. Collection, Atlanta History Center.
National Register of Historic Places nomination form completed by Dr. Elizabeth Lyon of the State Historic Preservation Office.
Oakland Cemetery Collection. Burial Permits, MSS. 618, Box 5. Atlanta History Center.
Group I (1) (2) (3)
The proposed nomination of the English-American/Flatiron Building meets the above referenced criteria, as well as the minimum criteria, for a Landmark Building or Site as set out in Section 16-20.004 of the Code of Ordinances of the City of Atlanta.