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Atlanta's Winecoff Hotel fire: Historic disaster had local impact
4 Gainesville teens perished in 1946 tragedy that helped lead to revised building safety codes
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The final resting spot for Winecoff fire victims Frances Thompson and Gwen McCoy, who share a headstone at Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville. - photo by Garland Reynolds

Dec. 7 is the day every year when most everyone stops to mark “that day” in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the world changed forever.

But to many still residing in Gainesville, this Dec. 7 date is also marked as “that horrific day” five years later in 1946 when four Gainesville High School students perished in the catastrophic early morning Atlanta Winecoff Hotel fire that claimed 119 lives.

The four students, all seniors and close friends, were lovely young women: Frances Thompson, Suzanne Moore, Ella Sue Mitchum and Gwen McCoy.

They had arrived and checked into the hotel that evening as Try-HI -Y delegates selected by their student organization back home to attend the statewide YMCA Youth Assembly in Atlanta.

The four friends all died together in Room 1130 on the 11th floor of the 15-story hotel that was advertised on a large Atlanta billboard outside as “fireproof.”

Ella Sue’s smoke-charred, open Bible was found on the room’s windowsill was turned to John, Chapter, 14: “Let not your heart be troubled.”

The hotel was constructed in 1913 with a single unprotected central open stairway that acted like a flue as the fire quickly ascended from floor to floor and blocked every exit.

The fire was supposedly started on the third floor as a result of a carelessly dropped cigarette, or as legend says, a late night card game gone wrong.

Highly flammable wall coverings and upholstered furniture on each floor fed the fire that was further inflamed by fresh air entering from open ventilation transoms above each hotel room door.

Only Ella Sue was able to be positively identified by dental records. She is buried in Rest Haven Cemetery in Monroe.

Frances and Gwen are buried side by side with a single headstone in Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville. Suzanne is buried not far away in Alta Vista.

Sadly, other cities from around the state, notably Bainbridge, Rome, Thomaston, Albany and Donaldsonville, suffered similar losses of their young people.

They were there along with the young Gainesville women in the same ill-fated hotel as other delegates to the youth assembly scheduled to begin the next day.

As an architect involved in designing code-compliant buildings, this landmark fire has particular meaning to me.

As a result of the April 6, 1936, Cooper Factory fire where at least 70 people perished, mostly young women, Gainesville leaders quickly adopted a building code that, while rudimentary in comparison to today’s International Building Code, was far ahead of its time for most American cities.

It is ironic that both the Cooper Factory and Winecoff fires have multiple Gainesville connections.

The fact remains that the two most devastating events of the 20th century in Georgia were the 1936 Gainesville tornado, with the resulting Cooper Factory fire, and the 1946 Winecoff Hotel fire.

The Winecoff Hotel fire directly caused every state in the US to adopt a different kind of code that had previously been ruled unconstitutional: The NFPA Life Safety (Fire Exit) Code.

While the building code is intended to insure that buildings are soundly constructed, habitable and comply with local ordinances, the Life Safety Code is written specifically to insure that occupants can safely exit a burning building.

Today, these two vital mandatory codes are supplemented by the Americans with Disabilities Act Code that ensures everyone, regardless of disability, will have the same safe exit. As a result of this Life Safety Code, thousands of lives have since been saved in every state.

It is therefore a lasting memorial to these four precious young women from Gainesville, and to all the others young people there from places across Georgia, who unknowingly gave their lives for this groundbreaking and critically needed Life Safety Fire Exit Code.

As a postscript: The Winecoff building most likely complied with the Atlanta Building Code of the time and, as far as the structure itself was concerned, was indeed “fireproof.”

Evidence of this is that the renovated, and now code-compliant, building still exists at 176 Peachtree St. operating as The Ellis Hotel.

The problem was that this “fireproof” designation for the Winecoff Hotel was falsely advertised for the public into believing it was “occupant safe,” which it was not.

There are many living today in the Gainesville area who remember the young women and the devastating effect it had on their families, their loved ones -- and indeed Gainesville as a whole.

Among these remembrances is the tragic “Legacy of Devotion Reveled” story of Frances Thompson and Clift Burtz. as told in the 1993 Book, “The Winecoff Fire,” by authors Sam Heys and Allen Goodwin.

Clift was 23, six years older than the 17-year-old Frances Thompson. He had recently returned from U.S. Army World War II service in Europe. They had fallen in love and were to be married when Frances graduated from GHS the next May.

While in Atlanta, Frances had planned to purchase her trousseau.

After losing Frances, Clift never married and kept her high school photograph on his dresser in its original embossed cardboard frame until he died in 2011 at the age of 88.

Throughout his life, he regularly visited her grave at Alta Vista, spending long hours in reflection.

Eerily, Clift’s Mother, Mrs. Flora Burtz, and three of his sisters had died in the 1936 Gainesville tornado and resulting fire.

Frances and Clift were real life love stories rivaling that of the fictional Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt in the movie “Titanic.” The falsehoods of a “fireproof building” and an “unsinkable ship” were central to both events.

The only memorial to the young women in Gainesville today is a relocated plaque at the entrance to the GHS cafeteria. Another memorial plaque, now lost, was reportedly once located at the old First United Methodist Church on Green Street.

Year 2016 will mark the 70th anniversary of the Winecoff Hotel Fire when it is hoped that some commemorative publication, complete with interviews and stories of those who remember can, at last, be published and documented.

Unfortunately, two years may be too long a wait to include all who are now available to record their stories.

M. Garland Reynolds is a Gainesville architect and historian.

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