Tuesday, June 12, 2007

sympathy for the castlegate

Sure, it was a dump. Even when it was open for business, it had broken windows and sagging ceilings and a funky smell that you could never really get away from. It spent three years vacant, a home for derelicts and stray animals and the occasional body, and now it's a big pile of rubble right next to Interstate 75 The wrecking ball of Price & Sons Demolition has completed its task and nothing remains but smashed bricks, broken glass, and, of course, a mysterious funky smell.

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Thanks to years of hosting Star Trek cons, comic book shows, and the first Anime Weekend Atlanta, memories of the place are burned into the brains of many local nerds such as myself. But I wasn't aware that the hulking shadow of the Castlegate loomed large in the history of Atlanta as a whole. Built more than thirty years ago as the Dunfey's Royal Coach, this sprawling hunk of mid-70s crap sat on sixteen acres of prime northside Atlanta real estate. Constructed in the style that would be affectionately known as "mock Tudor", (if anybody held any affection for it), the Dunfey's nightclub would become one of the city's foremost battlegrounds of the sexual revolution. As the haze from the 70s cleared, the Dunfey's would survive a few Atlanta Fantasy Fairs and Burt Reynolds' car crashing into the lobby (in the film The Cannonball Run), but the future would see the hotel under new management, first as a Radission and then as a Howard Johnsons, and subsequently, the Castlegate.

I've always been told that the Atlanta Fantasy Fair was forced to leave the Castlegate because an over-enthusiastic congoer attacked the elevator doors with an axe. I doubt this story, because a casual perusal of the Castlegate's clients and events reveals that they wouldn't turn anyone away. Gun shows, talent shows, dog shows, record shows, Indian weddings. Pot festivals. UFO conferences. Prizefights. Jon-Benet Ramsey-style beauty contests. Alumni associations. Magic: The Gathering tournaments. By the time the 1990s rolled around the Castlegate was the destination of choice for any gathering of more than three people and less than $3,000 to spend.

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And why not? The Castlegate was conveniently located, it had lots of parking and restaurants of all kinds close by, and quite a bit of convention space at reasonable rates. It wasn't downtown, so you were spared the no-parking, no-food, no-nothing desert of Atlanta After Dark, and yet it was close enough to downtown to make it a central location for the entire metro area. Best of all, you could be noisy, throw parties, shoot darts, and generally do whatever you wanted with the knowledge that nobody from the hotel was going to lift a finger to stop you.

As such, this made the Castlegate the place where conventions were born, and where they died. Dragoncon started in the Castlegate in 1987 and now they fill downtown's largest hotels; Anime Weekend Atlanta started there in 1995 and now we're busting 3500 and using cavernous convention centers. On the other hand, both Dixie-Trek and the Atlanta Fantasy Fair limped to the Castlegate to hold their final shows, and other shows like Outworld tried to use the Castlegate as a starting point and never got out of the gate. Even my first attempt at conventioneering - the ill-fated Phenomicon convention Scott Weikert and myself ran - had its second and final year at the Castlegate.

Part of this dismal success/failure ratio is of course the whimsical nature of fan conventions and the people who run them. But another element is the Castlegate itself. As mentioned before, the staff simply didn't care, and that's a knife that cuts both ways. Sure, hotel reps looking the other way for a few stains or broken lights is good; but ignoring complaints about rats, insects, malfunctioning AC and lack of hot water is not. The Castlegate had a swimming pool that was never filled, a tennis court that was completely overgrown with kudzu, and a back parking lot with more weeds than asphalt. Windows were broken, door locks didn't work, there was a meeting room full of construction junk and a shopping cart from the nearby Kroger, and a bathroom none dared enter. The low ceilings and maze-like arrangement of the building didn't help matters. The guest rooms were situated on long hallways that radiated out from the lobby in two directions - if you were unlucky to get a room on the far end of the facility, that meant a long, long walk. If that hallway happens to involve stairs, too bad! There might be an access corridor with a ramp, but you'll have to find it for yourself.

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Quirks of the facility aside, the Castlegate's less-than-helpful employees frequently made a bad situation worse. Failing to honor agreements about convention space usage and double-booking guest rooms isn't just annoying, it's downright criminal, and these sorts of problems can suck the enthusiasm right out of your average volunteer convention organizer. It was always a crapshoot going into the Castlegate; maybe you'd make it out alive, and maybe you wouldn't.

As the 90s progressed, the Castlegate found itself bought by the Hare Krishnas, who used a wing of the facility for offices and services. The hotel was named in court proceedings surrounding bribes for concession franchises at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport - apparently payoffs were made during breakfast at the Castlegate's restaurant. The hotel finally closed its doors for good in December of 1999, but the story wasn't yet over- amid rumors of re-opening under different names, or the site being used as a Home Depot or IKEA location, the building was used by the United States Marine Corps in August of 2000 for an urban warfare excercise.

Whether or not there actually was a "Dirty Dozen" list of abandoned Atlanta properties that the city wanted torn down is open to debate. The fact is, the property was up for sale for over a year (only $20 million!), but finally the Castlegate heard the call of the wreckin' ball. Atlanta might be better off without the rats, the odors, and the inoperative A/C, but there isn't another low-cost, hassle-free option for the kind of shows the Castlegate championed. The kind of freedom in planning and executing events you got at the Castlegate was a rare thing, and it's sorely missed. Whatever rises in its stead - whether it's a high-rise apartment block, a Home Depot, or somebody's corporate headquarters - you can bet it won't be as much fun, or smell nearly as funky.

(the Castlegate was demolished in 2002; the site is currently occupied by a Wal-Mart).

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