ATLANTA -- It was a blustery cold December day on Peachtree Street when the Yankee architect hooked on Old South artifacts stepped over broken glass and rotted boards and poked his head inside the apartment building where Margaret Mitchell wrote the bulk of "Gone With the Wind."
He sniffed again.
Where some might smell only mildew and the stench of vagrants past, Richard Rauh smelled history.
"Restore it and you establish a continuum between the nobility of the Southern traditions and the vitality of the New South," said the former professor of architecture who left teaching for private practice, specializing in restoration.
"Demolish it," he went on, as the late afternoon sun began to sink behind nearby high-rises, casting ominous shadows, "and you're committing cultural cannibalism. You're condemning all generations to come to understanding history as some plastic souvenir. This is the real thing."
Now that the Suzie Wong Lounge has been razed in this once seedy strip of town, the dilapidated Victorian building stands naked for all to see, terra cotta gargoyles long gone, plywood over windows, its hipped roof sagging -- a relic of the Old South standing firmly in the path of New South developers who covet every square foot in this city's midtown real estate explosion.
And Rauh, just one sandy-haired foot soldier in the protracted war between developers and preservationists, is fighting uphill against real estate behemoths to save the building Margaret Mitchell, a proud belle by birth, once dubbed "the dump."
As a pro bono consultant to Mitchell House Inc., a nonprofit group trying to rally money and public support, Rauh estimates it would cost $800,000 to renovate and perhaps $2 million in all to transform the place into a tourist draw featuring a park, museum, shops and cafe'.
"The idea is to restore the apartment where she conceived the characters of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara," said Rauh, waving beyond broken beer bottles and broken chain-link fence to Margaret Mitchell's former corner apartment on the ground floor. "That's where she sat and typed. You're looking at where 'Gone With the Wind' was born."
In recent weeks, a local foundation and the Jack Daniel Distilleries in Tennessee have pledged funds, along with a prominent businessman from Japan, where Rhett and Scarlett aficionados are legion. And Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) has said he would ask Congress to protect it by designating "the dump" a national historic site.
But time is running out fast. The Trammell Crow Co. of Dallas, a real estate development firm that owns 11 prime acres that encompass the property, has rejected Rauh's plan. Now, it wants to level "the dump" and build a temporary park.
"We want to develop the block," said John Decker, the firm's marketing director, "and it's sitting on a very expensive piece of property."
After rejections at two levels of city government, Trammell Crow has appealed its demolition request all the way to Mayor Andrew Young. If he signs the permit, bulldozers could be mustered as soon as the "next day," said Decker, whose company has worked with assorted groups in the past, including Mitchell House Inc., on a plan to save the apartment -- including offering the site rent-free if restoration money were raised. But the required funds have never materialized.
"If in the next two weeks they could raise $100,000 cash and show me proof of the bank account, I'd have to sit down and reconsider it," said Decker, "but that's pretty remote.
"Even if you're looking at a rent-free facility, which is our offer, you're talking at least a $2 million project to have anything worthwhile." He calls the apartment an eyesore. "It just doesn't look good. It looks like midtown used to look, not how it looks now -- one of the most accelerating urban areas in the country."
Indeed, blocks away, towering over "the dump," stands the dramatic IBM Tower, a Philip Johnson design just around the corner from a crisp AT&T office building and the modernistic Robert Woodruff Arts Center.
So, why not "the dump"?
"I don't know that standing alone it's going to be any kind of tourist draw," Young said in an interview. "It doesn't have anything to do with Tara or 'Gone With The Wind.' It's just one place where the author happened to live."
If he sounds negative, he is. Young said that he aims to sign the demolition permit and pull the plug -- within two weeks. "It doesn't help anyone to postpone the decision any longer," he sighed.
With no official Tara-type attractions in the city mythologized by Margaret Mitchell, such a prospect sits poorly with tour operators willing to take nostalgia wherever they can find it, and their buses daily squire visitors to the apartment house for snapshot outings. Stunned by such pilgrims, even in her day, the author declared herself against any such shrines, but that never stopped the hordes. Last year, Atlanta's Convention and Tourism Bureau fielded 420,000 inquiries. Among the top five topics and places most often requested: Margaret Mitchell and locations inspiring her book, which has sold 26 million copies in 37 countries since it was published in 1936.
Before she began writing the book, the story goes, "Peggy" Mitchell badly sprained her ankle horseback riding, and sat in bed in the cramped, two-room apartment and read and read and read. Books were fetched almost daily by her husband John Marsh, an advertising executive who made only $10 more a week than the $25 she made as a reporter for the local newspaper, their financial situation mandating modest digs.
One day he suggested she try her hand at a book, since she had read just about everything the library had, and she began pounding out characters Rhett and Scarlett on her Remington portable. She wrote looking out a bay window of beveled glass -- no longer here -- into an alley that would later draw hippies hawking flowers and pot in the '60s, winos and drug dealers into harder fare in the '70s and pimps and their ladies in the '80s.
She had the habit of riding the trolley to work, scribbling ideas on scraps of paper. She wrote the bulk of "Gone With the Wind" in the apartment from 1926 to 1932, often using mountains of typed pages as doorstops. She mocked her humble address to friends because she was accustomed to fancier fare. Later, she moved up to other apartments in the neighborhood.
Before she died at 48 -- a taxi struck and killed her three blocks north of her old apartment here -- she made it clear: She wanted no monument or memorial. But preservationists cling to the importance of saving the place of the book's birth by pointing to a letter she wrote to her publisher in 1939 in which she said, "Long ago, I gave up thinking of 'Gone With the Wind' as my book; it's Atlanta's . . ."
Does Young fret about the specter of going down in history as the mayor who sentenced her historic address to the wrecking ball? Hardly. Evoking a familiar scoundrel named Rhett, he said, "I really don't give a damn.
"Today is the golden period of Atlanta's growth and development," he said. "People are designing buildings of quality with materials of quality. This is the period I'm going to be remembered for," not for rescuing a building erected in 1914.
Over the last two terms, Young has cultivated a reputation as the darling of the downtown business establishment, a globe-trotter with a vision of Atlanta as capital of the New South, anxious to show it off at next summer's Democratic convention.
Last year, he overrode a city council moratorium against demolishing buildings blessed as historically significant by the Urban Design Commission, the city's preservation agency, and drew fire for dismissing a 73-year-old, one-time artists' haven called "The Castle" as a "hunk of junk."
So how did he get caught in his latest cross fire of history? Built in 1914 as a single-family home, the building in question was turned into a rooming house, then abandoned in 1978. Two years later, Young was elected and their fates intersected.
Over the years assorted groups had tried to rescue it and failed. In 1985, Trammell Crow bought the property, intending to renovate and enlisting another nonprofit group, the Margaret Mitchell Museum Inc., to launch the cause.
But two years of depressing feasibility studies soured the company, said Decker, concluding that the building was not worth saving for historic, cultural or economic reasons.
Enter Mitchell House Inc., which last July persuaded the Urban Design Commission to ask Trammell Crow not to apply for a demolition permit for a year to give the newly formed group time to raise money.
John Taylor, the group's president, said he was shocked that the mayor aimed to play executioner sooner than he was expected. "My understanding was that we had at least two more months," he said.
Young denies that he is acting out of cultural bias. "I don't have any problem celebrating the Battle of Atlanta," he said. "It symbolizes the victory of a unified nation . . . It was the beginning of freeing the slaves. If in some way we could develop a Tara in Atlanta, I'd be totally supportive of it.
"I get into far less trouble issuing a demolition permit for Auburn Avenue," once a cultural mecca for the black South, than a building whose former tenant immortalized rich white plantation society, he said. "I can tear down my own history when I determine it's not crucial."
Indeed, no one ouched when Young condemned a black insurance building, but when he declared "The Castle" a "hunk of junk," preservationists rallied, hawking "Hunk of Junk" buttons to drum up money.
Can "the dump's" admirers stave off overwhelming odds and persevere?
"If he signs the permit, he signs it and we have to suffer the consequences," said Taylor, "but we're not giving up." The building's former resident would have no doubt admired such spunk. As Scarlett said in a sanguine moment, "I'll think of it tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day."