Thursday, September 4, 2008

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, it was briefly a big pile of rubble right next to Interstate 75 after the ministrations of the wrecking ball of Price & Sons Demolition, and now the property is home to a Wal-Mart. But for years it was Atlanta's event home away from home.

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 had ever held any affection for it, similar hotels would dot America's interstate off-ramps throughout the 1970s and beyond. In Atlanta, 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 the persistent rumor of Burt Reynolds' car crashing into the lobby (reportedly in the film The Cannonball Run, though a careful viewing of the movie reveals otherwise), but the future would see the hotel's management and branding change several times. The facility would be known as a Radisson and as a Howard Johnsons, and as it was called when I was most familiar with it, the Castlegate.

I've always been told that the Atlanta Fantasy Fair was forced to leave the Dunfey's, as it was then known, 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, and Indian weddings. 1996 Olympics memorabilia auctions and chess championships. Antique radio Mega Swap Meets. 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.

Atlanta Pin Show souvenir pin, 1995

And why not? The Radisson/Howard Johnsons/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, play your live action role playing games, and generally do whatever you wanted with the knowledge that nobody from the hotel was going to lift a finger to stop you.

Vintage Radio Swap Meet in the Castlegate ballroom circa 1998

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 with 300 attendees, and 20 years later 25,000 people attend the show. 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. Of course, part of this dismal success/failure ratio is the whimsical, underfunded nature of fan conventions and the people who run them.

AWA video room, 1995

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.

Castlegate elevator circa 1995

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 your festival would make it out alive, and maybe it wouldn't.

actual Castlegate footage from child beauty pageant documentary "Painted Babies"

Of course, if you make it out alive, you'll have plenty of war stories. Two AWA staffers found themselves on an elevator with a hotel employee, and they commented on the kudzu-engulfed tennis court. The hotel employee's reply - "What tennis court? The Castlegate doesn't have a tennis court."

tennis, anyone?

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. I've got mixed emotions about it myself; sure, it was a slime-pit and an eyesore, but the place was a big part of my life and it's never pleasant to see something like that go. Not only was it the site of my first real convention experience -it was the site of my senior-year high school prom. My project for admission into the Graphic Design department at GSU was to design logos and promotional material for a business of our choosing - and I chose the Castlegate. It was where I severed my involvement with the Church Of The Subgenius; the paunchy, wig-sporting Sub-G "band" refused to vacate the stage, so I grabbed the collection plate and told Estrus recording artists Man or Astro-Man? to set up in the damn hall, so that we could hear some real music. The Castlegate was the site of the last Atlanta Fantasy Fair and the first Anime Weekend Atlanta. It was where I learned to get things in writing, how to jimmy a lock, why you should never rely on the room's built-in Muzak speakers, and whether or not a sucker-tipped dart can break a hotel light fixture (it can).

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.

-Dave Merrill

edited 2017 to include more information on the current property and to add photos found on the internets, thank you Castlegate documentarians


davenelson said...

Where the Castlegate once stood is now a shopping complex with a Wal-Mart, Petsmart, restaurants, office supplies, clothes, etc...

It amazes me that so many stores have been squeezed into the space that the Castlegate occupied.

And there is no tennis court.

penderd said...

I also heard about this hotel from friends and they said that alas, it was a dump but the staff were usually nice and when a good fight was on in any of the rooms from HBO, they would come from security and way=tch with them. Pretty cool and they would have a beer with you as well.

CatswalkJPGR said...

Awwww. Lotta good times there with Steve, Rest In Peace. We went to all the record shows. In fact this is where we met! Twelve years later Castlegate is gone and so is Steve.

Lots of memories there for sure.

Unknown said...

I was there in 1978 high School competition came in 3rd place medical laboratory it was a great time.

David Lorenz said...

I was there in September 1970 for my very first barbershop quartet competition. My quartet, The Cold Water Flats, consisted of three brothers and a close friend. What an experience!

Later, I attended another competition circa 1990 with another quartet, Midnight Express, and the Royal Coach had notically deteriorated.

It will always hold a special place in my musical heart since it was the beginning of a long, successful, musical journey.

Unknown said...

I attended a dog show event in the 90's. Always thought the funky smell was from the dogs that weekend... Never knew it was a permanent odor.