A singular event altered the trajectory of Buckhead.
But few have made note of it.
A community of seedy bars, mediocre restaurants and car dealerships as far as the eye could see became synonymous with luxury almost overnight.
The grand, ornate mansions lining West Paces Ferry — the oldest of which dates back to 1911 — attest to the fact the money is old. Of that, there is no doubt.
But the Buckhead I grew up in — and my parents before me — was akin to a small town. We got our haircut at a hole-in-the-wall barbershop. We rode our bikes to the movies. We bought our tools from Buckhead Hardware.
Peachtree Road was known for the Morrison’s Cafeteria, the Majik Market and the bar with the Ferris wheel.
Most histories point to developer Ed Noble and Lenox Square, the first regional mall in the country, as the turning point. But I disagree. Lenox opened in 1959, Phipps in ‘69. I was born in 1973.
The moment Buckhead became something else has to do with one of the most prestigious hotels in the world opening in 1983 across from Noble’s malls — the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.
The name originated with Swiss hotelier Cesar Ritz, who ran the Carlton Hotel in London and opened Hôtel Ritz in Paris in the late 1890s. He went on to launch a chain of ultra-luxury hotels across Europe. He was known as “King of Hoteliers, and Hotelier to Kings.” It is where we get the word “ritzy” if that tells you anything.
The chain grew long after Ritz’s death in 1918 and changed hands several times. But the hotels continued to set the standard as the finest in the world, with locations in New York, Madrid and Rome, among others.
Then, an odd and surprising thing happened. Atlanta native and Georgia Tech alum William B. Johnson purchased the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. With it, he also acquired the domestic rights to the name and the brand in 1983, including the iconic lion and crown symbol. He paid $75 million.
The business world knew Johnson at the time as the largest owner of Waffle Houses. A Boston paper derisively ran the headline, “Waffle King Operates Ritz-Carlton.”
He also had a real estate company, W. B. Johnson Properties Inc., and a prime corner in Buckhead on Peachtree Road, where he planned to build a hotel and an office tower.
The hotel subsidiary, originally called Monarch Hotels, became Ritz-Carlton. The name Monarch may sound familiar. It remains on the office tower next door.
When it opened in 1983, The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead was one of the most famous hotels in the South. It would have taken years if not decades to earn the level of prestige the hotel gained just by opening its doors.
Johnson’s hotel rose to the occasion. The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead was among the finest — if not the finest — hotels in Atlanta. The restaurant, The Dining Room, was constantly ranked among the best in the city.
He continued to expand, but it all started in Buckhead. He opened the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta in 1984, which was meant to be more formal, but the north Atlanta location became the center of the social universe.
The Ritz-Carlton lifted Buckhead to rarified air.
Williams, who died in 2016, sold the company to Marriott in 1998.
A few years ago, Marriott changed the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead to The Whitley. Gone are the wood-paneled lobby and piano bar, long one of the best places in Atlanta to grab a cocktail on a Friday afternoon and people watch while listening to live jazz.
The new name is a nod to a pioneer Buckhead settler John Whitley, who shot the Buckhead buck, or so the story goes.
The old name, plucked from Europe by way of Boston, which played a critical role in our community’s evolution, has been replaced with a name denoting not opulence but a man who scratched a hardscrabble living out of the land.
The Buckhead I grew up in, and love, is somewhere in between.