Automatic for the People: Historic Music Venues in Athens

According to Athens, Georgia was named the #1 music scene outside of Nashville, NYC, and LA.  Woohoo!  Although most Athenians probably know about the music scene and history here, the Classic City is definitely worthy of this national recognition.  I’m pretty pumped about the article, gives me some more support for my thesis…that pile of Athens info is getting rather large.

There’s a long and growing list of musicians that have called Athens home: B-52s, R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Randall Bramblett, Vic Chesnutt, Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor ControlElf Power, Pylon, The Drive by Truckers, Of Montreal, The Whigs, Packway Handle Band…the list goes on and on

With a long list of established musicians, Athens is home to some significant venues as well.  Beginning with mid-century urban flight , historic theaters located in the urban core began to degrade as people shifted to the outskirts, and the big screen cinema followed. 

Many incredible theaters and venues have been lost due to disrepair or demolition to make way for bigger and better venues.  Thankfully in recent years, there has been a resurgence in theater preservation.  In Athens, Georgia we are lucky that most of our significant venues are still standing and celebrated.

This post is dedicated to the venues that have set the stage for amazing performances by local Athens artists as well as those passing through.  There are so many important venues in Athens; my list is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Georgia Theatre

The Georgia Theatre has a long history in Athens starting in 1889 as a YMCA facility.  It has served the community as a Methodist church, Masonic temple, Sears and Roebuck, furniture store, movie theater, and finally a music venue. On June 19, 2009, the Theatre caught fire and the building was gutted.  The Athens community and music lovers from all over came together to help raise money for the rebuild.

The Georgia Theatre. Photos by Emily Laborde, more photos at her blog, On the Road Again.

The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation assisted theater owner, Wilmot Green, in creating the Georgia Theater Rehabilitation Fund, making possible for the theater to accept donations for the rebuilding process. Local Athens brewers, Terrapin Brewery, released the Georgia Theater Sessions, a beer series dedicated to the Georgia Theater’s history.  Funds generated by the sale of these beers go to aid in the theater’s rebuilding.

After a two-year rebuild, the Georgia Theater is open and thriving.  Located on the corner of Clayton and Lumpkin Streets, the original theater was the first YMCA in Athens, and was an impressive Victorian structure with large turrets on the sides.  The ground floor was retail shops, and the other floors were occupied by the YMCA. When the Elite Theater moved into the building, they decided to bring the theater into the popular Art Deco style, losing the majority of the Victorian stylistic elements. After the fire, the theater was rebuilt, the theater facade was restored back to its Art Deco roots.

Benefit poster to rebuild the Georgia Theatre after a fire. Image courtesy of the Georgia Trust.

It has been inspiring to see the community and local Athens businesses come together to support this Athens landmark.  The Georgia Theatre  is listed in the Downtown Athens National Register Historic District as well as the Downtown Local Historic District.  The Georgia Theatre is once again alive and well in downtown Athens, serving up rock and roll every week.

The 40 Watt Club

The 40 Watt Club originated from an impromptu concert on Halloween in 1978.  The show was held in a loft on College Avenue owned by Curtis Crowe, of the band Strictly American.  A guest of the show dubbed the 40 watt name because they had nothing more than a single 40-watt light bulb to light the event. And with that an Athens legend was born.

This Athens venue, along with others like CBGB and Whiskey-A-Go-Go, helped catapult New Wave music onto the scene in the 1980s.  The 40 Watt club’s first location was on Broad street across from University at Georgia’s North Campus, in a small space above what was once a sandwich shop, now it’s the upper stories of Starbucks.  The 40 Watt moved several times, outgrowing each space, and in 1989, moved to its current location at the end of Washington Street downtown.  The 40 Watt is  also included in the Downtown Athens National Register Historic District.

The 40 Watt Club. Photo by Emily Laborde.

The club has a hefty show roster of artists, spanning a variety of genres that have played the 40 Watt.  Some of the more notable: R.E.M., Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Indigo Girls, Nirvana, Modest Mouse, Drive by Truckers, Run DMC, Smashing Pumpkins, Ween, Wilco, Widespread Panic, b-52s, Pylon, Love Tractor, Sonic Youth, and Salt n Peppa. It remains a must go for music lovers everywhere.

Another of mine favorite to see live is Ween, and they graced Athens with their presence at the 40 Watt in April of 2011.  Tickets went on sale in January for the show both online and at Schoolkids Records.  Determined to get tickets, I headed downtown at 9:30am to stand in the already long line to snag the coveted tickets.  It was well worth it waiting in the freezing cold.  Check out the setlist.

The Melting Point

The Melting Point is one of the newer venues in Athens, compared to the aforementioned.  It is however, housed in the old Athens Foundry from the 1850s. This foundry forged the iconic University of Georgia arch, the cast iron fences that surround the University’s North Campus, and the double-barrel canon from the Civil War, that never saw battle.

On The Melting Point stage, Tony Rice and Mountain Heart. Photo by Ryan Hines.

Sitting on the edge of downtown Athens, this industrial property was largely forgotten until the 1970s.  It survived a brief stint as a motel in the 70s and 80s, and in the late 1990s a new developer came in to create a boutique hotel that incorporated the historic structures left on the property.  The Foundry Park Inn was completed in 2001 and the Melting Point occupies three of the brick structures left from the old foundry complex, and serves as a music venue, restaurant, and special event space.  The owners wanted to preserve a piece Athens’s industrial past, allowing the original brick and masonry to be seen in the new venue space. The Melting Point has excellent acoustics, and is a multi-level structure allowing fans optimal seating and standing room.

This past January, my partner Ryan took me to see one of his favorites, Tony Rice, perform with Mountain Heart at the Melting Point. About halfway through the show, Tony was on stage alone with his guitar and he began talking about his time spent playing with Jerry Garcia.  The two had met via David Grisman when Rice worked with Old and in the Way in the 1980s.  While Rice gave a heartfelt shout out to his fallen friend, the room was silent.  He then said this one’s for you and proceeded to play “Shady Grove” for us.  It was a memorable moment; being in a smaller venue, so close to the stage watching one of the greats pay tribute to one of his best friends.

The Morton Theatre

The Morton Building. Photo by Emily Laborde.

The Morton Theatre is a National Register-listed and is also a designated City of Athens landmark and a community-based performing arts center. The theater is part of the Morton Building, built by Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton, a prominent African American business man.  Situated on the corner of Washington and Hull streets, this hot corner was the center of African American life in Athens.  There were restaurants, a barber shop and the Morton Building that housed the offices of many prominent black professionals, and a number of black-owned businesses.

Historic features of The Morton Theatre. Photos by Emily Laborde.

The theater opened with a performance by classical pianist Alice Carter Simmons of the Oberlin Ohio Conservatory, attended by both black and white patrons.  Then came Vaudeville and The Blues; it is believed that Louie Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Blind Willie McTell graced the stage here.  It became a movie theater in the 1930s and remained a meeting hall for the African American community.  Sometime after the 1930s renovation, a small fire broke out in the projection room and the theater was shut down, however not affecting the rest of the Morton Building businesses.

The Morton family continued ownership until the 1970s, where it changed hands several times.  It was finally purchased by The Morton Theatre Foundation in the late 1970s, in hopes to restore the theater to its former glory.  The foundation sought help for further renovation of the theater and the community came to its aid in 1987, when the renovation project passed as part of the Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax. The SPLOST included granting $1.8 million for the restoration of the theatre, whose roof had since caved in.

The Morton Theater is currently owned by Athens-Clarke County, and managed by the Morton Theater Corporation, and is a popular community performing arts center. In 2010, the Morton Theater celebrated 100 years in Athens, Georgia.  It has and will continue to be a stronghold in the vibrant performing arts scene here.

Anybody out there have a favorite Classic City venue or show seen in Athens?? Do tell…

Emily Laborde has a background art history and is now working towards her master’s in historic preservation at the University of Georgia.  She has worked for the Georgia Historic Resource Partnership at UGA, documenting historic resources around the state.  Her education and upbringing, the daughter of a designer and restauranteur, has nurtured her creativity and inquisitive nature.  Emily is a documentarian, lover of fashion, art, music, architecture…all the good stuff. Her perspectives are available at her blog, On the Road Again.

Helpful Hint from Histpres
For a resource to save money on CD’s from all musical venues, try these coupon codes.

About the author: Emily Laborde

Forever wandering and always curious. I’m Emily Laborde and I got bitten by the bug at age 10 on a trip to Washington D.C. I haven’t slowed down since! I grew up in the South, part of a huge, LOUD, Southern family, so naturally, I love taking the back roads and good Southern food (all types of food really). My background is art history and recently earned my master’s in historic preservation at the University of Georgia. I currently work for the Georgia Historic Resource Partnership at UGA, documenting historic resources around the state. My education and upbringing (daughter of a designer and restauranteur) has nurtured my creativity and inquisitive nature. I am documentarian, lover of fashion, art, music, architecture…all the good stuff.

1 comment

  1. meagan@histpres says:

    The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation is having a huge party at the George Theater highlighted in this article in the New Year! Check it out here:

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