Going Underground in Atlanta
Steve Fuller had a dream. To realize that dream, Fuller and his partners decided that they needed to go underground, beneath the tall buildings and aging viaducts of ancient Atlanta to lay the foundation of their plan to build a popular shopping, dining and entertainment center.
They would call their project, “Underground Atlanta.” Initially a resounding success, the unique shopping venue ran into a series of economic downturns and all too real fears of crime. Despite all of its economic woes, M.A.R.T.A.’s new rail lines and suburban expansion, Underground Atlanta has been revived several times. Although today the area is a faint reminder of its glory days in the early 1970s, Fuller’s dream is still not dead, not yet.
Steve Fuller grew up along an avenue of turn of the century homes which signified the glory and the glamour of Dublin’s golden age. He lived in a two-story home at 613 Bellevue Avenue with his parents, Steve Harrison Fuller and Jeanette Fuller. In his early years, the Fullers moved around quite a bit before settling down in the palatial Victorian home.
When Steve, known as “Frog” to his classmates, was asked to submit a quote of how he saw himself in the future and what his goals in life were, he borrowed a quote from Aaron Burr, the infamous Vice-President of the United States, who killed his eternal antagonist, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel.
Under his senior picture was printed, “The rule of my life is to make business a pleasure and pleasure my business.” Little did Steve realize the prophetic irony of those words. Nor did his quarterback, Charlie Bradshaw, realize that he would become one of South Carolina’s and the Southeast’s most successful business entrepreneurs of the 20th Century.
After his graduation from Dublin High in June 1953, Steve entered Georgia Tech as an engineering student. He chose to pursue a degree in ceramic engineering. After his graduation from Tech in 1957, Steve remained in Atlanta to obtain his master’s degree in Industrial Management.
Early in business career, Fuller joined the John K. Porter Real Estate Company, but eventually formed his own company, Ceram, Inc., which served as a manufacturing representative for the new and rapidly growing field of space age ceramics.
In the mid 1960s, more and more of Atlanta’s businessmen and political leaders began to envision modern shopping areas, ones which included restaurants and of upmost importance for economic success, ones which would be able to serve liquor by the drink in a safe, family friendly environment.
With the aid of his fellow student, Jack R. Patterson, Steve formed Underground Atlanta, Inc. on May 2, 1967. Their dream was to build a new shopping area on the footprint of a four-square block of old Atlanta around Pryor, Whitehall, Hunter, Alabama, Wall Streets and Central Avenue, a location which was in the center of the capital city’s nearly century-old infrastructure. In November 1968, construction started on the ambitious project.
While the project was in its initial stages, vehement opposition by religious groups arose with a vengeance. During the 1969 session of the Georgia legislature, Gov. Lester Maddox vetoed the so called, “Underground Atlanta bill,” which would allow the sale of mixed drinks in the downtown Atlanta area.
Undaunted, Underground’s proponents persevered by staging a Dogwood Festival in April 1969 in the “City Beneath the Streets” as the project’s first major tourism event.
The official grand opening of Underground Atlanta on April 8, 1969 signaled a new era for downtown Atlanta. Old abandoned storefronts were converted into nostalgic bars, unique nightclubs and quaint restaurants along with a wide variety of shops. As the state’s only mixed beverage area, people flocked from all over the state along with out of state visitors to live Atlanta’s new night life.
In the early years, the most popular night spots in underground Atlanta were Dante's Down the Hatch, Muhlenbrink's Saloon, The Blarney Stone, Scarlet O'Hara, The Bank Note, The Rustler's Den, The Front Page and the Pumphouse.
Ironically, Georgia governor and later lieutenant governor, Lester Maddox, who had fought the project, opened his own store where he hawked his personal brand of souvenirs. There was even an old-fashioned wax museum. Often compared to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, Underground celebrated its best year with 3.5 million visitors and sales of seventeen million dollars in 1972.
Fuller opened his own restaurant, “Harrisons” in Atlanta in 1974. As one of the city’s most popular singles bars, Harrison’s became an alternative to Underground with its unique and charming interior decor.
In 2014, the City of Atlanta sold the Underground Atlanta complex to a private developer, who announced plans to convert the area in mixed use properties, including apartments in a project which will invest between 100 and 200 million dollars into the downtown Atlanta economy.
But, I fear there is nothing anyone can do, regardless of how much money they spend, to match the exquisite magic and endearing charm of Underground Atlanta in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was the realization of a Dublin man’s dream to make business a pleasure and pleasure his business.