The site of the first Southern cotton processing mill to manufacture cotton bags is also the oldest and one of the largest industrial settlements in Atlanta, and one of the largest mill villages in the South.
Jacob Elsas, a descendant from German Jewish immigrants, arrived in Atlanta from Cincinnati in 1868 and soon afterward began work in the city’s rag, paper, and hide business. Recognizing the need for cloth and paper containers to package and store a wide variety of goods, Elsas joined fellow German Jewish immigrant Isaac May to form Elsas, May, and Company, a new business that operated out of the old Atlanta Slave Market House. This seemed almost symbolic of Henry Grady’s New South message: displacing the slave culture of the Old South with northern investment in industry. By the end of the 1870s, Elsas and May’s company employed 160 workers, including woman and children, and had expanded their operation to include a bleachery, print shop, and bag mill. Changing the company name to the Fulton Cotton Spinning Company, and with financial backing from a banker in Cincinnati, Elsas moved his business to a site previously used by the Atlanta Mining and Rolling Mill but whose industrial buildings were destroyed during the Civil War.
On this site east of downtown, Elsas erected in 1881 what is now the oldest extant mill structure of the Fulton Cotton Spinning Company complex, a building of seven arched bays separated by pilasters that extend above a two-story base. A bag factory was added in 1882, and by 1886 the complex included the original bleachery cotton mill for weaving and spinning, a second building used for picking, and a third building serving as an engine room, in addition to a large cotton warehouse, waste house, lumber shed, water tank, well, and pump building. In 1895 another mill added 40,000 spindles, and a third mill with 50,000 spindles dates to circa 1902–1907. Soon after, offices, two picker buildings, and warehouses were added to the ensemble, which had grown to nine major buildings. At its height, Fulton Bag employed 2,600 workers and processed a thousand bales of cotton a week, producing two million yards of textile goods.
The complex is modeled on northern textile mill construction and features brick buildings with regular fenestration in repeated uniform bays: typically segmental arched openings at times varied by simpler, rectangular window openings. The largest buildings are accented with square towers featuring arched openings and pyramidal roofs that provide the complex with a picturesque skyline. Neo-Romanesque details are simplified throughout to reflect the utilitarian function of the structures. Interiors provide vast open areas for spinning looms and other machinery and equipment; enlarged and exposed beams with double-layer flooring and no joists are typical of the mill’s slow-burning construction. Large windows and skylights provided ample lighting for workers.
By the early twentieth century, following a pattern dating from the earliest years of American industrial history, a mill village was built to house the workers, a labor force that largely migrated from the mountains of rural northwest Georgia. A farm dietary staple of these workers was cabbage, and the pungent aroma of it cooking resulted it the village being called Cabbagetown. The oldest houses (1886–1899), built on Reinhardt Street, are two-story, wood-framed dwellings on brick pier foundations; porches were added circa 1917. Shotgun houses, small Victorian cottages and bungalows of an early date, duplexes, and small commercial stores with housing above, are found on Carrol, Savannah, and Berean streets, all narrow byways bordered by small yards; the whole effect creates an intimate street scale. The mill maintained the village and its lawns, providing such services as sanitation, neighborhood security, medical and dental offices, a nursery, and a library. When the Elsas family sold the mill in 1957, individual tenants had the opportunity to purchase their houses.
The Elsas family developed or purchased nine bag manufacturing companies in cities across the country: in New Orleans and St. Louis in the 1890s; New York and Dallas after the turn of the century; Kansas City and Minneapolis circa World War I; and Denver in 1945. All the while they expanded the Atlanta plant. Eastern and Midwestern interests gained control of the company in 1956, and the parent company became Fulton Industries, Inc. The Atlanta plant, still known as the Fulton Cotton Mill, remained under Elsas family management until 1968, finally closing its doors in 1978. For years after its closure, the mill stood isolated like an industrial ruin on its site south the railroad and just east of Oakland Cemetery. The mill village, for which the mill had been its source of economic and social viability, deteriorated from neglect and rising crime.
In 1995 Alderhold Properties bought the mill complex and two years later began the difficult task of rehabilitating it for a projected 504-unit loft apartment building, at the time believed to be one of the largest loft conversion projects in the country. Designed by Jova/Daniels/Busby with Gay Construction Company serving as general contractor, the project was recognized in 2000 by an Atlanta Urban Design Commission Award as well as a South Atlantic Regional AIA Award. To preserve the historic character, the architects retained elevated support trestles for the railroad line that ran through the mill complex; the water tower and two smokestacks were also retained. Hallways appeared almost like museum corridors with cotton looms, tubs of large spools, and other vintage equipment on display. The initial intention was to fill three mill buildings with 206 rental units, which entailed removing some intermediary floors in Mill 2 in order to provide 16- and 18-foot ceiling heights. The first phase produced 84 low-income rental units. Forty percent of the initial apartments were moderate-income units priced at $550 and $650 for one and two bedrooms, respectively. By the end of phase two, 11 buildings with 562 units were completed, the rental units called the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts and the condominiums called The Stacks.
Before the conversion was completed, however, a major fire destroyed the interior of Mill 1 in 1999, and the only surviving portion of the bleachery (it had been partially demolished by this time but a single extant wall with huge window openings remained and was repurposed as part of the swimming pool enclosure). At the time of the fire, the mill conversion had just begun its second phase of construction, moving from rentals to condos; few individuals had yet occupied the building damaged by the fire, but the conflagration remains especially memorable thanks to an heroic rescue (by an Atlanta firefighter dangling from a helicopter cable) of a construction worker stranded 250 feet in the air atop a high construction crane, all recorded on live television.
To add insult to injury, on March 14, 2008, an EF2 tornado tore through the complex ripping the roof off the E Building and causing the top floor to pancake several floors in a major collapse. Only 15 units of this building had by then been sold, so few owners were in the building and all escaped unharmed. The restorations after both the 1999 fire and the 2008 tornado were completed by Smith Dalia Architects, with Alderhold Properties and Tom Alderhold winning a second Atlanta Urban Design Commission award for the work, as well as an award from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation.
Today, the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills stands as a preserved industrial complex whose initial construction embodied the spirit of Henry Grady’s New South advocacy of industrial development, and whose preservation stands as one of the landmark successes in adaptive reuse in Atlanta.
Atlanta Urban Design Commission. Atlanta’s Lasting Landmarks. Atlanta, GA: Atlanta Urban Design Commission, 1987.
De Catanzaro, Christine. “History of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills.” Archives and Records Management Library and Information Center, Georgia Institute of Technology. Accessed September 13, 2015. http://www.library.gatech.edu/.
Groves, Nancy. “Fulton Cotton Mill: Not your typical conversion.” Atlantic Business Chronicle, May 24, 1999.
Keenlyside, Barbara. “Loft projects show surge in historic preservation.” Atlantic Business Chronicle, November 6, 1998.
McMath, Robert C., Jr. “History by a Graveyard: The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills Records.” Archives and Records Management Library and Information Center, Georgia Institute of Technology. Accessed September 13, 2015. http://www.library.gatech.edu/.
Silver, Jeff. “Historic mill reopens as loft apartment project.” Atlantic Business Chronicle, May 4, 1998.