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Sneak Peek at The Castle

Where puppeteers and artists once cavorted, the smell of mothballs and old paint fills the still-grand landmark on 15th Street.

About two dozen people on Tuesday got a rare peek inside The Castle, the century-old landmark on 15th Street across from the Woodruff Arts Center.

Architect Leslie Tyrone gave the tour as part of the free series with the Atlanta Preservation Center. She's  with its new owner, New York architect and industrial artist Mike Latham. They plan to open it in a few years as a hotel, club, restaurant or other public establishment.

The Castle is in alarmingly bad shape inside. Water damage has rotted out sections of the floor. The paint is peeling. Old appliances and piles of crumbled plaster sit collecting dust. Wires hang out of the ceiling and punched-out walls.

"It's a wonder it's still standing," one woman on the tour commented as she stepped through the rooms.

Yet the grand charms of this 12,000-square-foot building are still palpable.

Imagine, for a minute, being an sculptor or musician in 1962 in Atlanta. You might have lived here with other artists when it was a sprawling boarding house -- the center of "the Greenwich Village of the South" -- with creativity buzzing up and down its five floors, or spent hours in discussion in the public coffee shop on the lower level.

No question, you would've spent a lot of time waiting in line to use the building's one (!) bathroom.

The Castle was erected between 1909 and 1913 as a retirement home for Ferdinand Dallas McMillan, a former Confederate officer. In the years since, it housed boarders, a restaurant, the Atlanta Theatre Guild and other arts groups, then sat empty for decades and got a leaky roof.

In the mid-'80s, mayor Andrew Young named it a "hunk of junk" in a campaign against blight. The Atlanta Preservation Center stepped in to save it and get it named as a historic landmark.

The most recent owner before Latham was Jeff Notrica, an Atlanta landowner notorious for snapping up historic properties around the city, then letting them sit empty and decay. A few years ago he was the target of a "slumlord" sticker campaign, according to a 2009 article in Creative Loafing.

As Tyrone tells it, McMillan was an eccentric who eschewed architectural consultation when designing The Castle.

"It's pretty safe to say he just stood around and waved his arms" to direct the building, she said.

He envisioned it as half-ship, half-fortress, re-enacted Napoleon-era battles on the grounds and kept a "skeleton room" where no women were allowed.

The Castle at one time even had cannons surrounding it.

"He wanted roses to grow out of these cannons," Tyrone said.

Above the fireplaces in eight of The Castle's rooms hang three-foot, ceramic medallions from the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition at Piedmont Park. Each represents a "cotton state" -- Mississippi, North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama.

Tyrone and the Atlanta Preservation Center are looking to restore the original canons and other original decorations that have disappeared from The Castle over the years. At the end of the tour, she urged people to ask around. She's especially interested in finding the anchor McMillan saved from the Civil War and kept on the property.

"We'd love to know where that is," she said. "And we're in the South, so word-of-mouth means a lot."

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