A strip club and a boutique hotel. They may seem like strange bedfellows, but in rapidly transforming Atlanta, this unusual relationship seems to be working.
The Clermont Lounge is not just any strip club. Established in 1965, this next-level dive bar is a beloved institution, where DJs, bands and Tuesday-night karaoke singers do their thing alongside dancers ranging in age from about 22 to 72.
And as Atlanta welcomes Super Bowl LIII fans, the lounge is basking in its status as one of the city's most colorful destinations.
"It's a different club than other clubs. And like, actually allows women older than 25 or 30 to work there. I'm 62 next month. Thank you, Jesus. I made it," says Blondie, who has shimmied and drop-kicked atop its bar since 1978.
Blondie, born Anita Rae Strange, is the most famous stripper in Atlanta -- a city known for adult entertainment. Crushing Budweiser and PBR cans with her breasts is a trademark. She also writes poetry.
"I would say everyone in Atlanta knows Blondie. Like my 90-year-old grandmom knows Blondie," says native Atlantan William Bubier, 26, who works as a server upstairs at Tiny Lou's, a French-American brasserie in the newly opened Hotel Clermont.
Blondie and the brasserie is the kind of juxtaposition that's increasingly common in Atlanta, and some locals worry that Champagne tastes will stamp out intown Atlanta's character.
"This girl don't like no Champagne. Don't like wine either. I like beer and shots," says Blondie.
Yet despite mixed feelings, the trendy boutique hotel has undoubtedly made a splash and brought new energy to a building that was shuttered for nearly a decade, save for the strip club in the basement.
The building started as the Bonaventure Arms Apartments in 1924 and became the extended-stay Clermont Hotel in 1939.
Several nightclubs occupied the basement space before the Clermont Lounge was born in 1965. By the '70s and '80s, the building and the corridor along Ponce de Leon Avenue were frequented by drug addicts and prostitutes.
In 2009, the hotel was shuttered by the health department. But the lounge carried on, drawing all ages and walks of life.
Jimmy Mahaffey, who's in his 50s, hit the new hotel's rooftop bar and the basement on a recent Saturday evening with his girlfriend, who visited the strip club in the '90s, before she moved to suburban Atlanta.
Mahaffey, who had never been to the lounge before, warmed up to the place immediately.
"It looked like I'd repaired the bar. It was duct-taped all the way around. Duct tape, my favorite repair tool," Mahaffey said.
"When I saw that duct-taped bar, I was like, damn, there are some survivors in here."
True. Blondie is not the oldest Clermont dancer. Porsha is in her 70s. Another dancer, Cassy, 54, who specializes in lighting her boobs on fire, has ties to the lounge dating back to the '80s.
"We're a family," says Katlyn, 22, who works at the lounge with her mom, both as servers.
The dancers choose their own songs on the jukebox. Smoke permeates everything, seeping into hair and clothes. All but the bald chain-smoker will probably want a shower at the end of the evening.
The most remarkable development of the past two decades, decorwise, is the recent remodel of the restrooms, previously a challenge for the public-facilities sensitive.
People love this place. Rightly so.
Celebrities are drawn by its atmosphere -- and the strict no-cameras policy. Anthony Bourdain was a fan. Robert De Niro, Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Lawrence and Jon Hamm have all been in.
The Clermont Lounge has a new friend in the Hotel Clermont.
The hotel, which opened in June 2018 after a $30 million overhaul, has a rooftop bar with sweeping skyline views, a coffee shop and a sultry cocktail bar in the lobby and the French-American brasserie, Tiny Lou's, one flight down.
Tiny Lou's is named after a dancer who performed at a basement club predating the Clermont Lounge.
The hotel's design, handled by New York-based Reunion Goods & Services, is "kind of rock 'n' roll in your grandmother's living room," says Alan Rae, Hotel Clermont's general manager.
Think velvet, rattan, wicker and florals with lots of bold wallpaper. There are 94 rooms, including several suites and a collection of four-bed bunk rooms geared toward friends traveling together.
The developer, Oliver Hospitality, bought the building in 2013, and there was never any question of closing the lounge.
"We like hotels that have personality, and this really had what I always called the street cred, the street credibility, of being authentic Atlanta and having the lounge in it," said Philip Welker, a principal at Oliver Hospitality.
Kathi Martin, who co-owns the lounge, is happy with the change. She wasn't sure who would buy the shuttered hotel or whether the buyers would keep the club.
"They like us, we love them," says Martin, who started out as a bartender at the lounge 40 years ago.
"They bought it and fought to keep us 'cause nobody wanted to finance it with an adult entertainment club in the basement," says Martin.
Keeping the lounge in place cost more than $1 million, Welker estimates. But it's something that can't be replicated anywhere else, and that's a bonus.
The lounge continues to lease space in the building, and the businesses are owned and operated independently.
The hotel is closed to the public through Super Bowl weekend for a slate of ticketed events including rooftop DJ sets hosted by Jermaine Dupri and DJ Mars and a celebrity game night presented by rapper T.I.
However, the lounge will be open later than usual and for the first time on a Sunday.
Atlanta's redevelopment inspires mixed feelings.
Chris Sinon and Arielle Valdez, a 20-something couple, were having drinks on Hotel Clermont's rooftop on a Saturday evening. They're fans of the Clermont Lounge and feel a little torn about the building's transformation.
It's nice to see it revitalized, Valdez said, but it's also a prime example of what's happening in the hotel's Poncey-Highland neighborhood -- and across the city -- where upscale development is driving up housing prices.
The rooftop -- an Instagrammer's delight with neon signs and skyline views -- is a little "bougie," Valdez said, compared with the no-frills, no-photos lounge. Still, it was the pair's second rooftop visit.
"It's certainly changed," says hotel manager Alan Rae about the neighborhood. "But I think that the change has been at a level where there's a good balance, a good mix of keeping the character of the neighborhood with all of the smaller businesses."
Atlanta native Sean Vinson, 45, works security part-time at the Clermont Lounge. In the early 2000s, he worked there full time and lived upstairs in the hotel.
"I don't like it," Vinson says of the new hotel. "I mean it's of course better than what it used to be up there, but in some ways not too, you know?"
"You're gaining some things, but you're losing certain elements of the neighborhood. How it used to be. Yeah, there were people that were dangerous back then, but it wasn't as uptight either," says Vinson.
Or as expensive. "It used to be $200 a week, and now it's $200 a night."
Down the street, Ponce City Market is another urban metamorphosis. The converted 1920s Sears, Roebuck & Co. warehouse holds a food hall lined with casual chef-driven eateries, upscale retail, residences and offices.
It sits on the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile trail that, when finished, will connect 45 neighborhoods.
"I mean the neighborhood has changed," says Blondie. "All the condos across the street, the neighborhood changing up and down."
Yet the Clermont remains.
"This place doesn't change," says Blondie. "And I don't change. After 40 years, I'm very humble. God made sure of that."
If you go
Hotel Clermont, 789 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, GA, (470) 485-0485. Rates for standard rooms start in the mid-$200s for winter 2019. Closed through the Super Bowl for private events.
Clermont Lounge, 789 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, GA, (404) 874-4783. The lounge will be open on Super Bowl Sunday, its first Sunday ever, thanks to a City Council waiver for the event that will also extend last call to 4 a.m. through February 4 at bars citywide.
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