At first glance, 131 Ponce looks like any other five-story apartment building that’s been built in the city over the last decade. Filling most of the block bounded by North, Ponce de Leon, and Piedmont avenues, and Juniper Street, the apartment building at the southern edge of Midtown is just one of dozens of “luxury” rentals which seek to attract those drawn to all the amenities of the neighborhood.
As the mercury climbs and Atlanta heads toward the high-heat of summer, the pool atop the building’s lobby at the corner of Ponce de Leon and Juniper will surely see a lot of action. And while, like the bulk of the building, the pool deck itself is rather unremarkable, but the story behind—or rather below—it is another matter.
The pool sits atop a reconstructed portion of the building, which occupied the majority of the site before the construction of the apartment building. Completed in 1949 as the Gulf Oil Building, the original facility was a minimalist Modern structure, providing 50,000 square feet of office space for the company.
While notable for its Modern-influenced, restrained design, the building is even more notable due to the legacy of the architect who designed it: Chinese-born I.M. Pei. The building was the first-ever built project for the architect—at that time an employee of New York-based Webb and Knapp—who graduated from Harvard Graduate School of Design just three years prior.
Constructed in just four months, the building was immediately heralded in architectural publications as a master work, emulating the sleek minimalism and streamlined modernism of Mies van der Rohe, who is regarded by many as the founder of the Modern architectural movement.
One of the first truly modern structures in Atlanta, the building was elegant in its simplicity. The façade was comprised of a grid of black metal, infilled with alternating glass and marble panels. The straightforward material palette of locally sourced stone allowed for quick and inexpensive construction.
Its success is credited with launching Pei’s career.
From that point forward, Pei found himself flooded with commissions, and over the years he designed many of the most recognizable buildings in the world. His works include the John Hancock Tower (Boston, 1976), the East Wing of the National Gallery (Washington, D.C., 1978), and the dearest to his heart, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library (Boston, 1979). However, he is best known for his glass pyramid which became a defining feature of his renovation and expansion of the Louvre (Paris, 1989).
In the years since, the now centenarian Pei has been recognized with architecture’s highest honors, including the AIA Gold Meal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Pritzker Prize, and the Royal Gold Medal.
While Pei went on to be a celebrated architect, the Gulf Oil Building’s fate was not so glamorous. The victim of time and unkind renovations, the building was largely vacant and viewed as obsolete by 2012. Despite outcry from preservationists who noted the value of the structure’s history, the building was demolished in early 2013.
In deference to the groundswell of interest in the building, the developer Sereo Group and Faison Enterprises vowed to preserve the elements that comprised the front portion of the building, and reconstruct them as part of the new development. When rebuilt, the original black mullions were restored, adding contrast between the bright white marble panels.
While the pool atop the structure does little justice to the architectural significance of the building that once occupied the site, a dive into the deep end is a chance to be immersed in history.