At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the City of Augusta was enjoying considerable prosperity. Not only did it serve as the regional market place for the rapidly expanding agricultural economy which was almost entirely devoted to cotton, but it was also stimulated by the textile mills which had been built on the Augusta Canal in the 1880’s. Moreover, the city was beginning to earn the reputation as a winter resort which, in the first two decades of the century, would result in the construction of several very large hotels for wealthy northern guests.
It was in this environment that the Empire Life Insurance Company of Atlanta made the decision to locate its southern headquarters in Augusta. In 1913 the company purchased several parcels of land on the north side of Broad Street and began planning for its building. G. Lloyd Preacher of Augusta and W. L. Stoddard of New York were chosen as architects and the Whitney Company of New York was named as the general contractor. Construction on the building was begun in late 1913 and extended into 1916.
Unfortunately on the night of March 22, 1916 a fire broke out in Augusta which, within a few hours, consumed over thirty-two blocks of downtown commercial and residential structures. The almost-completed Empire Life Insurance Building was one of those buildings which was burned, but fortunately the concrete and steel structure was unharmed. In the aftermath of the fire, the building was rebuilt and finally opened in 1918. At this time the building was renamed “The Lamar Building” in honor of the late Joseph Rucker Lamar (1857-1916). A successful and popular Augusta lawyer, Mr. Lamar had served as State Senator, as Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia and as United States Supreme Court Justice.
Some years later, in 1925, the building’s new owners, Hugh H. Alexander and Henry B. Garrett, formed the Southern Finance Corporation, a company engaged in real estate, commercial loans, mortgage loans and insurance. They then renamed the Lamar Building “the Southern Finance Building,” a name which endured for more than sixty years. From the time of its completion in 1918, the building became the most prominent building in Augusta and the hub of local commercial and financial activities in the CSRA.
In 1973 the building was purchased by three prominent businessmen, Eugene Holley, Charles Beck and Donald Ford, who made it a major component in their plan to revitalize Augusta’s downtown business district. Eugene Holley, a native of Aiken County, South Carolina, had become a lawyer in Augusta and, through the years, had achieved legal, business and political success. As the State Senator from Augusta, Holley had become the Chairman of the Senate Banking and Finance Committee in Georgia where he wielded considerable power.
He had also become an investor with an old Army friend, Charles Beck, in an oil venture in Texas. Beck had recognized that there was considerable value in older oil fields where production had declined, but where, through an “enhanced recovery technique” of pumping steam down into the wells, substantial amounts of additional oil could be recovered very economically. This venture proved to be exceedingly profitable for a while and enabled Holley and Beck to undertake numerous other ventures.
Having been involved as Chairman of the Senate Banking and Finance Committee in the financing of the World Congress Center in Atlanta in the early 1970’s, Holley had met the world-renowned architect who had designed that facility, I. M. Pei. With his remarkable salesmanship, Holley induced Pei to come to Augusta to work on several projects here. I. M. Pei was born in Canton, China in 1917 and had received his architectural education at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania. He had started his own firm in 1955 and by 1975 was recognized as one of the greatest architects of all time. By the end of the Twentieth Century, dozens of the most wonderful buildings in cities around the world stood as testaments to the remarkable talent of Pei. However, most observers of Pei’s work believe that his finest masterpiece is the pyramid which he created in the middle of the Lourve in Paris.
The projects that Holley convinced Pei to do in Augusta included the Augusta Coliseum, the Broad Street Streetscape, the Chamber of Commerce Building in the middle of Broad Street and a Penthouse for the Lamar Building. It was on one summer evening over dinner in the Castleberry Room at the Pinnacle Club that Holley pointed out the window for Pei to look at the Lamar Building and told Pei that he wanted him to design a Penthouse for the top of the building. Pei then took out his pad and sketched out what was to become the Lamar Building Penthouse. During 1975 Pei’s firm completed the detailed design and the Penthouse was constructed in that year. In many ways the Lamar Penthouse foreshadowed Pei’s work a decade later when he designed the pyramid for the Lourve. The juxtaposition of a modern glass angular structure with a classic, elaborately-carved sandstone historic building is a theme that is central to both the Lamar Building and the Lourve.
Unfortunately, by the late 1970’s, Holley’s oil and real estate empire had begun to collapse and the Lamar Building was sold in foreclosure. In the mid 1980’s the building was purchased by a New York partnership and was completely renovated with all new electrical and mechanical systems. It was acquired by RDC Properties in 2005 and continues to be improved.