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Rails to riches: New event hall brings hope of revitalizing Trackside district

LAWRENCEVILLE - From cotton warehouse to computer warehouse to a historic warehouse and events facility.

That's how you might describe the last century of progression for the building that resides along the railroad tracks at 550 N. Clayton St.

Now, after 19 months of serious renovation and restoration by the tenants' new owners - Roger Kahn and Linda Nash - Trackside 550 is open for business.

And this business includes hosting wedding ceremonies, receptions, anniversary parties or corporate functions.

If things go as planned, the building could also be the signature one of a completely revitalized and restored area known as the Trackside arts and entertainment district of Lawrenceville.

That's the vision of local officials and the owners, anyway. They envision a continued expansion in the future of the historical feel that's already been captured by the downtown square area.

"She's the mother ship," said Jay Markwalter of the Lawrenceville Tourism and Trade Association of the new Trackside 550. "That project is so incredible as a meeting facility and a special events facility. We're excited about that district becoming an arts and entertainment district to connect with the historic downtown."

The eventual connection shouldn't be too hard. Trackside 550 is just two blocks north of the downtown square.

According to Markwalter, who described the restoration as "amazing", the facility provides a much needed larger meeting space in Gwinnett's county seat city.

"Lawrenceville has a lack of meeting space at that size," Markwalter said. "It's always great to offer visiting meetings or the community a facility of that size. It's a very positive addition to all of our projects in Lawrenceville."

Co-owner Kahn said Trackside can hold 350 people seated, 500 standing, and also has the ability to host people outside in its courtyard overlooking the railroad tracks.

The interior feel of the building tries to mimic the era its from - the 1890s to 1918, Kahn said. Black and white photographs taken of historic and classic Gwinnett sites adorn the walls, and all the interior decorating was done by Kahn's wife, Cindy. She obtained the decorative, antiquated fixtures largely through visiting antique shops across the south. For the stuff she couldn't locate, shopping on the Internet proved valuable.

In the main reception area of the building, the second floor has been entirely removed. That opened up the reception room to about 45 feet in height and three custom-made chandeliers now hang from where the ceiling and second floor used to be. Additional windows were added near the new room's ceiling to give the room more natural light.

In keeping with the idea of restoration, the wood that made up that second floor was then reused throughout the building whenever wood was needed. The walls are also composed of the building's original granite, which Kahn said could have come from nearby Stone Mountain.

"All the wood you see and all the granite you see is at least 100 years old," he said.

The solid and sturdy granite walls also prevent the rumblings of a passing train from being heard inside. And if the doors to the courtyard are open and a train rolls by, it adds to the feel of the early 20th century, he said.

"At our first event the kids went outside and waved (at the train) and then the train conductor waved back," Kahn said. "Then the parents were taking pictures of their kids and reminiscing about stories from when they grew up and lived by the train tracks."

As for the catering services that go with hosting events, Kahn said, "It's a caterer's kitchen." He attributes that to the separate beverage area, the walk-in refrigerator and the spacious preparation stations and the kitchen itself.

"We talked to lots of caterers and asked them what they needed to set this kitchen apart from others," Kahn said.

He said the feedback the refinished building has received so far by the community has been stellar.

"I've been told it has a very warm feeling," Kahn said. "It's one of those things where the guy understands it and likes the granite, wood and openness and likes that feel of it, and the woman likes the attention to detail."

Mayor Rex Millsaps and his wife Sheila have already enjoyed the new facility. They were the first clients when their youngest daughter was married there near the end of May.

Their older daughter was married in 2001 at the historic downtown courthouse, but with 400 people attending this wedding, Millsaps said the number of guests was too large to return to the courthouse.

"The facility is first-class and our family will have a lifetime of memories," Millsaps said. "It was perfect."

Staying with the theme of the early 20th century, the bride, groom and their guests arrived via the downtown trolley bus. That gave Trackside the feel of what it says it is on its business cards - a historic event facility circa 1904.