Grant Henry's ambitions have long outweighed his intellect, he says. A lot of people called him crazy for opening Sister Louisa's Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium in the Old Fourth Ward at the height of the economic recession in 2010. The space at the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Boulevard was tiny, had zero parking, and was located in an area known for high crime and homelessness. When he opened two days before Christmas in 2010, taxis wouldn't come to the corner, he says.
Two years later, Henry's built a national reputation for his pub's kooky religious knickknacks, late-night ping-pong tournaments, and organ-backed karaoke sessions. The pub has emerged as one of the driving forces behind the historic Old Fourth Ward's revitalization. It's a seemingly unlikely role for the jovial 56-year-old former church deacon and antiques dealer, but Henry sees it as an extension of himself. For nearly two decades he's been saying "fuck fear" and finding guidance in the words of his longtime artistic alter ego Sister Louisa.
So far, the approach has paid off. After being open only a few months, Henry won Central Atlanta Progress' prestigious Atlanta Downtown Design Excellence Award for Sister Louisa's "search for meaning" captured in the artwork that adorns nearly every inch of the establishment.
"That day was the first time I could see my business changed ... people that had jobs came," Henry says. Then came the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and tourists from Japan and Europe craving authentic Atlanta. And then Lady GaGa and Ben Stiller.
Looking past the manger on top of a Pabst Blue Ribbon bar lamp and out one of Church's second-story windows, Henry rattles off information about the buildings lining the historic street. He points to vacant storefronts up and down the strip, explains what he thinks the neighborhood needs, and where it all should go — probably because he has his sights set on a lot of the property, and ideas for the rest.
"I think I have an important role down here," he says, "but the role more is that I'm a fucking fool that has more faith than brains."
For his next concept bar on Edgewood — and there will be a next in 2013 — he plans to pay homage to the neighborhood's civil rights history. He's mum on the details, but with Church pulling in a steady flow of cash, a number of Henry's offbeat ideas may become realities, and continue to help transform Edgewood Avenue in the process.