Home

Historical Context

Architectural History

Apartment #1

Furnishing Plan

Sources

This is part of a series of historic structure reports on the historic architecture of Georgia and the Southeast by Tommy H. Jones. It is posted here for educational purposes only and may not be used or reproduced for commercial purposes or without the express permission of the author.

 

 

 

The Margaret Mitchell House is located in Land Lot 106 on a stretch of old Peachtree Road that was known as "Tight Squeeze" in the years after the Civil War. [ 1] The road is old, dating to the earliest days of white settlement in the are, and between present-day Eighth Street and Twelfth Street, it originally looped to the west around a deep ravine that ran in a east-northeasterly direction from around present-day Crescent Avenue between Tenth and Eleventh Streets down to the vicinity of the Twelfth Street entrance to Piedmont Park. In the wake of the Civil War, a sort of shanty town evolved and developed a reputation for lawlessness. In 1867, the murder of John Plaster and a serious assault on Jerome Cheshire, both grandsons of prominent pioneers in the area, provoked a large public outcry. A local wit is said to have remarked that it was "a mighty tight squeeze getting through there with your life," and there was soon action to clean up the area. Eugene Mitchell was reportedly "delighted" by these associations while his daughter was living on Crescent Avenue and, in 1931, revived interest in the name when he wrote an article about the area’s history for the Atlanta Historical Bulletin. [2]

Figure 1. Detail from Pittman’s map of Fulton County in 1872, showing the intersection of old Plasters Bridge Road and Peachtree Road. “Tight Squeeze” grew up around the ravine that bisected the land lot. (Atlanta History Center)

 

Figure 2. Detail from Baylor’s map of Land Lot 106, 1895, showing the loop of Old Peachtree Road. Later part of that loop would become Crescent Avenue. Most of the land lot had already been subdivided many times over the preceding thirty years. (Atlanta History Center)

 

Figure 3. View of Piedmont Driving Club, c. 1890, as recreated by Wilbur Kurtz. (Atlanta History Center)

In 1880, West Peachtree Street was opened from the city limits, which were then near Third Street, along the western border of Land Lot 106 to its intersection with Peachtree Road at present-day Pershing Point. Over the next few years, a series of cross streets began to develop through the old Tight Squeeze district, followed by scattered residential development over the next few years.

 

Piedmont Park

A turning point for Tight Squeeze came in 1887 when Benjamin Walker sold his father’s old house (c. 1868) and farm on Plaster Bridge Road (later Piedmont Avenue) to the Gentleman's Driving Club. [3] Renamed the Piedmont Driving Club, this institution would be one of the centers of  Atlanta upper-class society in the early twentieth century, a society of which Margaret Mitchell was a part and a society which she provoked considerably from time to time.

Adaptation of the old Walker house proceeded but development of the old Walker farm for the Club's racing and driving courses was cast aside when the site was proposed for the city's second great exposition put on to tout the city’s commercial and industrial advantages. In short order, the Driving Club leased most of the land to the newly formed Piedmont Exposition Company and in October 1887, the Piedmont Exposition was held in what was dubbed Piedmont Park. The exposition had a significant impact on the development of Tight Squeeze, precipitating creation or realignment of several streets throughout the area. Piedmont Avenue (then called Calhoun Street) was extended north from Seventh Street to its intersection with old Plaster Bridge Road on the west side of Piedmont Park, and a new street, christened Wilson Avenue but later renamed Fourteenth Street, was also opened from Peachtree Road to the main entrance to the exposition grounds.[6]

As for Peachtree Road itself, the ravine between present-day Tenth and Eleventh Streets was filled and the road realigned to its present location, thus eliminating the Tight Squeeze curve. By the turn of the century, the stretch of old Peachtree Road that remained between Eleventh Street and Peachtree Place was known as Crescent Avenue.

In 1889, there was another exposition at Piedmont Park, and in 1895, the city's great Cotton States and International Exposition was held there as well. These expositions and the associated public improvements provided additional impetus to the residential and commercial development of the area. In 1890, as part of a never-completed scheme to encircle the city with new boulevards, Bleckley Avenue (now Tenth Street) was extended east from Piedmont Avenue along the south side of Piedmont Park and across Clear Creek to North Boulevard, now Monroe Drive, at Virginia Avenue. More important for future development, an electric streetcar line was opened that same year along Peachtree Street to Fourteenth Street, joined in 1895 by a streetcar line along Piedmont Avenue with loops to Peachtree at Tenth and Fourteenth Streets.

These streetcar lines and others that followed made possible residential development farther and farther beyond the city limits at Fifth Street. By 1900, the streetcar line was extended beyond Fourteenth Street through George Washington Collier's undeveloped woodland in Land Lot 105 to Brookwood, where Collier’s brother Andrew’s old farm was being subdivided for residential development. George Collier himself died in 1903, and development of Land Lot 105 for Ansley Park got underway the following year. For the first time, Peachtree Road between Fifteenth Street and Brookwood was opened for development, which included construction of Margaret Mitchell's childhood home at 1701 Peachtree in 1912. By the time the last of these big houses were being constructed on the eve of World War I, Peachtree and West Peachtree Streets were famous for the estates of the wealthy and the fine architect-designed houses that lined both streets for more than twenty blocks north of Baker Street and downtown.

 

Peachtree and Tenth, 1890-1900

According to Eugene Mitchell, "the Tight Squeezers lived along the crescent and up and down the gulch," but there was also “a wagon yard, a blacksmith shop and several small wooden stores" on what is now Crescent Avenue near present Tenth Street as early as the 1870s. With re-routing of Peachtree in 1887, businesses re-located and, by the time Tenth Street was opened from Peachtree to what is now Monroe Drive in 1890, the nucleus of the later shopping district on Peachtree north of Tenth had been formed. Three groceries were in business between Tenth and Fourteenth, including that of James M. Crawford at the northeast corner of the intersection (his house faced Tenth), and there was also a brick yard operating in the area. A number of large houses had also been built on Peachtree between Eleventh Street and the land-lot line north of Fourteenth Street where, Collier Woods marked the start of open countryside.

Figure 4. View of the Mitchell's house at 1701 Peachtree Street, just north of Seventeenth Street, to which the family moved in 1912. (Lane Brothers Collection, Georgia State University)

 

Figure 5. Detail from Saunders’ bird’s-eye view of Atlanta, 1892, annotated with an arrow indicating the vacant block on which the Sheehan House/Crescent Apartments would be built. "Wilson" Avenue, upper right, is now Fourteenth Street. "Beckley" [sic] Avenue is now Tenth Street. (Atlanta History Center)

 

Figure 6. Plan of development for grounds of Cotton States and International Exposition at Piedmont Park in 1895. (Atlanta History Center)

 

Figure 7. View southwest of restored Sheehan House, 2007. No contemporary photographs of the house when it was new have been located. All of the buildings that obscured this view of the house during Mitchell's lifetime were destroyed in the 1980s. (Photo by author)

 

Figure 8. View, c. 1903, of the house architect Willis Denny designed for M. R. Emmons in 1900 at the northwest corner of Peachtree Street and Peachtree Place. In the background at right, is the only photographic documentation of the Sheehan House on its original site. (Atlanta History Center)

 

Figure 9. Population schedule from 1900 Federal census showing the Sheehan family at 806 Peachtree Street.

One of the earliest of the houses built north of Eighth Street during this period was the Queen Anne house that Andrew J. West, Confederate general and former city alderman, built in 1889 at what was then 789 Peachtree and is now the site of Metropolis condominiums.[7] His neighbor to the south was Thomas H. Morgan, one of the city's most important architects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and a resident at old 783 Peachtree until his death in 1940. By 1892, Donald M. Bain, one of the incorporators of the Driving Club in 1887, had also built himself a house at the southeast corner of Peachtree and Tenth Street.

In 1895, the year of the great Cotton States and International Exposition at Piedmont Park, Peachtree Place was laid out, one of a very few streets in the city with a small park-like median, here dividing the block between Peachtree and Crescent Avenue. At the same time, Joseph Burke, a New Yorker broker who moved to Atlanta in the 1870s, built a large stone house at 1 Peachtree Place on the northwest corner of the new street and Old Peachtree Road, which soon would be renamed Crescent Avenue. Burke's mother-in-law, Francis Cotting, had owned the entire block on the west side of Old Peachtree and had futilely protested the re-routing of Peachtree away from her potentially valuable real estate. Burke went on to develop the area north of Peachtree Place and west of Peachtree as an area he advertised as "Blooming Hills."

The Panic of 1893 slowed development throughout the city and not until the late 1890s did development resume in earnest. In January 1898, Cornelius J. Sheehan Jr., or "C. J." as he was called, bought a lot on the west side of Peachtree in the middle of the undeveloped block created by Peachtree Place, Crescent and Tenth. By fall 1899, he had built a large Tudor-style house at 806 Peachtree.

 

The Sheehans

Among the pioneers of antebellum Atlanta were C. J.’s parents, Cornelius Sheehan Sr. (1828-1888) and his wife Elizabeth McCarthy Sheehan (1839-1906). Irish Catholic, Cornelius Sr. was said to have been educated at the University College in Dublin before emigrating to America in 1842. Employment with the railroads probably brought him to Georgia in the 1840s.[8]

In 1853, he met and married Elizabeth McCarthy in Eatonton and, two years later, they moved to the new town of Atlanta where he worked as baggage master for the Georgia Railroad.[9] A man of some means, or as is more likely, a thrifty man, Cornelius was able to begin investing in real estate at an early date, which was probably the real source of the family's fortune. [10] By 1875, the Sheehans had purchased a lot at 185 Pryor Street, on the corner of Fair (now Memorial) Drive in what was then one of the city's best residential neighborhoods. [11] Cornelius died there on 20 August 1888. [12]

According to Lucian Lamar Knight's biographical sketch of Sheehan, published in 1913, the family was “one of the South's most influential and prominent Catholic families" and the Atlanta Constitution commented in the elder Sheehan's obituary in 1888 that he had "reared a large and interesting family." The Sheehan name itself is not as well known now as it was at the turn of the century, because seven of the nine children were girls; the eldest son, John, moved to Butte, Montana, in 1889 and never married; and the only child of their other son, C. J., was a daughter.

Nevertheless, the family made its mark in the city and, several of these siblings lived at 806 Peachtree around 1900. Three of the daughters (Agatha, Claire and Isabelle) were sent to a finishing school at the Villa Maria Convent in Montreal in the late 1870s or early 1880s, setting an example that was followed by Margaret Mitchell's grandmother Annie Fitzgerald Stephens when she followed suit with her own daughters later in the 1880s. [13] Significantly perhaps, only Mitchell's mother refused to go and was educated in Atlanta. [14]

The eldest of the Sheehan daughters, Mollie (1859-1939), married Dr. Charles A. Moran who, coincidentally, was the brother of Margaret Mitchell's great-aunt Isabelle Fitzgerald's husband Pascal J. Moran. [15] Mollie Moran was later one of the early members of the Atlanta Historical Society.

Hannah Sheehan (1861-1950) was a school teacher prior to her marriage to Joseph N. Moody in 1890. The Atlanta Constitution noted at the time that "Miss Hannah stands at the head of the list among the public school teachers of Atlanta." Moody (1855-1923) had moved to Atlanta from Wisconsin in the 1870s and begun his career as an agent and later director of the German American Insurance Company. Retiring from insurance, he entered banking as president of the Atlanta Discount Company and is thought by some to have originated the idea of paying for automobiles in installments.[16]

Leonora Sheehan (1866-1952) married Robert Raines, secretary/treasurer of the Franklin Printing and Publishing Company. She spent fifteen years working for the New York Sun, including a stint as a war correspondent during World War I. After returning to Atlanta, she was a founding member of the Atlanta Historical Society and of the Atlanta Art Association, out of which evolved today’s High Museum of Art. [17]

The first of the Sheehan daughters to graduate from Villa Maria, Francesca Agatha Sheehan (1870-1964), was a writer for the Atlanta News Daily prior to her marriage in 1902 to Claude Washington Kress, brother of Samuel H. Kress, founder of a national chain of department stores that bore his name, one of which would open on Peachtree Street just north of Tenth in the 1920s. [18]

The seventh Sheehan child, Margaret Claire Sheehan (1871-1955), spent much of her life abroad after her marriage to Judge Aidan R. Wilmot "of New York and South Africa," it was noted. Her only child and grandchild and their spouses were killed in the terrible plane crash at Orly Field in 1962 that took the lives of 106 Atlantans, including many of the city’s most prominent patrons of the arts. [19]

Isabelle Sheehan (1873-1942) spent "several years in Europe where she studied painting" before returning home and marrying Edwin More, a New York merchant and later auto-parts dealer. She was also one of the first officers of the Atlanta Art Association. The youngest sister, Caroline Elizabeth Sheehan (1879-1964), married noted Atlanta attorney James Alexander Branch in 1910.[20]

The Sheehans’ marriage was apparently not a happy one. On 14 September 1883, a notice in the New York Times announced that Elizabeth Sheehan had filed for divorce, charging brutal conduct. The divorce was apparently not finalized, and according to his obituary, Sheehan died at his home on S. Pryor Street. After his death, his widow continued to manage the family’s real-estate business and, in the 1890s, built at least one "handsome four-story tenement block . . . on Piedmont Avenue," the exact location of which is uncertain.

C. J. Sheehan Jr. (1867-1944) was the fifth of the nine Sheehan children. He grew to adulthood at the family's Pryor Street house and graduated from Boys' High School in 1883. Eugene Mitchell was also a member of that class although he apparently did not graduate. As fellow communicants at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta a block from the State Capitol, the Sheehans and Mitchells certainly knew each other although whether as friends or simply acquaintances is not known.

His graduation from high school coincided with an economy that was booming both nationally and locally. Sheehan’s biographer caught the spirit of the times:

Feverish at once for business and with such splendid opportunities beckoning to him on every side, [Sheehan] felt it folly to waste any further time in obtaining an education. Though amply able to bear the cost, he repudiated the idea of a collegiate course further than to spend one year in Moore's Business College, preparing himself for a strictly business career. [22]

About 1886, after a year working in the offices of produce merchants A. C. Wylly & Company, Sheehan began working for John B. Daniel, a large wholesale manufacturer and dealer in pharmaceuticals. He would remain with that firm for the next nineteen years. About 1894, the company bought Grier's Almanac, which had been in publication since 1807 and remains a popular publication today. About that same time, he married his first wife, Carrie Mae Watson, the daughter of Col. George W. Watson of Hot Springs, Arkansas. They had one child, Burnham Elizabeth Sheehan, who married Francis Marion Marsh on 11 Feb 1920. [23]

 

806 Peachtree Street, 1899 - 1906

In January 1898, C. J. Sheehan paid Mrs. Susie Harwood $2,750 for a lot on the west side of Peachtree between Peachtree Place and Tenth Street. [24] Although the lot was small, less than one-quarter of an acre with not quite fifty feet of frontage on Peachtree, the rest of the block was undeveloped and the surroundings, while no longer rural, were certainly a change from the closer quarters of the Sheehans' old Pryor Street neighborhood. It was also a much more fashionable neighborhood, for already the north side of Atlanta was drawing more than its share of the city's rapid expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuriesAcross the street from Sheehan's lot, at the southeast corner of Peachtree and Tenth, Frank S. Ellis, one of the organizers of the Cotton States Exposition bought Donald Bain's old house in 1898. On the same side of the street opposite Peachtree Place, W. S. Witham had also built a large frame house next door to General West. [25]

Figure 10. Detail from 1911 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map showing Sheehan House on its original site at 806 Peachtree. Yellow indicates wood-framed structures; pink, brick; and blue stone or concrete block. The yellow shapes outlined in pink indicate brick-veneered, wood-framed structures, such as the Sheehan House.

 

Figure 11. View of southeast corner of Tenth Street, left, and, Crescent Avenue, right, in the 1950s. The concrete-block house pictured here was built around 1905, as was the commercial building to its rear. At extreme right is the old Crescent Apartments. The wood-framed house that stood between the two buildings when Mitchell lived at the Crescent Apartments had already been torn down when this photograph was taken. (Lane Brothers Collection, Georgia State University)

 

Figure 12. View south on Crescent Avenue in 1950. The Palmer House Apartments (1908), right rear, and the Phelan Apartments (1924), center rear, were among the city's earliest luxury apartment buildings. (Lane Brothers Collection, Georgia State University)

 

Figure 13. Bell Telephone's New North Exchange, southwest corner of Old Tenth Street and Crescent Avenue, designed by Atlanta architect P. Thornton Marye, who also designed the city's Terminal Station. Built in 1916, the building was demolished in 1988, and the site is now part of the site of the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank. (photo by author)

For unknown reasons, Sheehan did not build immediately, since a newspaper article in September of 1899, more than eighteen months after he bought the lot, noted that "Mr. and Mrs. C. J. Sheehan are putting up a pretty $6,000 house on their Peachtree lot." [26] It was probably nearly complete by that time, however, since the 1900 city directory, for which surveys were made in the early fall of 1899, shows them in residence at 806 Peachtree Road.

The Sheehan’s house was one of the earliest Tudor-style houses in the city, followed shortly by Ernest Woodruff’s great Tudor mansion in Inman Park and many others in Haynes Manor, Ansley Park, and Druid Hills in the first three decades of the twentieth century. On Sheehan’s house, the features most characteristic of the style were the steeply pitched hipped roof, the half-timbered front gable, and the multi-storied bay terminating under the gable. With fine red brick, red mortar, and limestone accents, the effect of the design was far different from that of Denny’s showy Colonial Revival design for Emmons’ house next door.

The Sheehans were certainly in residence at 806 Peachtree by the time the Federal census was taken in the summer of 1900. At that time, in addition to Cornelius Sheehan, his wife and his only child, daughter Burnham Elizabeth, residents at 806 Peachtree included Sheehan's five youngest and unmarried sisters, a niece, and his mother. But with the untimely death of Carrie Sheehan on 30 November 1900, this extended household was broken up. The following year, Cornelius was living at the Leland, a boarding house at 29-31 Houston Street, and renting 806 Peachtree to E. H. McKeon, a salesman for Southern Belting Co. [27] Then on 17 August 1902, Sheehan married Ruth Perrine and they moved back into the house at 806 Peachtree, presumably alone except, most likely, for his daughter, Burnham, from his first marriage. [28]

Peachtree near Tenth Street was then reaching its zenith as a residential area and the Sheehans were no longer alone on the block. By the time they moved back into 806 in 1902, Sidney Phelan was building his house on the southwest corner of Peachtree and Peachtree Place while, on the northwest corner and next door to the Sheehan house, Willis F. Denny was designing an exceptionally-fine Neoclassical house for E. R. Emmons. A photograph of the Emmons house was taken for Denny's professional portfolio in 1905, and the Sheehan house is visible in the background. That remains the only historic image of the Sheehan house that has been located.

Residential development of the immediate area continued over the next four or five years. In 1905, Julian Field built at 805 Peachtree and, three years later, Augustus Adair at 809, directly across the street from the Sheehan house. On Crescent Avenue, Jeremiah S. Goldsmith took out permits to build two-story houses at #11 and #21 Crescent Avenue, behind and to either side of the Sheehans' house. Among the city's first automobile dealers, Goldsmith was also a major developer in the Tenth Street area and his activities on the block signaled a change that had already begun in the character of the neighborhood.

In the spring of 1901, Sheehan had a boundary dispute with the other property owners on the block, perhaps in conjunction with construction of stores on Peachtree at the southwest corner of Tenth. [29] By 1904, stores had been constructed at that corner, joining those constructed by the Crawfords in the late 1890s on the northeast corner of the intersection. With the construction of the more modest houses on Crescent Avenue in 1905, including one constructed of a relatively new building material: concrete block. Sheehan may have anticipated Goldsmith's two store buildings with apartments above which went up in 1907-08 between the Sheehan house and the earlier stores on the corner. He could also see Mrs. Mary Grant Dickson's three-story apartment building going up on the vacant lot between the Sheehan and the Emmons houses. Although it kept the same setback as the earlier houses, the Elysee Palace Apartments were built within a few feet of both the Sheehan and Emmons houses.  So, on 4 July 1906, Sheehan sold his house at 806 to Charles Horace McCall for $11,000.

 

17 Crescent Avenue, 1906-1919

The Elysee Palace was one of the earliest of several apartment buildings to go up in the immediate vicinity of Peachtree and Tenth in the years before and immediately following World War I. In 1909, the Palmer House, an elegant apartment building designed by Hentz and Reid with details by Shutze and today a city-designated landmark, was constructed on Peachtree Place opposite Crescent Avenue. That same year, the Hampton Court Apartments were built at 803 Peachtree, between the earlier Witham and Field houses. A new form of living for many Atlantans in the early twentieth century, these apartments would help define the character of the Peachtree/Tenth neighborhood by the time Margaret Mitchell occupied one of them in the 1920s.

By 1908, with a three-story apartment building on the south and two-story commercial buildings, one of them housing the post office, on the north, McCall was no longer living at 806 but was apparently renting it to Cora J. Gibbs. Although he returned to the house in 1909, he left for good when he sold the property to George C. Rogers in November of that year. Rogers probably bought the house as an investment and never lived there. In 1910-11, he appears to have rented the house to Lee J. Ashcraft, who would later become an internationally known financier, Atlanta philanthropist, and chairman of the brokerage firm of Ashcraft-Wilkinson. By September 1912 when the surveys were taken for the new city directory, Ashcraft had moved to Druid Hills and 806 Peachtree was listed "vacant".

Figure 14. View northwest of what is now the visitors center for the Margaret Mitchell House. (Photo by author)

 

Figure 15. Detail from City of Atlanta Planning Department’s topographical survey, 1927, annotated with an arrow denoting what is now the Margaret Mitchell House.

Beginning in August 1913, in a series of complicated transactions, Rogers subdivided and sold the property, apparently to John B. Thompson with a mortgage to Lena Swift Huntley, a local real-estate investor. The records of these transactions indicate that between November 1913 and April 1914, the old Sheehan house was relocated to the Crescent Avenue half of the lot and given a new address: #17 Crescent Avenue. The front half of the old lot, which was owned by Ms. Huntley, would not be developed until 1920.

In April 1914, John B. Thompson conveyed 17 Crescent Avenue to Mrs. Helen Oppenheim for $14,600 and, by September, she, her husband Max, and her son Monroe had moved in. City building records show that Mrs. Oppenheim installed a new furnace in the house at a cost of $250 and was probably making other improvements as well.[30]

In particular, it appears that the Oppenheims may have purchased the house with an unfinished or only partially finished basement to which they continued to make improvements. Although the basement was probably not completely finished in 1914, parts of Mitchell's historic apartment do appear to date from that time. Other alterations were probably made as well, but the major changes, including the addition of the Crescent Avenue porches, probably did not occur until 1919.

Natives of Germany, Max and Helen Oppenheim immigrated to New York in the early 1880s and moved to Atlanta some time in the early 1900s. He was editor of Georgia's only German-language newspaper, the Georgian Deutsch Zeitung, which had been published in Atlanta as early as 1871. [31] With offices listed at 125 Central Avenue, the paper was probably not published from 17 Crescent Avenue, as has been suggested. It is likely that increasing American involvement in World War I and rising sentiment against the Germans affected the success of the paper. Whatever the cause, in May 1916, the Oppenheims lost the house for non-payment of taxes. When the papers were served, Monroe Oppenheim was still living at 17 Crescent, but his mother, and presumably his father as well, had already left Atlanta, going "to New York City, N. Y., her last known address."

As a result of the sale, title reverted to the previous owner, John B. Thompson, in November. He probably began renting the house immediately but, since there was no city directory published in 1917, it is certain only that Mrs. Bell Denton, widow of W. T. Denton, was living at 17 Crescent in 1918, probably as a renter. Later rumors that she was murdered on the third floor of the house, thus provoking the conversion into apartments, have not been confirmed. [32]

Whatever the reason, Thompson sold the house in July 1919 to Mrs. Pearl Langston who may have already been living there with her husband Walter, manager of a dry cleaning establishment. By September that year, the house was called the Crescent Apartments and had seven residents, including its new owner, who was also managing the building. It is probable that full conversion of the old house into the ten-unit apartment building was done in late 1919 and early 1920, about the same time that Adair and Center constructed "three brick stores, one story high," at 806 Peachtree where the Sheehan house had once stood. [33]

 

Crescent Apartments, 1919-1932

The residential character that survived from nineteenth-century Peachtree Street was fast disappearing by the 1920s. In 1900, there had been over a hundred single-family residences on Peachtree Street south of Ponce de Leon Avenue. By 1925, there were only twenty-two and, by 1930, only two were left. In their place were twenty-seven auto-related businesses, where there had been none in 1900, and 235 other businesses versus eleven in 1900. [34]

Further out Peachtree between Eighth and Twelfth streets a similar process was occurring. Some of the larger lots in the area were being subdivided for more modest housing, like those that were constructed along the east side of Crescent Avenue before World War I, or apartments houses, like the Palmer House Apartments, which was crowded on to the lot behind the Phelans' house in 1908. In 1915, the Phelans saw their house razed, barely a dozen years after it was built, to be replaced by another luxury apartment building.

Figure 16. Excerpt from 1930 Federal census, annotated with an arrow to the information on John Marsh and Margaret Mitchell.

The historic character of the business district around Tenth Street was almost fully developed by the early 1920s as the explosion in automobile traffic downtown made routine shopping and daily business at groceries, hardware stores, laundries, banks and so forth almost impossible. "North Atlanta" in the 1920s included not only the more-established, but still-expanding, neighborhoods south of Piedmont Park and in Ansley Park but newer developments like Morningside and Brookwood Hills as well. All of these were served by the scores of businesses that had developed at Tenth Street by the time Marshes moved into the Crescent Apartments. Few other districts in the city outside of downtown could provide the quantity and variety of shops and businesses that were so conveniently located on Peachtree between Peachtree Place and Eleventh Street or on Tenth Street between Crescent and Juniper. Within two blocks of the intersection could be found a post office, a dentist, lawyers, Arthur Murray’s dance studio, Woolworth's, Cooledge Paints, a C&S bank, two garages, two plumbers, two electrical companies, two barbers, two hairdressers, two hardware stores, three bakeries, Franco's delicatessen, no fewer than twelve grocery stores, four drug stores, two fish markets, a meat market and a dairy. In 1926, the Tenth Street Theatre's construction around the corner from the Crescent Apartments more or less completed the scene.

Creation of the Crescent Apartments also came at a time when there was a tremendous increase in the number of apartment buildings going up in the city. This was partly a result of the disastrous fire that swept northeast Atlanta in May 1917, destroying Margaret Mitchell's birthplace on Jackson Hill and hundreds of other homes along Jackson Street and Boulevard and leaving ten thousand people homeless. To replace this lost housing stock, numerous apartment buildings were constructed along these streets as well as along Peachtree and Ponce de Leon and even in Ansley Park and Midtown.

Many of these were large, architect-designed buildings while others were more modest in scale or, like the Crescent Apartments, were conversions of existing buildings. The Crescent, even though it was a conversion, successfully mimicked buildings that were built as apartments. Redesigned with three-story porches, the Crescent Avenue facade of the building was virtually indistinguishable from other of the contemporary four- to ten-unit apartment houses that still survive on Argonne, Myrtle and other streets in nearby Midtown. [35] The Victorian genesis of the house was now almost completely hidden from view except from what amounted to an alley between the house and the rear of the commercial buildings that fronted Peachtree.

In spite of Mitchell's references to "the Dump," the Crescent Apartments were barely five years old when the Marshes moved in 1925. The building itself was certainly older than that, but the plaster walls and interior trim were good quality and almost certainly installed in 1919-1920. True, the apartment is small and, being on the north side of the building, Mitchell complained about it being "dark," but it was in no sense the "dump" that Mitchell's remarks and the building's deteriorated condition after World War II might suggest. The Crescent Apartments must have been in excellent condition in the 1920s and only in contrast to the Mitchell's elegant Peachtree Street house could it be so characterized, and even then only with tongue in cheek. Conveniently located to multiple streetcar lines and the Tenth Street shopping district, it must have been a perfect location for the many young couples, like the Marshes, who were without automobiles.

Two other occupants of the Crescent Apartment during the period in which the Marshes lived there should be noted. One was Allan Taylor, a reporter for Hearst's paper The Atlanta Georgian who lived in Apartment #10 on the third floor for about a year around 1928. He later married Lois Cole, Mitchell's old friend from Smith College, and the couples remained lifelong friends, even after the Taylors moved to New York in the early 1930s. There, Cole became an editor at Macmillan's, which would publish Mithcell's book in 1936, while Taylor became editor of the New York Times Magazine. [36]

Another resident of the Crescent Apartments in 1930 was Edith Mansfield Hills and her eleven-year-old daughter, also named Edith, who lived in Apartment #9 on the third floor. The elder Hills had moved to Atlanta from Savannah after divorce and went to work for Porter and Porter, one the most prestigious decorating firms in the South. She would become perhaps the city's best-known interior decorator in the mid-twentieth century. Her daughter, who as then a student at Washington Seminary, would be women's editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and, as Mrs. Edith Hills Coogler, author of the popular column "Coogler Here." [37]

In 1922, Langston conveyed the newly renovated Crescent Apartments to W. R. Brown for $29,500, which included "all furniture except in #2, 5, & 9 . . . according to list furnished grantee this day." This indicates the possibility that when the Marshes moved into #1 in 1925, it was still at least partially furnished. This list, which was referenced again when the property was later mortgaged by Brown, has not been located.

Figure 17. The entrance to the Russell Apartments on Seventeenth Street, where the Marshes moved in 1932.

 

Figure 18. View of Crescent Apartments in 1955. The wood-framed residence next door to the south was replaced by the three-story office building visible here at extreme right. (Lane Brothers Collection, Georgia State University)

 

Figure 19. Detail from Aerial Survey of Atlanta, Georgia, 1949, for City Planning Commission, published by Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation, Lansing Michigan, 1949, annotated with an arrow to locate site of Crescent Apartments. (Georgia State University)

 

Figure 20. Fulton County tax map, 1980, showing Tenth Street after it was widened and realigned between Peachtree Street and West Peachtree Street.

 

Figure 21. View north from Peachtree and Peachtree Place, c. 1985, prior to demolition of commercial buildings at north end of the block.

In spite of good demand for the apartments, Brown apparently became over-extended and saw the building sold at public auction in 1926, the Marshes' first full year in Apartment #1. With increasing vacancies after the stock market crash in 1929, the next owner, J. L. Morrison, was driven into bankruptcy as well. By September 1931, only two apartments in the building were occupied, and one of those was #1.  It may be that Morrison's loss of the property in March 1932 is what finally provoked the Marshes to vacate the building. The financial difficulties of these two owners no doubt accounts for some of Mitchell's recorded complaints about the building. [38]  For whatever reason, by September 1932, Mitchell and Marsh had removed themselves to the Russell Apartments on Seventeenth Street. 

 

Crescent Apartments, after 1932

With the purchase of the building by Susan King in September 1932, conditions may have improved at the Crescent Apartments, since there were only three vacant apartments at that time. Nevertheless, there were probably very little in the way of major improvements to the building through the Depression and World War II.

In February 1946, Mrs. King sold the Crescent Apartments, now well past their prime, to Mrs. Rosa Neeson, who had moved into Apartment #1 the previous summer.  After perhaps twenty years of poor maintenance, the apartments were in dire need of rehabilitation. The porches, e.g., were in such bad condition that they were removed and, with the post-war building boom and consequent shortage of building materials, Mrs. Neeson never replaced them.

Mrs. Neeson, who lived in apartment #1 from at least 1946 to 1953, appears to have been unable or unwilling to do what was necessary to keep the property viable for residential use. From 1950 until probably 1954, Mrs. Neeson was the sole resident of the building. This may have had as much to do with the changing character of the area as it did with Mrs. Neeson's financial resources.  By the mid-1950s, the demolition of historic Peachtree Street was well underway and, although the Tenth Street shopping district would remain viable for another decade, it was already being challenged by the newer neighborhood shopping centers like the one that was constructed in the early 1950s on Piedmont just north of Rock Springs. 

Slowly replacing the old retail and residential character of the area were low-rise office buildings like the one that the American Red Cross constructed in 1950 in the front yard of the old Raoul House on Peachtree south of Eighth. That same year, both of the old wood-framed residences to the south of the Crescent Apartments were torn down and a three-story office building was built on the site. The next year, the two houses on the north side along with the Tenth Street Theatre were demolished for the re-routing of Tenth Street between Tenth and Crescent to connect with a new section of Tenth Street that was opened west from there to West Peachtree.

Although no longer particularly desirable as a residence, the Crescent did begin to attract some commercial use about this time. From at least 1955 into 1960, the Alert Telephone Answering Service operated from the old Crescent Apartment building. [39] In addition, Atlanta Newspapers, Inc., had a substation in the  building and there were two residents in the building as well. One of these, a photographer, occupied the building into the early 1960s, perhaps as a caretaker. Students, especially from Georgia Tech, artists and others began occupying the old apartments by the early 1960s after installation of a fire detection system satisfied city code officials that the building could again be used residentially. Instead of paying rent, the Neesons offered them the opportunity to make their own renovations to their apartments. Probably executed on typically limited student and artist budgets, these renovations were probably neither extensive nor of a particularly high quality.

In July 1964, the same year that the opening of Ansley Mall signaled the imminent demise of the historic Tenth Street shopping district, the Crescent Apartments were sold to E. D. Vezzani. In October, Vezzani conveyed the property to Consolidated Republic Corporation who, in turn, sold the property to Leon G. and George Cabero in 1965. It was during this period that the apartment building underwent its final renovation, which included only minor cosmetic changes before being reopened as the Windsor House Apartments.

In the late 1960s, the old neighborhood that Mitchell knew was home to another generation of bohemians, the hippies who transformed Peachtree Street into The Strip. With a reputation as "the hippie house," the building was sold again in 1974 to a real estate developer with plans for a major redevelopment of the old Tight Squeeze neighborhood. Three years later, the remaining tenants were evicted and the building was boarded up. There was some talk of its significance as the birthplace of Gone With the Wind, but as always Stephens Mitchell squelched any ideas of a memorial to his sister, and it seemed certain that the building would eventually be demolished.

Vacant and deteriorating, as was much of the old business district during that period, the house fell prey to arson in 1981. By the time the fire was brought under control, the southwest corner of the building had been severely damaged. City inspectors cited the building for numerous housing-code violations in 1982 and, with concurrence of the Atlanta Urban Design Commission, agreed it should be torn down.

 

Saving "The Dump," 1985 - 1997

In 1985, Trammell Crow, one of the major property development firms that were active in the city, acquired the block and applied for a demolition permit. Deborah James spearheaded an effort to preserve the house that was successful in raising public support for the project and in getting the Urban Design Commission to reverse its earlier support for demolition. In 1989, the Crescent Apartments was among the first to be given the “landmark” designation under the city’s new historic preservation ordinance.

 

Figure 21. View south of Crescent Apartments in May 1986. (Photo by author)

Figure 22. View west of Crescent Apartments in 1987 after demolition of commercial buildings on Peachtree Street. (Photo by author)

 

Figure 23. View of south and west facades, top, and north and east facades, bottom, February 1995. (Photos by Sara Chase)

 

Figure 24. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 13 May 1996.

In 1987 Margaret Mitchell House, Inc., was organized to continue Ms. James’ efforts, but fundraising remained slow. The project languished until 1990 when Mary Rose Taylor was elected chairman of a reconstituted board and launched a major fundraising campaign. A former television reporter, Mrs. Taylor tirelessly promoted restoration of the house, but while outright demolition was avoided, the house continued to deteriorate.

In early September 1994, in conjunction with the Piedmont Arts Festival, the building became a prop for an artistic installation that consisted of covering the building’s roof with inflated surgical gloves. On September 17, the festival’s opening day, an arson fire again left most of the building in ruins. For the second time, Apartment #1 only suffered water damage, but as is typically the case with arson, no arrest was ever made. The Crescent Apartments was only one of several historic structures that went up in flames during that period, including the Raoul House (1892) on Peachtree two blocks south of the Crescent Apartments and the Wimbish House (1896) five blocks north.

While the house could have been destroyed by the carelessness of vagrants or by the greed of those wishing to profit from development of the area, there was plenty of other opposition to the project as well. Margaret Mitchell herself hated the publicity that came with her novel’s success and was adamant that there should be no memorials. She even saw to it that her parents’ old house at 1401 Peachtree was torn down because she didn’t want “tourists tromping through it.” Her brother and attorney Stephens Mitchell staved off numerous attempt to capitalize on her legacy, including an abortive scheme in 1959 that would have included reconstruction of the Tara movie set as the focal point of a theme park in Clayton County, Georgia. And as the campaign to save the house gathered steam in the late 1980s, her surviving friends and relatives heaped scorn on the idea of a memorial to the notoriously reclusive author.

If by the 1990s even the family’s opposition softened, there remained considerable animosity toward the idea of a museum honoring a book and film that many, if not most, black Americans found deeply offensive. Playwright Pearl Cleage spoke for many when she was quoted in The Atlanta Tribune:

"I was not sorry to see the Margaret Mitchell House burn to the ground. I was, in fact, delighted that someone had taken direct action against what I consider to be an insult of monumental proportions to African-American people." [40]>

Understanding the racist component of Mitchell's work and yet insisting on evaluating Mitchell in the context of her generation, Taylor was successful in reinterpreting the author, her book, and their meaning. Rather than seeing a mawkish paean to the Old South, she emphasized the book as literature and the complex interplay of images from book and film that make up the popular conception of Gone With the Wind. Taylor's original research, too, documented Mitchell's previously unheralded contributions to the city's black community, which did much to elevate the author's reputation.

Even before the 1994 fire, research and building investigation had begun under the direction of Atlanta architect Gene Surber as he began developing plans for restoration. In 1995, Ms. Taylor secured a commitment from Daimler-Chrysler to fund restoration, and by the end of the year, plans were being made to have the house open in time for the Olympic Games in July 1996.

Improbably, perhaps, arsonists struck again on 12 May 1996 just as the building’s restoration was nearing completion. The house was almost totally destroyed, but for the third time Mitchell's apartment was largely spared, with only the kitchen ceiling suffering some fire damage. Although there were immediate fears that the building would be lost entirely, Ms. Taylor secured a commitment from Daimler to see the project, through and cleanup and reconstruction began almost immediately. The nomination of the house to the National Register of Historic Places went forward as well and the forms that were approved by Georgia’s State Historic Preservation Officer five days before the fire led to formal listing of the house by the end of the year. And although it could not be open for the Olympics, the reconstructed and restored Margaret Mitchell House was opened at last on 12 May 1997, the first anniversary of the fire, and quickly became one of the city's most-popular tourist destinations.

 

 

Notes

3. See Franklin Garrett, "A Short History of Land Lot 106 . . . ," Atlanta Historical Journal 27 (Spring 1983) for additional details.

4. Eugene M. Mitchell, "Queer Place Names in Old Atlanta,"  The Atlanta Historical Bulletin 1 (April 1931): 23-26. See also Finis Farr, Margaret Mitchell of Atlanta (New York:  William Morrow and Co., 1965), p. 71.

5. The earlier Piedmont Exposition, held at another site in 1881, was the first of several fairs or expositions showcasing the city’s industrial and commercial development.

6. Franklin Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, Vol. II, pp. 136-38, 155-158.

7. All street numbers given are the original, unless otherwise noted. In most cases, they have been changed over time, most of them in 1927 when there was a city-wide renumbering.

8. Leonora Sheehan's scrapbook at the Atlanta History Center contains a number of undated newspaper clippings, including obituaries, that document some of the Sheehan family history. The family cannot be located in the Federal census 1850-1880.

9. "Death of Mr. Cornelius Sheehan," Atlanta Constitution, 21 August 1888.

10. George W. Clower, "The Sheehan Family--Atlanta Pioneers," Atlanta Historical Bulletin, XIII, #4, pp. 38-41.

11. Leonora Raines, "Pryor Street in its Young Days,"  Atlanta Historical Bulletin (Fall, 1942), pp. 105-117. The 1876 City Directory lists the Sheehans at 205 S. Pryor Street.

12. Atlanta Constitution, 21 August 1888.

13. "Fair Women," Atlanta Historical Bulletin, IX, #34, p. 37.

14. Darden Pyron, Southern Daughter (New York:  1991), p. 25.

15. For proof of relationship, see Mitchell House files for Noel King's notes from conversations with and family history from Regina Rapier, granddaughter of Pascal J. Moran.

16. See Atlanta Constitution, 6 February 1910; Knight, Georgia's Bi-centennial Memoirs and Memories, pp. 143-45.

17. “Raines” obituary, Atlanta Constitution,27 June 1952.

18. See Atlanta Constitution, 26 and 30 October 1902.

19. “Wilmot” obituary, Atlanta Constitution, 14 November 1955.

20. See Atlanta Constitution, 6 Feb 1910.

22. Lucian Lamar Knight, "Cornelius Sheehan," Georgia's Bicentennial Memoirs and Memories (1933), pp. 261-263, 410.

23. Atlanta Constitution, 12 February 1921. No known relation to John Marsh.

24. Fulton County Superior Court, Deed Records.  Copies of most of the many recorded land transactions involving the site from 1898 to 1985 are in the Mitchell House files.  An abstract of the chain of title on the property is included here as Appendix A.

25. Construction dates for many of the structures built in the late nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth century depend on city directory listing and are, therefore, imprecise. In consulting the directories, it is helpful to remember that the information in the directory was usually compiled in September of the previous year.

26. "Some Beautiful New Homes of Well-Known Atlanta People," Atlanta Journal, 30 September 1899, p. 6. Primary source, with city directory information, for construction date; provides circumstantial evidence for attribution of house to architect W. T. Downing.

27. "Mrs. C. J. Sheehan is Dead," Atlanta Constitution, 30 November 1900.

28. Atlanta Constitution, 17 July 1902.

29. Fulton County Deed Book 153, pp. 176, 441.

30. 1911 and 1932 Sanborns, 1914 City Directory, and the 1905 Denny photograph of Emmons and Sheehan houses provide primary documentation of the moving of the house.  The differences in sales prices for the subdivided property, recorded in four transactions between August 1913 and April 1914, indicate that the house was moved between November 1913 and April 1914.  A handwritten ledger at the city's bureau of buildings shows a permit for Moncrief Heating Co. to install a furnace for "Mrs. Oppenheim" in October 1914.

31. Martha Bateman's paper in file references Dr. John S. Wilson's Atlanta As It Is (1871) for information on the paper.

32. See Boyd Lewis interview, p. 6, Mitchell House files.

33. The apartment conversion had certainly been completed by September 1920 when information was collected for the 1921 city directory, the first directory to show a multi-unit apartment building at the address.

34. Atlanta Constitution, 17 July 1902.

35. For the romantic view of Peachtree, see William B. Williford, Peachtree Street Atlanta, pp. 88-98.  For the statistical and analytical, see Howard L. Preston, Automobile Age Atlanta: The Making of a Southern Metropolis (Athens:  1979). 

36. The earliest photographs that have been located of the Crescent Apartments date only to the early 1950s, by which time they had deteriorated considerably from their prime in the 1920s.  Surber/Barber's reconstruction of the missing porches is supported by Mrs. Mildred Neeson's sketch (see Mitchell House files) of them, the 1953 photograph and evidence on the building itself.

37. "Edith Mansfield Hills," biography at <http://www.interiordesign. net/HoFDesigners/43.html>, accessed 13 June 2009; also see Martha Bateman paper in Mitchell House files.

38. Ibid.

39. Marianne Walker, pp. 187-8.

40. The 1956-1961 city directories all omit apartment numbers in their listings for 979 Crescent Avenue.

41. Quotation from “Mitchell House rises from ashes,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 15 May 1997, p. F-12.