The relocation and restoration of the Tullie Smith House by what was then the Atlanta Historical Society in 1969-1971 was an important milestone in the history of the preservation movement in Atlanta. At a time when the city was fast destroying some of its greatest buildings—the Equitable Building, the Piedmont Hotel, and Terminal Station were all razed in 1971—the Society’s work in preserving the Tullie Smith House and the Swan House were among the first such efforts in the city since the Uncle Remus Memorial Association bought Joel Chandler Harris’ “Wren’s Nest” in 1913. And Tullie Smith was among the few such museum houses anywhere at the time that did not have associations with “famous” people or high-style architecture. While it is in some ways atypical of antebellum DeKalb and Fulton Counties, the “plantation plain” style of the Tullie Smith House is an excellent example of a traditional or vernacular way of building and living to which the very concept of architectural style was largely irrelevant. Because of the Society’s early commitment toward a wider view of history than might have been typical in its earlier years, the Tullie Smith House continues to offer insight into the character of nineteenth century life in the Georgia Piedmont before Atlanta wrecked and sprawled its way to become one of the nation’s largest cities.
Figure 1. View of Tullie Smith House, c. 1940. (Atlanta History Center)
The present history is divided into two main parts, the first focusing on the Smiths themselves and the second on the house that Robert Hiram Smith built about 1845 and that is now known by the name of his great-granddaughter Tullie Smith. While the house has undergone extensive research and investigation, particularly in conjunction with its restoration in the early 1970s, the data from that work has never been compiled into a comprehensive history.
Much of this information is not new although there has been additional research in the Federal census, county records, family histories and other sources since 1971. Interviews with a niece, a nephew, and a cousin of Tullie Smith were helpful, although Tullie’s own notes on her family’s history that are said to have existed at one time have still not been located. An extensive bibliography of primary, secondary and general sources is included, with virtually all of these sources locally available, if not in the Library of the Atlanta History Center then at the Atlanta-Fulton County Library, the Georgia Department of Archives and History, the DeKalb County Historical Society, or the Fulton and DeKalb county courthouses. As with the data supporting the history of the family, the data on the house, its move and its restoration have also been generally re-checked. The bulk of this material was located in the archives of the Atlanta History Center and was thoroughly searched.
In addition, several individuals who were involved with the original restoration were interviewed, although they were able to add little to what was outlined by Jody Cook in her master’s thesis on the house in 1976. My own investigation of the house in the fall and early winter of 1996 helped confirm the record and rationale behind most of what was done in 1969-1971. Only in a couple of instances did I find evidence for the building’s evolution that may have been previously overlooked, although I have occasionally offered a somewhat different interpretation of certain aspects of that evolution. Questions remain about the house and always will. Some of the maddeningly contradictory and confusing evidence that the committee documented in 1970 remains unexplained. And this is not necessarily because of inept investigation or poor interpretation but rather because the historical record is incomplete—the evidence was simply not there then and much of it is not there now.