Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

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Church of the Sacred Heart of JesusDesignation: Landmark Building Exterior
April 10, 1990

325 Peachtree Street
Fronting 274' on the east side of PeachtreeCenter Avenue
beginning approx. 170' from the southeast corner of the
intersection ofPeachtree Center Avenue, Peachtree St., and Ralph McGill Boulevard
District 14, Land Lot 51
Fulton County, City of Atlanta
Existing Zoning SPI-1

Constructed: 1898
Architect: Walter T. Downing

The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, designed by one of the noted southern architects of the twentieth century, is important for its unusually innovative application of revival architecture. The artistry includes stained glass and wall paintings. Sacred Heart is also historically significant as a religious and educational center for the the Catholic community of Atlanta.


The first Catholic church in Atlanta was what is now the Shrine of Immaculate Conception (1869). The first daughter parish of this church was founded in 1880 as Saints Peter & Paul Parish located at the southwest corner of Marietta and Alexander Streets. This parish functioned for 16 years until the Fathers of the Society of Mary came to Atlanta and established the Parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The work of the society, especially in the field of education, was brought to the attention of the Bishop of Savannah, Thomas A. Becker, early in the 1890s. There was at the time a great shortage of diocesan clergy in Georgia and when Bishop Becker heard of the successful work of the Marist Fathers elsewhere, he invited them to come to Georgia to take over the Marist Parish of Sacred Heart as well as other missions in the south. The new priests found little in the way of furnishings when they arrived in Atlanta and the church was a small frame building in need of repair.

In July of 1897 the fathers chose a new church site on the Hill property at the intersection of Ivy and Peachtree Streets. The land was purchased by the Marist Fathers of Jefferson College, Louisiana for $12,000. In September of the same year, the Marist Society of Georgia was incorporated by the Fulton County Superior Court and the land was transferred to the Georgia society. Walter Thomas Downing was commissioned to build the church, which is reported to have cost, exclusive of some interior fixtures, $28,000. The church was completed on May 1, 1898 and was dedicated by Bishop Becker. On this day the name of the church was changed from that of Saints Peter and Paul to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The Ivy Street parish has served both religious and educational needs during the decades that followed the completion of the church building. In 1902 the parishioners of Sacred Heart, led by Father John Edward Gunn, established the first Catholic high school in Atlanta. The building for the school, called the Marist College, was located just south of the church fronting on Alexander Street. In 1909 in two renovated houses on Courtland Street just east of the church, a parochial school, called the Sacred Heart School, was established. The school was later housed in a three-story red brick building constructed in 1924 near the church site. A rectory was completed in March 1914 to house the growing number of resident priests.


The exterior of Sacred Heart is faced with pressed brick and terra-cotta with marble embellishments. Its western facade is composed of two identical 137 foot towers which flank a central bay and portico containing a vestibule and tribune. Originally the entrance was reached by a flight of five granite steps, which became obsolete when Ivy Street was raised in 1912. The long rectangular mass of the church contains a nave and side aisle chapels. The sanctuary is covered by a single-pitched roof covered with slate. From the eastern exterior can be seen the upper portion of the rounded apse enclosed by a low rectangular sacristy.

The west entrance elevation is composed of three horizontal, superimposed zones. The lower zone is composed of a base and a gallery level framing the entrance portals. Here the base of the towers consists of cubic blocks which contain tall, round-headed windows surmounted by concentric hood-moldings. The recessed walls containing these windows are framed by strip buttresses, contiguous with corbel tables along their tops. Above the corbel tables are heavy cornices which correspond to a recessed cornice and corbel table across the central bay. In the towers, the upper portion of the zone rising over this cornice have three round-headed windows framed by four pilasters recessed between corner buttresses. These correspond to the gallery in the central bay. The gallery, containing five blind arches surmounted by splayed archivolts and connected by clusters of engaged Corinthian columns, forms rounded niches over the portico. These niches were to originally contain mosaics which were never completed. The decorative imposts, which crown the pilasters in this section, form a broken cornice that is continued into the gallery above its arches. This cornice separates the base zone from the second. The entire height of the square towers that constitute the second zone is accented by tall blind arcades surmounted by splayed archivolts similar to those in the gallery. These arcades contain in their niches, three long rectangular windows which are set in rising progression outward, and they are framed by four rectangular shafts, corresponding to the pilasters in the gallery zone of the towers. Like the tower bases, this section is also framed by strip buttresses contiguous with a corbel table surmounted by a cornice. The cornice and corbel table are reflected in the gables of the central bay between the towers. Rising from hipped roofs above the second zone are octagonal belfrys supporting copper pyramidal spires surmounted by crosses. Each facet of the lower octagonal portion is crowned by a corbel table and cornice accented at the corners by gargoyles.

The portico, a tripartite entrance under a corbelled pediment and marble crossing, projects from the facade creating deeply recessed doorways. Arched and circular windows light each tympanum above these doorways. Above the entrance and gallery, the gabled bay containing a large rose window supports a corbelled cornice and marble cross echoing that of the portico.

Along the side facades, seven strip buttresses rise to a cornice and are contiguous with a corbel table. These buttresses divide the basement floor and the two sanctuary floors into equal bays containing round arched windows. The basement, half sunken into the ground, is used for offices, and a simple string course defines the transition to sanctuary level. Twenty-eight of the stained glass windows (fourteen along the walls of the nave and seven pairs of windows in the curve of the apse) date from 1902 and were crafted in the Mayer Studios at Munich, Germany. These windows correspond to those in the basement bays. All of the windows on the three floors have hood-moldings like those in the tower. These moldings produce a rhythmic pattern along the wall which establishes a horizontal continuity.

The apsidal (eastern) end of the church is composed of three bays, divided by strip buttresses, forming a rectangular block enclosing a half-cylindrical apse. The rectangular projection on the axis of the apse served as a sacristy and enclosed a small, cylindrical niche opening from the ambulatory. In 1917 the sacristy was enlarged to its present configuration. The clerestory of the rounded apse contains seven pairs of stained glass windows.


Walter Thomas Downing was born April 17, 1865 in Boston. His father, a sea captain, died when Walter was young; his mother brought the family to Atlanta. In the late 1880s Walter, with little formal education, began working as an apprentice for Atlanta architects L. B. Wheeler and W. H. Parkins. Wheeler had come to Atlanta in 1884 soon after the Kimball House fire and was selected to rebuild the hotel. Parkins, who later formed a partnership with Alexander Bruce, left Wheeler in 1890, at which time Downing was named a senior member of the firm.

Downing soon opened his own Atlanta office and later a second office in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Among his noted commissions are the W. P. Nicolson House on Piedmont Avenue (1892); the Robert Foster Maddox House (1895); the Fine Arts Building for the Cotton States and International Exposition (1895); Trinity Methodist Church; and the William A. Wimbish House, commonly known as the Atlanta Women's Club (1898). He participated unsuccessfully in the design competition for Atlanta's Carnegie Library (completed 1902) and he supervised the Fulton County Courthouse project (1911-1914) with Morgan & Dillon and A. Ten Eyck Brown. He designed the Frank S. Ellis house at 1 Peachtree Circle in 1911, and in 1914 the home for John W. Grant on West Paces Ferry Road, now used as the Cherokee Town Club. He died on November 3, 1917 from injuries suffered when struck by a motor vehicle in Philadelphia.


Brennan, Rev. Vincent P. History of the Parish of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Atlanta, Georgia. Privately Printed, 1948.

King, Maria. "The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus," National Register of Historic Places Property Information Form, 1975.

Powell, Helen. "Walter Thomas Downing (1865-1918): A Catalogue of His Work and Clients." Paper written for an Art History class at Emory, University, 1971.

(criteria descriptions)

Group I (1) (2) (3)
Group II (1) (3) (6) (7) (9) (10) (11)
Group III (1) (2) (3)


The proposed nomination of the Church of the Sacred Heart meets the above-referenced criteria for a Landmark Building or Site as set out in Section 16-20.004 of the Code of Ordinances of the City of Atlanta.

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City of Atlanta
Atlanta Urban Design Commission
55 Trinity Avenue, Suite 3400
Atlanta, Georgia 30335-0331

Tel: 404.330.6200
Fax: 404.658.6734

Doug Young


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