Designated: Landmark Building Exterior
587 University Place, S.W.
The Herndon Home, or Herndon Mansion as it is called locally, was built for one of the country's wealthiest black men and stands as one of Atlanta's most significant architectural successes. The home is located in what has historically been called the 'Northeast Lot' of Atlanta University, now Clark-Atlanta University. This 9 1/2 acre cluster of important homes was planned by the University to be a model community; one might say a tiny Olmsted-type affluent suburb yet on a small scale -- a haven for Atlanta's academic and business elite. The Herndon Home far exceeded the adjacent residences; indeed, few homes in Atlanta of the early 20th century could match the size or architectural opulence of the Herndon structure. The exterior flaunts high style Beaux Arts-Classicist design and the interior displays a full range of academic, eclectic styles: Renaissance Revival, Arts and Crafts, and Rococo along with other permutations of Neo- Classical and Medieval styles. The remarkable family that built the house succumbed to the societal stresses which prohibited them from sharing the leadership and social strata of 'white' Atlanta in the early 20th century. But the house has been carefully restored and modified as an archives and museum by the Trustees of a great business legacy which the family built: the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Then, as now, the house exemplifies what W. E. B. DuBois called "the highest in black cultural, moral and economic achievement."
A. F. Herndon began his life as a slave on June 26, 1858. From laboring in the fields of his master's (possibly father's) farm outside Social Circle, Georgia to owning his own highly successful Atlanta barber shops and Atlanta Life, Herndon's compelling story is characterized by both great achievement and tragedy. His wife, Adrienne, famed for great beauty and theatrical achievements on New York stages and at Atlanta University, died before the great house she designed was completed. Her son and only heir, Norris Bumstead Herndon, died without peers to share his high level of connoisseurship or economic station.
Documents and collections within the house today are eloquent tellers of the Herndon story. These tell of Herndon's departure from Social Circle to apprentice and own his own barber shops in Atlanta, beginning in 1882. Twenty years later, the tax digests showed him to be the wealthiest black in Atlanta as owner of the famed Herndon Barber Shop at 66 Peachtree Street.
Perhaps Herndon's highest personal achievement was the successful courtship of Adrienne McNeil Herndon, a product of the elite Savannah and Augusta mulatto aristocracies. Known for her great beauty and dramatic abilities, she pursued a successful career on the stages of Boston and New York for two years under the stage name, Anne DuBignon. McNeil's cultivated tastes and exposure to New York and Boston vogue played a central part in the building of her home. Her collections include architectural catalogues from around the country from which items in the house were selected. Later, her influence survived in her son's consuming interest in the decorative arts; a lifelong vocation which resulted in the collections now on display in the house.
Norris Herndon inherited the helm of Atlanta Life at the early age of 28. Upon his father's death in 1927, the firm's assets totaled over one million dollars. Vice-president E. M. Martin guided Norris and the firm to expand business into other states despite laws which were enacted to curtail the growth of black-owned companies. When Norris Herndon died in 1977, the firm's assets held over 100 million dollars and a collection of historic and contemporary architectural monuments lined Auburn Avenue as testament to the company's meteoric growth. By a special act of Congress, the Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Foundation was created to control the firm's assets and prevent Atlanta Life from passing out of black ownership. The family home, its contents, and all of the Herndon wealth were transferred to the Foundation, which today operates the home as an archives and house museum under the direction of Carol Merritt.
During their lifetime, the Herndons were financial supporters of the black institutions around them; most notably the First Congregationalist Church and the university complex. The Foundation continues their legacy of philanthropy in the black community via a number of institutions and causes.
PERIOD AND SETTING
From its beginning, in the last half of the 19th century, Atlanta University sought to promote stable, middle class neighborhoods around its periphery. The University purchased lands and placed strict covenants for their use and purchase to insure the development of model, family-oriented communities. The 'Northeast Lot' was designated for the University president and what was hoped to be an elite enclave of important black citizens. Over the years, the 'Lot' has been home to business, political and academic leaders.
But the Herndon Home has remained the crowning achievement of the original deal for this 9 1/2 acre site.
From its position near the top of a prominent ridgeline, the house originally enjoyed sweeping views of the Atlanta skyline to the east and of the stately Victorian college buildings to the southwest. Encroaching development of the University and the YWCA have diminished the visual amenities of the site. In its present role as research center and museum, the house serves the needs of its immediate community while symbolizing the past.
Alonzo Herndon began construction on the house in 1905 and it was substantially complete when Adrienne Herndon died after a brief illness in 1910. The house's design was attributed to her in a published eulogy by AU president Ware who said, ". . . no architect drew the plan. She was the decorator. I believe there is not in this great city a home more beautiful." The entire community took pride in the home, and over the years, neighbors called it a plantation "Big House" or "Tara". Herndon himself called it "Old Glory". A custom mural in the living room of the house depicts the completion of the house as the pinnacle of a life which began in a slave cabin.
In terms of opulence of its architecture, the house does not disappoint any of its illustrious nicknames. The house is monumental in scale and may generally be described as Beaux-Arts classical in style. Many features of that French academic idiom are seen in the exterior: three- part facade composition of base, fenestrated wall and crowning entablature; paired colossal columns framing the late entry; and late Renaissance balustrades. A covered verandah and porte cochere are Southern architectural necessities used to balance the central square mass of the house in tripartite symmetry.
Clearly, the house had no peer among black neighborhoods, but found instead its equals among the great estates of Peachtree Road and in Druid Hills. That some 80 years after it was built, the stately home is no longer occupied by a special family but by a museum dedicated to their dream reveals the rocky societal shoals that separated the house and its builders from life among their true peers. The house now stands as a beautifully restored monument to this exceptional family and to dreams which they achieved, and which persist through the Foundation and its preservation of a true Atlanta landmark.
"Atlanta University Center District," National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1976.
Byrne, Ann D. and Dana F. White. "Atlanta University's (Northeast Lot): Community Building for Black Atlanta's 'Talented Tenth,' " Atlanta Historical Journal, Summer/Fall, 1982.
Herndon House Archives.
Merritt, Carol. Historic Black Resources: A Handbook for the Identification, Documentation, and Evaluation of Historic African-American Properties in Georgia, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, 1984.
Group I (1) (2) (3)
The proposed nomination of the Herndon House 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.