Designated: Landmark Building Exterior
87 Fifteenth Street, N.W.
Located at the crest of a small hill overlooking Atlanta's Arts Center complex, the Castle is one of this city's most architecturally unique buildings. Designed and built by Ferdinand McMillan as his retirement home, which he called Fort Peace, the building attracted attention almost as soon as construction began. At McMillan's death in 1920, it was noted as a city landmark at a time when the full flush of the Victorian architectural heritage in all its diversity still defined the face of Atlanta.
Virtually all of the Castle's character-defining elements are intact and those that are missing, like the balustrades or the western half of the Fifteenth Street wall are amply documented in photographs. The building is covered in shaped asbestos shingles, an early and particularly fine example of that material's use. A variety of other unique architectural features, the product of McMillan's own inventive mind, appear throughout the building and, coupled with the well preserved nature of most of this material, mark the Castle as an architectural landmark in the city.
The Castle is also of cultural significance to the city due to its relationship to the Atlanta Arts community. It is the last of the several former residences in the area that housed elements of the Atlanta Art community as it evolved around the High Museum after World War II. With its prominent location overlooking the entire city block encompassed by the present museum and arts center complex, the Castle is a reminder of the formative years in the appreciation and support of the arts in Atlanta.
Born in Quincy, Florida in 1844, Ferdinand Dallas McMillan moved with his father to Atlanta in 1859. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the Seventh Georgia Regiment as a drummer boy but went on to fight as a soldier at First Manassas, Seven Pines, and Richmond. McMillan's father had the dubious honor of being a member of the group that formally surrendered Atlanta to the invading Federal troops in September 1864. For years, the younger McMillan kept chained to his porch at Fort Peace an anchor, inherited from his father, that had been used in General Sherman's pontoon crossing of the Chattahoochee.
McMillan returned to Atlanta after the war but shortly moved to Conyers, where he married Lucy E. Reagan in 1870. They lived for a time in Elberton, Georgia, and Florence, Alabama, before returning to Atlanta about 1883. At that time, F. D. McMillan was southern manager for the Frick Company, a large manufacturer of machinery. By 1890 he and Thomas J. Avery had formed the firm of McMillan & Avery, dealers in agricultural machinery. McMillan retired from the company about 1910 to build his dream home in Ansley Park.
Considered a wealthy man, McMillan owned a large amount of property in the city, West End, and Ansley Park. According to his obituary, he was also considered something of an inventor. He is reported to have operated one of the South's first cottonseed oil presses and to have originated "the suction system for gins." He developed, and installed at the Castle, a sub-irrigation system for his garden that he thought would be of great benefit to even the smallest farmer.
When McMillan died January 13, 1920, a noteworthy obituary in the Journal outlined his accomplishments-- "Confederate veteran, pioneer Atlanta, inventor, business man, and builder of Atlanta's quaintest house." Noting that to his loved ones he left "memories of his sterling character," that obituary went on to say that "to Atlanta he leaves a distinctive landmark, the house he built on Fifteenth Street." At that time already known by some as the Castle, Fort Peace was "to all pointed [out] as the city's most unusual residence."
In May of 1904, McMillan purchased for $2,190 a large lot on Fifteenth Street. Fronting about 150' on Fifteenth and about 220' deep, the lot was part of Ansley Park, the development which began that year. Located at the crest of a hill, the lot occupied one of the highest points in Ansley Park, from which McMillan claimed he could see nineteen peaks. McMillan did not reduce the grade of the lot, as he had been encouraged by some to do, but cut into the hillside for a two-story, stone foundation level of the frame house that was to rise two and one-half stories above that. His aim was "to get as high into the air as I could, and there to build me a country home in the city."
McMillan eschewed the services of an architect and drew his own plans. "It is all an idea of mine," he said, when interviewed during the early stages of construction. "I did not go to an architect because I wanted no one to deprive me of the credit due for the originality." In another interview after the house was completed, he explained his thinking further:
I had no architect, because I knew that I would borrow ideas from him, and I wanted no one's notions but my own. I intended to build a home that suited me, not someone else. Half the world lives a lifetime without ever doing what it wants to. Men and women become so used to imitations or so afraid of ridicule that they liveout their lives borrowing ideas and expressions and habits, which before (themselves) had been borrowed.
The exact date construction commenced at Fort Peace is not known, but by early March 1909 the two-level stone portion of the house was in place, as well as the concrete foundation for the main house. With McMillan superintending the work himself, progress was steady and, probably by the end of 1910, the house was substantially complete. McMillan seems to have been a consummate putterer, however, and refinements continued to be made to the building and its grounds after that time.
One of the most striking features of the building was the high granite wall that was constructed along the entire Fifteenth Street frontage of the property. Part retaining wall and part enclosure for the first two levels of the house, it was this structure and the "mouths of Cannon" that protruded from it that defined the character of the house. The main entrance to the house was intended to be through great double-doors that opened directly off the sidewalk on Fifteenth Street into a "grotto" that formed the first level of the house. This was probably not a carriage entrance as has been suggested, since the smaller structure noted on the 1911 Sanborn maps at the rear of the lot was probably the carriage house or garage.
As part of his house, McMillan planned an extensive tribute to his old neighbor Joel Chandler Harris, who had died in July 1908. The two small niches at the second level of the Fifteenth Street facade originally held carved marble rabbits dedicated to "Uncle Remus". Beneath them, in a small niche to the left of the main entrance, was the "Uncle Remus spring," a drinking fountain for passersbys. Inside would be all of the "other critters" associated with Uncle Remus.
Above the entrance level was his den, overlooking Fifteenth Street. According to one source, McMillan intended to build a swimming pool in the area behind the den. Before that floor was completed, however, an account of a child drowning caused his wife to insist that the pool not be built and, instead, the room was completed as a music room. From this level there is an exit onto a terrace, from which entrance is gained to the porch and the main house. At some point, McMillan added stairs directly from the sidewalk on Fifteenth Street to this terrace, but that was considered a side entrance to the house itself.
At the level of the main house, or slightly below it, a large terrace surmounted the lower levels of the Castle and looked out over Fifteenth Street. Originally it was surrounded by a wooden balustrade. The floor plan of the house itself was described by a contemporary observer as following "the general plan of an old-fashioned country house."
Although the house was old-fashioned in its floor plan and exhibited the eccentricities of its owner in some of its detailing, McMillan used a thoroughly modern material to finish the exterior of his building. Both the roof and the walls are covered in asbestos shingles, one of the earlier applications of this material, which was used extensively in the 1930s and '40s for its fire-resistant and insulating qualities. The wall shingles, cut in a variety of shapes, are especially fine. It should be noted that this particular form of asbestos is not considered a health hazard as long as the material is left in place.
Note should also be taken of McMillan's great interest in gardening. He had located his house in the extreme northeast corner of his lot and the gardens that he developed on the reminder of the property were said to have been "like the country in the city." Watered by a sub-irrigation system he designed himself, the gardens were to him an integral part of his dream house. All of the lower granite walls had had iron hooks embedded into them so that "any sort of vine or plant may be trained to grow over the entire building" and from the mouths of his "cannon," McMillan trained roses to grow.
McMillan lived in the house, along with his wife and his niece, until his death in January 1920. Following Mrs. McMillan's death in 1925, the house was sold, but seems to have remained a single-family residence through most of the 1930s.
In June of 1926, Mrs. Joseph Madison High, widow of a well-known Atlanta dry-goods merchant, donated her house on Peachtree Street just north of Fifteenth Street to the Atlanta Art Association for use as a museum of art. Continued bequests to the association allowed for additions to the old High House in the late 1920s and '30s. After World War II, the Mel R. Wilkinson and Edgar P. McBurney houses to the north of the old High House and the Dr. Floyd R. McRae house to the south, opposite the Castle, were also acquired by the Art Association. All four of the Peachtree Street houses were eventually demolished as the museum complex grew in the 1950s and '60s.
As the Arts Center grew, the Castle also began to be used for arts-related activities. Beginning in 1938 and continuing during most of World War II, it was the location of the Atlanta Theatre Guild and the home of Vernon G. Williams, the Guild's director.
In 1945 Hazel Butler Roy purchased the house. She openly encouraged the arts and tried to foster an atmosphere conducive to creativity. She is even reported to have accepted artwork in lieu of rent. Through the 1940s, there were usually four tenants in the building. Early tenants included a scenic painter, a dressmaker, music teachers, commercial artists, and interior decorators.
By the 1950s, the buildings were listed in the city directories as "The Castle," with eleven individual rooms rented to a variety of artists. Through the late 1950s and '60s, the building also housed such groups as the Artists Assembly Club, the Children's Theatre of Atlanta, the Junior Theatre of Atlanta, and the Atlanta Writers' Club. In addition, the mezzanine level behind McMillan's old den was known as the Castle Playhouse, and below it in the old grotto was the Carriage Room Restaurant.
By the late 1970s, the elderly Mrs. Butler was no longer actively involved with the the building and, in the years prior to her recent death, the Castle stood vacant and deteriorating. Fortunately for the city, the house was not vandalized and, in an exemplary instance of corporate support for historic preservation, is now being redeveloped by AT& T as part of its new Promenade project.
Atlanta City Directories, 1900-1960.
Atlanta Journal, March 10, 1909; October 5, 1913; and January 13, 1920.
Garrett, Franklin. Atlanta and Environs, vol. II. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1954.
______________________. "A Short History of Land Lot 105 and 106 of the 17th District of Fulton County, Georgia. Part Two: Land Lot 105." Atlanta Historical Journal, XXVII, No. 2 (Summer 1983).
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Atlanta, 1911.
Group I (1) (2) (3)
The proposed nomination of the Atlanta Castle 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.