William Perrin Nicolson House

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William Perrin Nicolson HouseDesignated: Landmark Building Exterior
October 23, 1989

821 Piedmont Avenue, N.E.
Fronting 60' on the east side of Piedmont Avenue at the southeast corner of the intersection of 6th Street and Piedmont Avenue
Disrict 14, Land Lot 49
Fulton County, City of Atlanta
Existing Zoning RG-3

Constructed: 1892
Architect: Walter T. Downing

Located on the southeast corner of Piedmont Avenue at Sixth Street, the William P. Nicolson House is a great asset to Atlanta's stock of late nineteenth and early twentieth century residential structures surviving along Midtown's busy thoroughfare. Historically, the Nicolson House is one of the earliest structures built north of Ponce de Leon Avenue in the 1890s as a result of the impress established by streetcar lines to the area. It was built in 1892 for William Perrin Nicolson, prominent Atlanta physician and dean of the Southern Medical College. Architect Walter T. Downing (1865-1918) designed the residence for the physician and his family. The structure is architecturally significant as an excellent example of Downing's eclectic style, and because it is one of the few remaining residential works of this important Atlanta architect. The Nicolson House, its outbuilding, and its landscape features convey the late nineteenth-century suburban home, contributing to the cultural significance of this property to the city of Atlanta.


Nineteenth-century suburban growth was inextricably tied to the development of streetcar lines in American cities. Richard Peters and George W. Adair established Atlanta's earliest street railways in 1871. First horse-drawn and later electrically powered, the rail service opened up previously remote areas to residential settlement by the city's growing middle class.

Both Peters and Adair owned the land to which the rails ran. Peters owned over 400 acres of land immediately north of downtown. In 1878 his Atlanta Street Railway Company's Peachtree line carried passengers north to Ponce de Leon Avenue. By 1893 that line ran as far north as Eighth Street, traversing the entire length of Peters' property in land lot 49. In order to encourage the sale of parcels of his real estate holdings, Peters offered bargain prices to Atlanta's prominent citizens.

The Nicolson House was the third dwelling to be built in what was then a secluded, wooded, country setting. This structure is important as an early residence in the Midtown neighborhood, its construction pioneering the development of a fashionable suburban neighborhood in the northern end of the city.


William P. Nicolson was born in 1857 and raised in Middlesex County, Virginia. He attended the University of Virginia, where he received his medical degree in 1876. After a two-year internship at Richmond City Hospital, he came to Atlanta to become dean and professor of anatomy at the Southern Medical College. He held professorships in both anatomy and clinical surgery there until his retirement in 1913. The doctor was one of the founders of the Southern Dental College, teaching anatomy at that school as well.

Dr. Nicolson maintained an office in his home, was a member of the original visiting surgical staff at Grady (Municipal) Hospital, and treated patients at St. Joseph's Infirmary. He is credited with performing the first appendectomy in Georgia in 1892 at Grady Hospital and with using innovative techniques to perform a considerable number of craniotomies in the state. Taking an active interest in organized medicine, Nicolson was president of the Atlanta Academy of Medicine and the Medical Association of Georgia, and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

In 1892 Nicolson hired architect Walter T. Downing to design a house for himself and his family. The doctor, his wife Carolyn, and their three children, William, Jr., Lowery, and Carolyn, lived in this home on Piedmont Avenue. Dr. Nicolson died in 1928, but the house remained in the Nicolson family until 1982, when Edward and Debra McCord purchased it. The house is now known as the Shellmont Inn and functions as a bed and breakfast.


The Nicolson House stands on a long, narrow lot at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and Sixth Street. This lot is informally landscaped with lawn, trees, and shrubbery; all landscape features reflecting turn-of-the-century tastes in the Midtown area. The tree-shaded rear yard contains a small, two-story, wood frame building, which is contemporary with the main house. The ground floor was originally used to house carriages and then automobiles, while the second floor contained servants' quarters.

The general composition of the Nicolson House illustrates a formula typical of the period. The house is a two-story block under a hipped roof with asymmetrical porch and projecting wing. Architect Downing freely adapted Renaissance and Classical motifs, columns, pilasters, dormers, friezes, swags, and garlands, contributing to the eclectic use of design features. A recurrent shell motif is evident from the enormous shell and Adamesque swag relief on the second-story front facade, to the freely designed capitals supporting the front porch.

Downing's asymmetrical floor plan and his emphasis on variation in composition contribute to the unusual combination of window types and shapes, and the unique placement of the windows in the Nicolson House. Curved-glass sash windows are on the projecting bay on the front facade, a portion of those having rounded arches. A large, beveled plate glass window is central to the first-floor of the bay. The front door contains an oval-shaped beveled glass, and leaded sidelights flank the entrance. An hexagonal, leaded glass fenestration was also used on the first floor of the north side of the building.

The architect used building materials in unusual ways to create a more visually complex structure. The main body of the house is clad in clapboard siding, with plain corner pilasters and a simple frieze at the second story level. In contrast, the first floor of the projecting bay contains tongue and groove vertical siding, creating a smooth surface for the ornate shell, swag and frieze details.

The Nicolson House is the work of a master architect and is one of the few remaining residences in Atlanta attributable to Downing. The home's design combines exceptionally high artistic value, craftsmanship and integrity, and its original site orientation has been maintained, making it an important landmark in Atlanta.

Walter T. Downing studied architecture in Atlanta as an apprentice to L. B. Wheeler, an architect originally from New York who specialized in the High Victorian styles. Downing leaned heavily toward the classical, but experimented with plans and details to create inventive, eclectic results. Though public buildings were among his works (Eiseman Building, 1901-2, demolished in 1976; the Church of the Sacred Heart, 1897-98; the Healey Building II with Bruce and Morgan, 1913), his most impressive works were his residential architectural designs for Atlanta's affluent in the late nineteenth century. Downing had a very free and individualistic approach to the composition of his residential works, pulling from many stylistic origins. The Nicolson House represents Downing's individualism at its best.


Because the Nicolson House stands today much as it did in the late nineteenth century, it clearly conveys a sense of time and place, permitting easy interpretation of its historic character. The elaborately detailed suburban residence of one of the city's prominent physicians, with its informal landscaping, and carriage house with servants' quarters presents an accurate picture of Atlanta's affluent at the turn of the century.


Block, Julia Porter. "Some Nineteenth Century Atlanta Homes." Atlanta Historical Bulletin Vol. VIII, No. 31 (January 1947), 95-99.

Boland, Frank K. "Makers of Atlanta Medicine." Fulton County Medical Society Bulletin, Nicolson file, Atlanta Historical Society.

Downing, Walter T. Domestic Architecture. Atlanta: Franklin Printing and Publishing Company, 1897.

Fulton County Deed Records, Book 7641, p. 455 and 457; Book 8283, p. 4446.

Klima, Don L. "Breaking Out: Streetcars and Suburban Development, 1872-1900." Atlanta Historical Journal Vol. XXVI, No. 2-3 (Summer-Fall 1982), 67-82.

Lyons, Elizabeth. Atlanta Architecture: The Victorian Heritage,1837-1918. Atlanta: Atlanta Historical Society, Inc., 1976.

MacDonald, Louise Black. "My Seventh Move." Atlanta Historical Bulletin. Vol. VIII, No. 32 (December 1947): 31-40.

National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form. Prepared by Randolph C. Marks, Research Assistant, Atlanta Urban Commission, 1976, and supplement prepared by Richard Clouse, National Register Coordinator, Historic Preservation Section, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, 1983.

(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 Nicolson 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.

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55 Trinity Avenue, Suite 3400
Atlanta, Georgia 30335-0331

Tel: 404.330.6200
Fax: 404.658.6734

Doug Young


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