Designated: Landmark Building Exterior
1050 Gordon Street, S.W.
Constructed: 1870, extensive renovations 1884
ANALYSIS AND DESCRIPTION
The Wren's Nest is a home that is important twice over in the annals of Atlanta history. The first simple farmhouse built on the site was constructed by George Muse, founder of Muse's Clothing, a well-known and established Atlanta store that has been in business for over 100 years. This farmhouse was later rented in 1881 from his employer the Atlanta Constitution, by Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus tales and, at the time, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Harris purchased the house in 1883 and in 1884 hired George P. Humphreys of the firm of Norrman and Humphreys to do extensive renovation to the original Muse home, transforming it into a large Queen Anne style Victorian residence. At the time this construction was being done, West End was quickly becoming one of the most fashionable addresses in the Atlanta area. It was known as an area where families could live in comfort, away from the "unhealthy" conditions of the city yet close enough to Atlanta to take advantage of city conveniences. The large Victorian homes of the district were architectural expressions of the new post-Civil War spirit of brashness, flamboyancy, and hope in the future. The Wren's Nest is an excellent and rare example of the early Victorian Queen Anne style in the Atlanta area, and today recalls two important times in the history of Atlanta: early Reconstruction with the Muse family farm and the era of the "New South" with the Wren's Nest. The house also has great significance in the city of Atlanta through its occupancy by two well-known citizens, George Muse and Joel Chandler Harris.
The Muse family moved to Atlanta from LaFayette, Alabama in 1869. Young George Muse was only 16 at the time, but was responsible for the welfare of his mother and five siblings.
The Muses bought a five acre plot of land in West End in 1870 and built a simple shotgun-style three room house. Two of these rooms are now the central bedroom and dining room of the Wren's Nest. In 1873 three more rooms were added along with a central hall. The Muse family moved from the property in 1878, selling it to a Mr. Broomhead, believed to be a real estate speculator.
George Muse went on to found George Muse Clothing Company in 1887. This clothing store is still a respected and important Atlanta business today and has been called "the fashion center of the South."
JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS
Joel Chandler Harris was born in rural Eatonton, Georgia (c.1848). His childhood was not an easy one, but as a boy his mother instilled in him a love of literature. As a teenager, Harris found employment with The Countryman, probably the only newspaper ever published on a plantation. Here he had access to publisher Joseph A. Turner's library and began his writing career. When the paper was closed due to the Civil War, Harris moved on to work for the Macon Telegraph, then the New Orleans Crescent Monthly, the Monroe Advertiser (in Forsyth, Georgia) and the Morning News in Savannah, Georgia. While in Savannah, Harris met his future bride, a young French-Canadian woman named Esther du Pont LaRose. They were soon married and moved to Atlanta in 1876, where Harris got a job at the Atlanta Constitution writing a column devoted to "pithy and philosophical sayings." His writing covered many topics from politics to nature. He introduced his audience to Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox in 1877. Harris had first heard these amusing animal stories from slaves while growing up in rural Georgia. He recorded the tales in the original dialect in which he heard them. He never claimed that he was the author of these stories, but always contended that he was "only the compiler" of the tales he had heard from others. In 1880, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings was published and Harris soon became well-known internationally. Harris developed the character of Uncle Remus as the storyteller over a 25 year period and continued to collect the folktales from many different sources. He eventually produced nine (9) volumes of the tales, preserving 183 distinctive stories, which are still popular today.
Harris wrote thirty (30) books during his lifetime including a history of Georgia, a biography of Henry Grady (his co-editor at the Atlanta Constitution), children's novels and adult novels. He also published a magazine, The Uncle Remus Home Magazine, which attracted contributions from most of the great writers of the day. In 1907 it enjoyed a nationwide circulation of over 200,000 subscribers. As co-editor of the Atlanta Constitution for 25 years, Harris espoused many progressive causes including reconciliation between the North and South, strong anti-lynching laws and increased education opportunities for black children. He and Henry Grady espoused the "New South" philosophy which attracted northern investments to Atlanta at the turn of the century. Harris did much of his writing at the Wren's Nest.
The original Muse farm was purchased by the Harris family in 1883 from the Atlanta Constitution. The simple house on the site had been neglected by its prior owner, Mr. Broomhead, for three previous years (the Harris family first rented the house in 1881). When the Harris family first moved in, the place was very overgrown and a home for bats and rats. After Harris purchased the home, he hired one of his West End neighbors and part-time architect, George P. Humphreys, to add a large, modern addition to his home. The work was begun in the summer of 1884 and completed soon after. Originally, Harris named the property Snap Bean Farm, but the home gained its unusual name of the Wren's Nest when a family of wrens built their home in the family mail box.
Harris made the acquaintance of some of the most famous men of his day, most notably literary friends such as Mark Twain and James Whitcomb Riley, and President Theodore Roosevelt who insisted on meeting the author of the Uncle Remus tales when he visited Atlanta. Later Harris also visited the White House at the President's invitation. Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was a guest at the Wren's Nest in 1908. Harris died at this home the same year. Harris' reputation as an internationally famous author lives on, however, through the Uncle Remus tales. The stories have been translated into 27 different languages; the most popular tale, "The Wonderful Tar Baby" was a focus of the Walt Disney movie, Song of The South. Walt Disney visited the Wren's Nest in 1946, when the movie premiered in Atlanta. He donated a diorama built by the Disney studios, which is on display at the house. The song "Zippity Doo Da" from the movie won the Academy Award for Best Song of 1946.
THE WREN'S NEST
As a result of the additions Joel Chandler Harris made to the simple Muse farmhouse, the Wren's Nest, today, stands as an excellent example of the early Queen Anne style in Atlanta and the South. The Muse home is still standing as the rear part of the Wren's Nest; the Queen Anne facade and several additional rooms were simply wrapped around the front of the existing house. The Wren's Nest is a frame structure two stories high. A large porch wraps around the front and sides of the house, (but not around the older Muse section of the home) and asymmetrical gables project from the high, irregular roofline. The two tall molded chimneys are typical of the Queen Anne style, as is the decorative woodwork found in the porch and in the gables. Notable details of the exterior include the wooden fish scale tiles in the second story porch gable and on the second story of the center section, and wooden lattice work arches under the porch eaves complemented by low, pointed arch panels that form the porch railings.
The Wren's Nest is an early example of the Queen Anne style in Atlanta. This style was popularized throughout the Northeast in the mid-1800s. Its appearance at the Wren's Nest at this early date and this far south is quite notable.
The house is located in a bucolic setting and the grounds are still very similar to the way Harris left them.
George P. Humphreys, architect of the 1884 additions made to the Wren's Nest, was, like Harris, a West End resident. He moved to Atlanta from Cleveland, Ohio in 1882 and set up an architectural practice with noted Atlanta architect Gottfried Norrman. Humphreys was also a railroad man and is listed in the Atlanta City Directories from 1882 to 1884 as a passenger agent on the New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio Railroad line. He is listed as an architect in only one year, 1883. Two of his more noted contributions to Atlanta architecture are the 1883 St. Luke's Cathedral (now demolished) and the Westview Cemetery gate. The varied appearances of his buildings show that, like many architects of his day, Humphreys practiced in many different architectural styles. In addition to Queen Anne, the Wren's Nest also incorporates East Lake style, which was very popular at the time. Humphreys died an early death in August of 1885. While returning from a trip to Sheffield, Alabama, he jumped off a moving train as it passed through West End. He was trying to save time by not having to take the trolley from the train depot back out to his home. The jump was not successful.
PERIOD AND SETTING
West End pre-dates Atlanta by two years and was founded around the Whitehall Tavern, an important stop for the Newnan to Lawrenceville post. Atlanta's first municipal streetcar line was extended to West End in 1871, popularizing the area with commercial and residential developers. It was primarily a residential community of tree-lined Victorian streets and large houses where families could enjoy both a healthy, rural atmosphere and close proximity to the amenities of the city. Railroad development helped Atlanta outgrow West End quickly, and in 1894 West End petitioned for annexation by the larger community. West End reached the height of its popularity at the turn of the century. Some of its famous residents included Georgia poet laureate Frank L. Stanton, Gov. James Smith, Gov. John Conley, and former Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The Wren's Nest was established as a museum in 1913, directly after the Harris family tenure. It is the oldest continuously operated museum in the city of Atlanta. In 1988 it attracted visitors from all fifty states and 16 foreign countries. The house is also noteworthy as the childhood home of Harris' eldest son Julian, who was the first Georgia journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize. He was cited for the Pulitzer in 1926 for his crusading editorials exposing the Ku Klux Klan and calling for stringent anti-lynching laws.
The popularization of the automobile in the 1920s pushed the boundaries of West End further out from the streetcar lines and resulted in a progression of residential architecture spanning fifty years. As the years have passed, West End has become increasingly commercial, and in the 1960s lost much of its residential architecture to urban renewal. Fortunately, in the 1970s renewed interest in West End began with a trend toward restoring the old homes and renewing the spirit of the community. Today West End is one of Atlanta's most socially diverse and culturally rich neighborhoods. The Wren's Nest completed a capital campaign in June of 1989 to fully restore the house and grounds. The restoration objective is 1990 and should be substantially completed within three years.
The Muse home, as part of the Wren's Nest, connects the area to the time of early reconstruction when West End was a simple community. It is one of the few structures from that time still standing in Atlanta. The Wren's Nest architecturally represents the era that followed the hard times immediately after the Civil War, a time when Atlantans rebuilt in a flamboyant new style through which they could express the new wealth flowing into the South, and their renewed hope in the future. It is an excellent example of the type of growth that occurred in West End in the late nineteenth century and serves as a monument to the famous Atlantans who lived there.
The Atlanta City Directory, years 1880, 1881, 1882, 1883, 1884, 1885.
Atlanta's Lasting Landmarks, Atlanta Urban Design Commission. 1987.
Atlanta Historic Resources Workbook, Atlanta Urban Design Commission. 1978.
Atlanta Historical Society manuscripts collection. Files on: George P. Humphreys, Godfrey L. Norrman, West End, Wren's Nest.
The Atlanta Constitution, "A Fatal Jump: The Death of Mr. George P. Humphreys." August 7, 1865. p. 5.
"City of Atlanta, Civic Design Commission. Survey of Historic Sites and Districts: The Wren's Nest."
Crimmins, T. J. "West End...." Atlanta Historical Journal, Summer/Fall 1982, for background developmental patterns of West End.
"Georgia's Aesop." reprint from Southern Telephone News. no date.
Hyman, Isabelle, and Marvin Trachtenberg. Architecture: From Pre-history toPost-Modernism. Prentice Hall, Inc. , Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1986.
Lane Greene, restoration architect. Telephone interview. June 22, 1989.
The Wren's Nest: Home of Joel Chandler Harris, Creator of Uncle Remus and the Critters, Wren's Nest visitor's handout. Pub. by The Joel Chandler Harris Memorial Association.
Group I (1) (2) (3)
The proposed nomination of the Wren's Nest 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.