Herndon Home in Peril

Can Alonzo Herndon’s century-old estate on Diamond Hill be saved?
It’s easy to overlook the Herndon Home. The museum sits on a short one-way street in a hidden corner near Vine City.

The house across the road is abandoned. Down the street, Morris Brown College buildings are largely vacant now that the school has lost its accreditation. Scaffolding covers the facade of the two-story brick mansion after a storm damaged one of the columns.

Indeed, nothing about the setting hints at the interior opulence of the 100-year-old, 8,000-square-foot home—or the historic significance of its original owner, Alonzo Herndon, a former slave and Atlanta’s first black millionaire.

Emancipated at the end of the Civil War, Herndon left his native Social Circle on foot with $11 to his name. Eventually coming to Atlanta, he leveraged his barbering skills into owning several barbershops, including a lavish salon Downtown with crystal chandeliers and gold fixtures. In 1905, Herndon began to buy up small insurance companies, which he combined to form Atlanta Life, still one of the largest black-owned companies in the U.S. As his fortune grew, he became a generous patron of local institutions and was among an inner circle consulted by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. His first wife, Adrienne, headed the drama department at Atlanta University. She actually designed the home, dying tragically just months after its completion.

The mansion is not the only landmark, nor the only important African American site in Atlanta, that has struggled to stay afloat. But few have its pedigree. With silk wallpaper, Persian rugs, and elaborate wood carvings, the Beaux Arts home could stand on its own as a museum. It’s a key milestone in African American economic history and reflects Atlanta’s unique role in that saga.

“One of the things that distinguishes Atlanta from other cities is the rise of the black middle class,” says Mark McDonald, CEO and president of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. “Alonzo Herndon’s story is at the center of that.” The Herndon Home is a monument to “black achievement, not only for the owner . . . but also for the black artisans who worked on the house. It’s an incredible story. It’s an American story.”

A National Historic Landmark, the Herndon Home has long worried preservationists. The Georgia Trust named it a Place in Peril in 2007, after rainwater ravaged parts of the interior. Last year, the foundation that operates the house did not replace the departing executive director and quit offering walk-in tours.

“It’s struggling,” says McDonald. “It is not in the dreadful state it was in 2007, but it still needs all of our help.”

Formerly, the Herndon Home was supported by dividends from Atlanta Life Financial Group. However, dividends were halted a few years ago, so the museum now depends more on fundraising, says William Stanley III, chair of the foundation’s board.

Preservationists suggest the foundation partner with groups such as the Center for Civil & Human Rights, which is building a museum near Centennial Olympic Park. Stanley says he welcomes collaboration and is already working with the Atlanta History Center.

In the meantime, centennial celebrations won’t take place until December. The annual spring tea was moved to August 21. Perhaps that event will boost the home’s fundraising campaign.

Photograph by Joe Martinez