Hammonds House Museum touches upon so many categories of Atlanta history, it provides the perfect first story of 2014. It ping pongs down from early West End history through Atlanta Gilded Age history, then hitting AIDS history, LGBT history, African American history and even the histories of kindergartens and children’s literature. In short, a visit to Hammonds House Museum provides a classic Atlanta experience.
According to several sources, the home was built in 1857 and is considered one of the three oldest residential buildings in West End. However, there is some debate if the home is truly a pre-Civil War construction; Myrna Anderson-Fuller, Executive Director at Hammonds House Museum, believed the home was built by Atlanta attorney Malcolm Johnston sometime between 1867 and 1871.
But a source in the Hammonds library found by Anderson-Fuller during a recent visit by History Atlanta indicates a build date of 1857; and the Atlanta History Center indicates in an online digital photograph the home was built in 1857. The debate continues over the build date; Anderson-Fuller is currently assembling a team of interns to tackle this research and nail down a true construction date.
Regardless of the build date, it’s clear the original home was quite different than what appears today. Similar to the Wren’s Nest, which was a simple square West End farmhouse before it was transformed into a Victorian masterpiece in 1884 by Joel Chandler Harris, the Hammonds House was changed by owners way before Dr. Hammonds.
Malcolm Johnston purchased either an existing home or just simply the property for $450 in the late 1860’s. According to documents in the Hammonds library, the original house that Johnston either purchased or built begins at the second gallery and runs to the back door with the transient window.
We do know that Johnston added the front gallery, the second floor and the front porch, turning the home into this wonderful Victorian example of Eastlake Style. Gone was the short attic and simple four-room layout, replaced by the large second story home with a dramatic staircase. Today while walking through the first floor, visitors can see the double rafters above and the wood floor below that indicates the original house, giving away old versus new.
But to call these additions new is misguiding. The details of the home are clearly from Malcolm Johnston’s Gilded Age, such as the flat, linear floral designs, gingerbread trim, lattice work and the imposing turret that towers over each step on the front pathway. The home’s style screams late 19th century.
Malcolm Johnston owned the home until 1905. West End was a small village outside of Atlanta when the home was originally built at 124 Peeples Street (it’s now 503 Peeples Street); the town of West End was annexed to Atlanta in 1893. Johnston witnessed the transformation from rural village accessible by horse-drawn streetcars, to affluent Atlanta neighborhood. His neighbors in West End were some of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens.
Millard C. Vandiver, President of M.C. Vandiver Co., a plumbing company, purchased the property in 1906. He almost immediately declared bankruptcy, but managed to stay in the home until 1908 while the property surrounding the home was divided up and developed. But the history of the house, and the blueprint, dramatically changed in 1910 when James Whitaker Bigham purchased it from an Atlanta land holding company.
James Whitaker Bigham lived in the home with his sisters Kate, Madge and Eugenie. Starting immediately the siblings made changes. A large room was added to the back of the home in 1911 where Madge operated a kindergarten, considered the first in Atlanta history.
In addition to running Atlanta’s first kindergarten, Madge was a talented children’s book writer. She had gained success with Stories of Mother Goose Village in 1903, before she moved into the home with her single brother and two single sisters. And from the Hammonds House she wrote many titles, some from a backyard tree house, including Bad Little Rabbit, Sonny Elephant, Fanciful Flower Tales and much more.
The story of the Bigham siblings is sort of depressing. They were always single. By the 1930’s the kindergarten was closed due to the stress of the Great Depression, and all of the siblings had died except Madge. She lived in the home with her brother Ernest’s widow and their children. Madge died on August 11th, 1957.
The Hammonds House declined and was abandoned by Bigham descendants in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. Many of the architectural elements of the home were lost to vandals and thieves, including much of the interior woodwork and almost all of the mantles. The staircase was practically gone.
This deterioration was halted in 1979 when Dr. Otis Thrash Hammonds stepped in and purchased the home from the Bigham family. He immediately started renovations, adding converted gas lamps from the Victorian Age, matching the staircase woodwork to the original staircase added by Johnston and restoring the picture molding, mantles (one of the upper room mantles holds tiles by artist Romare Bearden), chair rails, the wainscoting with marble insets and baseboard molding. Dr. Hammonds captured a lost gem of Atlanta history in 1979 and polished it to a prior beauty.
But who was Dr. Hammonds? Certainly the most interesting individual in this article. Dr. Otis Thrash Hammonds was not only a honored doctor and anesthesiologist, but an art collector, local arts patron, avid gardener, eccentric party organizer and leader in the Atlanta community. But not known by many, Dr. Hammonds was a gay man. And when Dr. Hammonds would die of AIDS on June 14th, 1985, his obituary would be silent on his sexual orientation and would list the cause of death as leukemia.
Dr. Hammonds was born in Chattanooga in 1929, and his family moved to Birmingham shortly after his birth. He was a veteran of the Korean War, entering school after the war in 1952. He received his undergraduate degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1963.
From the 1960’s and into the early 1980’s Dr. Hammonds was known as a tough administrator, and was legendary in the Atlanta area for his attention to detail and ability to train other doctors. Throughout his career he worked for several Atlanta area hospitals including Holy Cross Hospital, Southwest Community Hospital and Physicians and Surgeons Hospital. Dr. Hammonds retired right before his death. He was named Atlanta Medical Association’s Man of the Year in 1985.
During his life, Hammonds supported the arts vigorously. Yes, he purchased many pieces of African, Caribbean, and African American artwork, building a collection of more than 250 pieces. But Dr. Hammonds would do other things, such as throw lavish parties for visiting opera outfits and stars.
The list of positions held by the doctor in the art community was impressive and staggering. Hammonds was Chairman of the Board of the Neighborhood Arts Center (which supported Atlanta area art groups such as the African Dance Ensemble and the Southern Collective of African Writers) and was a board member for several local institutions such as the Sculptural Arts Museum, the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Art Committee, the Atlanta Public Art Committee, the Atlanta Preservation Society and the Nanette Bearden Contemporary Dance Company in New York City.
The contributions made by Dr. Hammonds and the value of his property were recognized by members of the local government, even if his lifestyle and his cause of death remained in the shadows. Almost immediately after his passing from AIDS in June of 1985 the Fulton County Board of Commissioners purchased the home and more than 250 works of art owned by Hammonds, and the home was turned into Hammonds House Museum.
Today Hammonds House Museum offers Dr. Hammonds’ artwork along with new contributions, showcasing 350 permanent pieces from as far away as Africa. The Hammonds Collection features 18 works by Romare Bearden and the oldest known painting by Robert S. Duncanson. Other artists include Sam Gilliam, Benny Andrews, P.H. Polk, Hale Woodruff, Elizabeth Catlett, Richard Hunt, Jacob Lawrence and James Van Der Zee. If you are a lover of African American and African art, Hammonds House Museum should be at the top of your list if you visit West End. And along with great artwork each visitor is immersed in Atlanta history.
Also, Hammonds House Museum showcases several art events and visual arts exhibitions throughout the year. Check out the Hammonds House Museum website for updates on museum tours, visiting artists, artist presentations, art workshops and camps for kids. Special thanks to M.H. Mitchell, Inc. for inspiring this story.