MARTA–Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority–is Atlanta’s subway system. When a passenger walks out of the southwest exit of the Peachtree Center MARTA station, on the right is a smallish railed-in area. Upon closer look, this area contains messages carved into marble slabs.
The message on one slab: THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT.
The other slab has a more complex set of messages: J. N. SMITH’S BUILDING: COMMENCED 100 YEARS AFTER GEO. WASHINGTON’S INAUGURATION AS FIRST PRESIDENT. PAUL SAYS “OWE NO MAN.” LET POSTERITY HEED HIS ADVICE.
“Jack” in the inscription was Jasper Newton Smith (1833 – 1918,) known during his lifetime as “Jack” Smith. These blocks were built into Smith’s commercial building at the intersections of Peachtree, Pryor, and Forsyth Streets, and Carnegie Way, built in 1889–where the MARTA station entrance in this article is today.
One source says that the façade of his building was covered with marble slabs quoting mostly biblical texts advocating economy.1
Downtown Atlanta resident and architect Kyle Kessler located the following newspaper article in the Atlanta Constitution dated August 18, 1889:
“The ‘house that Jack built.’ It is as unique as its name would indicate. Most everybody knows where ‘the house that Jack built’ is–on Forsyth Street, at the junction of Peachtree. Besides the unique inscriptions which adorn it, there are other peculiarities about this building which Mr. Jack Smith has made almost famous in the last few months. For instance, it is made of cast-off granite blocks–blocks that were useless for street paving purposes, but which Mr. Smith’s ingenuity has converted into one of the handsomest buildings in the city. Then the building, while apparently it has only two fronts, has an actual frontage on three streets, which shows that the architect not only knew how to utilize material, but had an eye to getting a front on Peachtree–a front of just eight inches. A pretty small front but it’s on Peachtree.”
How the inscribed marble slabs came down to us through time is explained by Atlanta historian Franklin Garrett:
“In 1909 Mr Smith leased the building and ground to Edward W. Alfriend for a period of 99 years at an annual rental of $2000. This was one of the first long-term leases made in Atlanta, and was considered at the time to be a mad undertaking for Mr. Alfriend. It turned out to be very profitable, for 15 years later he sold the lease to Mr. [Hugh] Richardson for a figure approximating $150,000.
“Jasper Newton Smith took care that his inscribed stone blocks would remain on the building. In the original lease to Alfriend it was stipulated that they should remain there, and that in case the structure was razed, they should be incorporated in any new building that might be erected on the site. Hence, when Richardson rebuilt shortly after acquiring the lease, he had the inscribed blocks inserted just above the the cornice where they remain, looking out upon the busy intersection of Peachtree, Pryor, Forsyth and Carnegie Way–an unusual reminder of an unusual man.”
Here is how the Richardson Building looked in the 1950’s:
This is the building that Garrett referred to above, although the two marble blocks are not visible. This building was demolished in the late 1970’s, and the MARTA station there opened in 1982. Smith’s 99 year lease with the stipulation to preserve the marble blocks did not expire until 1988, and MARTA honored the provision by installing them where they remain today.
In Peachtree Street, Atlanta author William Bailey Williford describes why Garrett referred to him as “an unusual man”:
“‘Jack Smith was a real curiosity–a man without city airs, yet an actor of no small skill who delighted in the attention which his eccentricities attracted. He was a short but imposing figure in his customary garb: a short-coated sack suit and a tall silk hat, and no necktie. A freshly starched collar was always buttoned at the throat, but he was never seen wearing a cravat. Indeed, his dislike of neckwear was carried to a ridiculous extreme. Many years before his death he designed and supervised the construction in Oakland Cemetery of his own granite mausoleum, and arranged for disposition at the proper time of the coffin which he had already selected. Atop the entrance to the mausoleum was a statue of Mr. Smith seated in an armchair and holding his familiar top hat. The statue, naturally, wore no necktie. But several years later a small vine climbed up the side of the mausoleum and attached itself to the statue’s neck. When Mr. Smith heard of it he immediately journeyed to the cemetery and personally removed the offending weed.
“Although Jasper Smith was the object of derisive comments during his early years in Atlanta, when it became apparent that he had become wealthy through his business acumen the hoots turned into murmurs of respect. In his later years he was often referred to as ‘Atlanta’s quaintest charcter.'”
If you haven’t yet, some Atlanta readers will realize at this point that they have already seen Jasper Smith’s mausoleum and his statue, because it is one of the most popular stops on tours of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery:
Mr. Smith’s statue is carved and positioned so that is appears to be looking at Oakland Cemetery’s main entrance, watching who comes and goes. As was his practice in life, his statue wears no necktie. The sculptor was C. C. Crouch.
The Atlanta Constitution article quoted above says that “The House that Jack Built” in downtown Atlanta was “made of cast-off granite blocks–blocks that were useless for street paving purposes, but which Mr. Smith’s ingenuity has converted into one of the handsomest buildings in the city.”
That building was demolished in 1914 but we may be looking at Smith’s ingenuity with granite block construction when we look at his mausoleum–it is also constructed of uneven sized blocks of granite. Did Smith piece together his mausoleum, too? Does his mausoleum look like “The House that Jack Built”? It seems plausible.
Jasper Newton Smith was not without controversy. He made his fortune in Atlanta from a brickyard he owned at the intersection of Peachtree and 14th streets. His brickyard turned out an estimated ten million bricks used for the rebuilding of Atlanta after the Civil War. Later, he sold the brickyard for a handsome profit and made more money investing in downtown Atlanta real estate.2
But where did he get the money to buy the brickyard in the first place? An article titled “Tombstones Sometimes Lie” by Patrick Malcolm offers a theory. In his article, Mr. Malcolm says that the same Jasper N. Smith in this article was named administrator of several large estates in Walton County, Georgia, and that Smith managed to sell large parts of the land under his control and deposit the proceeds into his own bank account.
Mr. Malcolm goes on to assert that Jasper “Jack” Smith took the money and moved to Atlanta, leaving nothing for the rightful heirs of the property. The heirs tried to mount a legal case to get their money back, but they could not sustain the case financially, and Jasper Smith fended off their attempt with his ample funds.
Other sources used for this article speak favorably of Jasper N. Smith. Did he take the funds from the Walton County heirs? Was there some justification? No other mention is made of improper financial dealings.
Smith became quite wealthy – did he ever give any money back to the Walton County heirs? Mr. Malcolm says no and ends his article with a quote from a court document. It describes how one of the property owners dispossessed by Smith was buried in a pauper’s grave at the expense of Walton County in 1933 at the age of 87.
The marble slabs at the beginning of this article are unprotected and open to the elements. Marble is a comparatively soft, porous stone that can wear down if not positioned to shed water and have protection from ice accumulation and extreme weather.
Damage to the surface of the slabs has occurred and is getting worse. MARTA is to be commended for re-displaying these unique artifacts. Now they need to take the step of sheltering them from the harmful effects of rain, ice, and weather.
1“Peachtree Street, Atlanta” by William B. Williford, Copyright 1962, page 69
2 ibid, page 70