One of the first structures built in Midtown Atlanta, started in 1891 and finished in 1892, the Shellmont Inn is old. So old that if someone in the neighborhood north of Ponce and south of Piedmont Park claims their home is older you should raise a skeptical eyebrow. It’s located at 821 Piedmont Avenue, on the southeast corner of the Sixth Street intersection.
The story behind this remarkable structure starts with the train smoke of early Atlanta history. The land upon which the Shellmont Inn resides was once owned by Richard Peters, the railroad executive who came to Atlanta before it was Atlanta with the Georgia Railroad in the 1840’s. Peters even helped rename the city when people complained the name Marthasville was lame.
The railroad (and land he smartly purchased) made Richard Peters giggly rich. He expanded into anything and everything that was early Atlanta. In 1856 Richard Peters built a flour mill which required firewood to run. It was such a large operation Peters purchased 405 acres of land just so he could chop down the trees and burn them in his flour mill. The 405 acres was bounded on the north by 8th Avenue, the south by North Avenue, the east by Argonne Avenue and the west by Plum Street and Atlantic Drive (Kontz Avenue). This huge tract of land included the hill that holds Ivy Hall, much of Midtown south of Piedmont Park and the land that now holds the Shellmont Inn.
Richard Peters also established the first street railway with George Adair in 1871; these street railways powered the growth of some of Atlanta’s greatest neighborhoods. Most of these neighborhoods were (at that time) in the sticks. Richard Peters died in 1889 and his son Edward C. Peters (who built Ivy Hall starting in 1883) began developing and selling his father’s land through the Peters Land Company in 1890. For more about the Peters family read our story on Ivy Hall.
The Peachtree streetcar ran as far north as Ponce in 1878, and by 1893 it had been extended to Eight Street. This was the entire north/south length of the Peters’ property (North Avenue on the south and Eight Street on the north). According to one source, the Shellmont Inn was the third structure built on land sold by Edward C. Peters after 1890. At that time the location was about as far outside of the city as one could get. And one of the first owners wasn’t too happy about the rural location.
Her name was Carolyn Crane; this home was the wedding present from her new husband, Dr. William Perrin Nicolson. Carolyn’s family owned Crane Plumbing, and for social reasons, she was not thrilled about her new home out in the country. But the design of the home is gorgeous and must have won her over; she lived in the home until her death in 1949.
Her husband also was from money, but in his case, very old money. Dr. Nicolson was descended from the prominent Wormeley family of Virginia. He was born in 1857 in that commonwealth, the son of a doctor that was educated in Paris and Philadelphia.
Anyways, Nicolson received his medical degree from the University of Virginia in 1876. He was married before Carolyn, to a woman named Kate Whitcomb who died shortly after the marriage. Nicolson moved in 1879 to become dean of the newly founded Southern Medical College in Atlanta (founded in 1878). It merged with Atlanta Medical College in 1898 to form the Atlanta College of Physicians & Surgeons. After another merger and another rename this entity became the Emory University School of Medicine.
Dr. Nicolson would practice and teach medicine in the Atlanta for more than 30 years. He was a visiting staff member at many early Atlanta hospitals, president of the Medical Association of Georgia and the Atlanta Academy of Medicine and founded the Southern Dental College. He had offices is hospitals and one source indicated the Healey Building, but he also maintained an office in this magnificent home.
Dr. Nicolson contributed heavily to early Atlanta medical history. His story offers well-known medical accomplishments, such as performing the first surgical removal of an appendix (also known as an appendectomy) in Georgia. Nicolson also performed enough craniotomies to write many papers on the subject, including “Celluloid Plates for Covering Openings in the Skull”. My favorite Dr. Nicolson title is “Catgut as a Skin Suture”… It’s an awesome read.
I’m kidding, I didn’t read it. Dr. Nicolson lived with his wife Carolyn and their three children, William, Jr., Lowery, and Carolyn, in the house on Piedmont Avenue the rest of his life. He retired in 1918 and died on April 4th, 1928 from a cerebral hemorrhage. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery.
But like I said above Carolyn also lived in the home her entire life. I can’t blame her. Dr. Nicolson picked the perfect architect to design the home that resided at 689 Piedmont. His choice was Walter T. Downing.
The creativity of Downing shines in this Eclectic Colonial Revival creation; many consider it his masterpiece when it comes to the residences he designed. And he designed many homes throughout the South including the Wimbish House. Oh yeah, he also designed early commercial skyscrapers (he assisted in the design of the Healey Building) and churches such as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Downtown Atlanta.
Downing loved to put a personal touch on classic revival designs along with utilizing traditional surfaces in unusual ways. All of this is evident in the Nicolson home. Here are some of the many terms thrown around by writers describing the Shellmont Inn: shells, Ionic columns, corner pilasters, shell patterns, garlands, molded caps, Adamesque swag relief, support capitals, more shells, tongue and groove vertical siding, clapboard siding, projecting bay, board and batten, egg and dart, friezes, dormers and so much more.
Windows are cleverly placed and each seems to offer a different size and style, from hexagons to ovals to archways. Everywhere you look the home offers a tiny detail cunningly placed by Downing. And it must have pleased Carolyn in her later years the neighborhood became populated. The home stayed in the Nicolson family well after her death.
Debbie and Ed McCord lucked out in many respects. They are the second owners of the home, purchasing it from the Nicolson family in 1982. Many times homes in Atlanta history are abandoned and left to deteriorate by descendants, demolished by developers or chopped up and subdivided by building owners.
And there’s roving craftsmen and dangerous contractors that invade abandoned structures to salvage and steal architectural and decorative elements, such as mantles, fireplaces, tiles, gas lamps, intricate wood carvings and more. Luckily, the Shellmont Inn never faced these problems. But it was a challenging restoration project for the McCords, who purchased the home with the intention to open a bed and breakfast.
To realize this dream the McCords performed extensive renovations from the seven roofs down to the foundation. They have stripped paint to discover the original wall decorations and reworked the electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems. Inspired by the many shells and their location on Piedmont, they opened in 1984 under the name the Shellmont Inn. And it’s still open… Obviously a testament to the quality of the setting, the home and the management. It’s received dozens of awards over the past thirty years for both its historical value and excellence as a place to stay while on vacation in Midtown Atlanta.
A recent tour of the Shellmont Inn for the Atlanta Preservation Center‘s 2014 Phoenix Flies series of events offered the chance to hear the story from the owners and take the pictures you see here. The interior features a two story foyer with two eye catchers. First, you can’t help but notice the fireplace with the nine-foot mantle that rests on hand-made mosaic tile. But then you notice the staircase that wraps below five window panels of original Tiffany stained glass and around a built-in settee. And throughout both eye-catching features the poplar wood has been carved into flowers, ribbons, faces and more shells, each detail courtesy of the skilled hands of Italian artisans.
The first floor grants a parlor/living room, dining room, parlor/music room, library and remodeled kitchen. The dining room also features a fireplace with a mantle that reaches to the top of the room. But your eye is drawn to the original light fixture made from brass and pewter that dangles from the center of the ceiling.
The living room/parlor was planned to have a leather wall application but the Nicolsons pulled back on the budget in 1893 when they were completing the interior. The other parlor was originally the music room, and the Italian artisans went crazy with carvings of musical instruments. Attached to the music room is probably the most eclectic space of the home. They call it the “Turkish Corner” Library. Guests relax under an inverted dome ceiling, sipping coffee and taking in the Moorish decorations, from the light fixtures to the stenciled patterns on the walls and ceiling to the triple-leaded glass windows. There’s even a boar head from the 1890’s jumping out of the wall.
It’s an impressive renovation and the McCords should be applauded. Historic preservation requires courage and vision. Throughout the Shellmont Inn you can see small patches of the original medallions and stenciled patterns that adorned the walls back when it was a family home, preserved by the current owners as examples from the past. It creates a wonderful example of Atlanta history; pay the Shellmont Inn a visit or just check out the Shellmont Inn website. Special thanks to Debbie and Ed McCord for the tour and the permission to take pictures of the Shellmont Inn.
Did you know? Dr. Nicolson would fox hunt behind his (then) country home.
Did you know? The Nicolson home was featured in Downing’s Domestic Architecture (1897); many interior and exterior shots of the home are included in the book.
Did you know? All of the exterior elements on the Eclectic Colonial Revival style structure are original.
Did you know? The two-story, wood frame building to the back of the Shellmont Inn was built with the home. The first floor was for horse carriages and eventually automobiles while the second floor was servant’s quarters. It’s now the 1,000 square-foot premium suite perfect for newlyweds.
Did you know? The Shellmont Inn was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, was named a City of Atlanta Landmark Building in 1989 and won the Atlanta Mayor’s Award for Excellence for Historic Preservation in 1987.