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Buckhead and Lenox Square

Buckhead has a reputation as Atlanta's most affluent and elegant district. But its name preserves the legacy of its frontier beginnings, when hunting in the virgin forests was the main local enterprise.

 The Peachtree-Piedmont intersection in the early 1930's.

Photo courtesy of the Atlanta History Center
Piedmont-Piedmont intersection Detail
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A buck's head and a tavern

As a community, Buckhead traces its origin to Henry Irby's general store and tavern, which was founded in 1837, according to an Irby descendant. It was located at what is now the northwest corner of West Paces Ferry Road and Roswell Road. Irby's tavern became the stopping place for travelers rich and poor in the thinly populated wilderness and the community that grew up around it was known as Irbyville. He maintained it until well after the Civil War. Irby, who died in 1879, is buried in the Sardis Methodist Church cemetery on Power's Ferry Road near its intersection with Roswell Road.

It was Irby, according to his descendant, who killed a large deer and mounted the "buck head" where travelers could see it.

Why this display made such an impression on people who came across it is hard to say. Some sources describe it as a sort of joke, a way of poking fun at European noblemen who displayed hunting trophies on their walls. At any rate, the name Buckhead proved durable, and a campaign in the late 19th century to rename the area Northside Park was unsuccessful.

In the late 19th century and much of the 20th century, Buckhead was still lightly populated, but it was no longer a wilderness. It had become a posh suburb of Atlanta, where wealthy people lived serenely on lush, well-tended estates.

One of these estates, the country home of the Ottley family, became the site of Lenox Square mall in 1959. The building of Lenox Square was an important moment in the history of Atlanta, and the mall itself is the modern equivalent of Irby's tavern, a social and commercial hub for Buckhead.

An eventful past

The history of the 74 acres along Peachtree Road on which Lenox Square now stands is a good illustration of the whole area's eventful past. The first white owner was Mary Gromet, who apparently received the property in the 1820s, in one of the land lotteries that distributed newly seized Indian land. The land in the early lotteries often went to widows and orphans of war veterans, and Gromet may have been one of these.

A later owner was a farmer named John Simpkins, who grew cotton and corn on the property. Simpkins, who lived from 1816 to 1912, was one of those Georgians who witnessed an amazing transformation in their lifetimes. He grew up on the kind of frontier celebrated by James Fenimore Cooper, but he lived to see the age of automobiles, airplanes, telephones and recorded music.

Simpkins' farm appears to have missed the ravages of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's Union troops, who burned Atlanta and sacked much of Georgia during the Civil War. Even under Sherman's "total war" concept, not every piece of land was a target. Georgia was simply too big. The Southern Railway did not come through until 1873, so there was no military objective in the area.

During the clearing of land for Lenox Square, a large boulder was found with the name "Colonel McCormack" carved on it. A search of Civil War rolls yielded no clue as to who this person was, and his name was not associated with the history of the area.

It is possible that the name referred to Robert McCormick (1880-1955), a newspaper editor and publisher in Chicago from the early years of the 20th century until the 1950s. He was an eccentric and controversial figure who seemed to relish public feuds with politicians. He was known nationwide simply as "Colonel McCormick," after his World War I rank. But if the unknown carver was referring to him, the spelling was wrong and the meaning was a mystery.

A country estate

John Ottley, an Atlanta banker and sportsman, bought the Simpkins property around the turn of the century. He intended to use it as a country home in the summer and as a place to stable and train his horses. At that time, the estate could be reached by the Southern Railroad line, which ran -- as it does now -- along the back of the property. Otherwise, a long trip by horse and buggy was required.

The years between 1900 and 1929 have been described as the "golden age of Atlanta society." The social calendar of Atlanta's elite included football season, debutante season, Christmas receptions and a full week of grand opera.

John Ottley, president of Atlanta's First National Bank, was one of the great hosts of the era. Like his neighbors, he frequently threw lavish balls in his home. Unlike many of them, he preferred to summer at his Buckhead estate, rather than at such favorite Southern spots as Asheville, N.C., or St. Simons Island off the Georgia coast.

The "Air Line Belle." The Ottleys and their numerous guests later recalled with affection the old Southern Railroad local, the "Air Line Belle," which stopped at the family's own station. Ottley's daughter, who later became Mrs. George W. McCarty, remembered walking as a little girl to the back of their property and out the back gate to catch the train to school.

The train came from Toccoa in northeast Georgia, stopping at many way stations. It arrived in Atlanta at 8:10 a.m., and left the city on its way back to Toccoa at 5:00 p.m.

Just before World War I, with private automobiles now in wide use, the Ottleys moved permanently to their Buckhead estate. They helped set a trend for construction of fashionable homes on the north side of Atlanta.

 The Joyeuse estate before its gracious home, woods, and riding trails gave way to what is now Lenox Square mall.

Photo courtesy of the Atlanta History Center
Joyeuse estate Detail
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'Joyeuse.' The original farm house became a kitchen area, and onto it they built a 12-room, deep-verandahed mansion with a porte-cochere on one side. Mrs. Ottley named the estate "Joyeuse." It was not the biggest home in Atlanta, nor was it architecturally the most beautiful, but many remembered it as one of the most welcoming.

The large reception hall was quite formal. The living room included massive, handsome furniture. There was a paneled library, and a big dining room was dominated by a portrait of John Ottley in fox hunting "pinks," the traditional scarlet hunt riding habit. The family was known for Sunday night "suppers," to which as many as 20 guests might be invited.

One long-time Atlantan recalled his first meeting with John Ottley at his banking office: "I was ushered into his inner office and found him happily playing with a setter puppy, which he was in the midst of buying."

Just as Ottley's interest in dogs and horses found its way into his downtown office, so his banking business echoed in his country stable, which housed show horses that won him hundreds of medals and trophies. The stable's box stalls were made of old tellers' cages, and a long dog run was constructed from similar bank fixtures. The stable also served as a museum where Ottley housed his a collection of early Atlanta memorabilia, such as the old Atlanta portable jail, later exhibited at the Cyclorama.

After World War I, more and more homes for the wealthy were built on the north side.

Atlanta's first ransom kidnapping

In October 1929, the stock market crash ended Atlanta's "golden age" -- and affected the Ottleys in an even more startling way. John Ottley became the victim of Atlanta's first ransom kidnapping.

Franklin Garrett, Atlanta's most famous historian, recalls it this way:

Early on July 6, 1933, Ottley was coming out of the Joyeuse driveway in his car when a man flagged him down and asked for a ride into town. The man looked familiar, so Ottley consented. Immediately a pistol was shoved into the banker's ribs, and a younger accomplice appeared to take the wheel. With the banker in the back seat, the kidnappers drove out Peachtree Road as far as Suwanee, where they turned onto a back road, stopped, blindfolded Ottley and led him to an isolated spot on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, where they bound and gagged him. The older of the two abductors announced he would go back to Atlanta, deliver a ransom note and collect $40,000.

Ottley realized that the younger man, actually only a 17-year-old farm boy named Pryor Bowen, did not really want to commit a crime. Ottley soon persuaded Bowen to release him, and they began walking back to town. A passing truck gave them a ride to a telephone.

Meanwhile, a threatening note had been delivered to the caretaker at Joyeuse and turned over to police. The older kidnapper disappeared, but he later was caught in San Antonio, Texas. He was an ex-convict named William Randolph Delinsky. Delinsky was returned to Atlanta, where he confessed and absolved Bowen of responsibility for the crime. Delinsky was sentenced to 21 to 28 years in prison. Bowen, although Ottley did not want to press charges, was sentenced to a year on a chain gang.

A tragic coincidence

Thirty-two years later, Lenox Square itself was the scene of Atlanta's most famous kidnapping. Mary Shotwell Little, a young newlywed, was last seen at the mall on a balmy night in October 1965. When she was reported missing the next day, her car was found in the mall parking lot with bloodstains inside.

The case made headlines for weeks, especially when police learned that Little was seen alive in North Carolina a day after her disappearance, apparently suffering from a head injury and traveling with someone who presumably was her abductor. Despite this tantalizing clue, the disappearance of Little has not been solved as of this writing (1995). But bogus confessions and other discredited "breaks" in the case have continued to make news every few years.

The end of Joyeuse

When World War II came, the riding ring at Joyeuse was turned into a victory garden. Ottley died in 1945. The land was bought by a real estate company, and Joyeuse was divided into apartments. From 1947 to 1953 most of the downstairs was leased for a private kindergarten and nursery school, and the children of many of those who had partied at Joyeuse went to school there and picnicked on the granite ridge along the back of the property.

The largest shopping center in the South

On May 22, 1956, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation purchased the land, and Ed Noble chose it as the site for a shopping center. Joyeuse was demolished and the "big stone hill" where Creek Indians had ground their corn and generations of privileged Atlantans had picnicked and played was dynamited.

Clearing for Lenox Square began in July 1957 and grading the following December. On June 28, 1958, Lenox Square, designed by architect Joe Amisano, one of the pioneers of modernism in Atlanta, was completed. The grand opening was held in August 1959. The center was anchored by two department stores (Rich's and Davison's) that were joined by a landscaped mall and plaza and flanked by 60 specialty shops, a Colonial grocery store, bowling alley and movie theater. It was, in the words of Atlanta newspapers, the largest regional shopping center south of New York. The slogan was "Everything's there at Lenox Square." The center's somewhat space-age design included a Gulf Service Station at the corner of East Paces Ferry and Lenox roads that many likened to a UFO, flaring arches over the central open-air mall, a bank drive-through with wing-like awnings and parking lot light poles festooned with large balls in different colors to help shoppers remember where they left their cars. Fourth of July fireworks shows began in 1960.

Lenox Road, which used to be level with the property, is now above it. The Marriott Hotel stands on the site of the old stable, riding ring and World War II victory garden.

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