When real estate development company Willow Ridge Ltd. in 1984 purchased property on Rockbridge Road near Avondale Estates to build an apartment complex, it initially decided to allow the local fire department to burn the old building there as a training exercise.
The complex was built and still functions as a 156-unit apartment community; however, the pre-Civil War building on the site has been partially preserved.
According to articles in the DeKalb News/Sun newspaper, hundreds of history-loving local residents protested the plan to destroy what was known as the Fowler Homestead, named for its earliest known owner, A.C. Fowler.
The home was built in 1822, the same year DeKalb was chartered as a county. Whether the Fowler house is the oldest residence in the county depends on which sources one turns to and which measures are applied. What remains is only a portion of what was once a three-level home. Other buildings—some more intact—also lay claim to the “oldest home” designation.
Arletha Grandison, Willow Ridge Apartment Homes’ current manager, is fond of telling visitors that the building escaped destruction when Gen. William T. Sherman burned Atlanta, then faced the threat of destruction by fire again 162 years later.
“I really don’t know whether Sherman came through this area or not when he burned Atlanta, but old articles refer to this building escaping being burned by him, so I’m inclined to think he did,” said Grandison, who describes herself as a history buff.
“Even though I come to work here every day, I don’t take this for granted,” she said. “I get goose bumps thinking about it.”
Her main point of reference is a 1984 article by Helen Ordner that appeared in a local publication. When the article, under the headline “Deadline Nears on Fate of ‘Oldest House,’” was published, several plans to move the house to a new site were being explored. According to the article, the DeKalb Historical Society verified the age and history of the house, then occupied by the Thompson family. Prior to the verification “its significance had not been widely known in the county,” the article states.
Once the new owner, Tom Williams of Willow Ridge Ltd., became aware the building had historic value, he agreed to make every effort to preserve it. “I don’t want to burn it,” the article quotes Williams saying. “If we have to, we’ll pick it up by helicopter.”
The same article quotes Peggy Hill, then-president of the DeKalb Historical Society, as saying the helicopter plan “won’t fly,” but that she was working with Williams to find a practical alternative.
“It’s all part of our history that the future may never have,” the article quotes Hill as saying, “God, that house is a rarity.”
Among those fighting to save the building was Evelyn Brogdon, a member of the Fowler family who once lived in the home. A resident of North Carolina at the time Willow Ridge bought the property, Brogdon wrote to The DeKalb News/Sun and to others pleading for the house to be saved. “The thought of my home place being burned is like losing a family member,” she said in a letter to the newspaper. Describing herself as “the only surviving member of the immediate family,” she said she would buy the home but lacked the funds.
The efforts resulted in a compromise through which the brick foundation, the basement, the coal-burning fireplace—in what’s now Grandison’s office—and other parts of the structure were incorporated into the leasing office. “This is such a place special,” said Grandison, who said she’s looking into having a sign made to tell visitors and tenants of the building’s history.
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