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Column: Historic rescue required $300, lots of patience
by Thornton Kennedy
Northside Neighbor Columnist
September 25, 2013 01:53 PM | 4362 views | 0 0 comments | 74 74 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Thornton Kennedy
Thornton Kennedy
Three hundred dollars is all it took for Ralph Oliver to purchase an elegant Neel Reid masterpiece that occupies a major corner on West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead.

Built in 1923 for Dr. and Mrs. Willis Jones, the home was originally on the corner of Peachtree and Huntington roads at a time when grand houses lined Peachtree from downtown Atlanta to Brookwood Hills. The Georgian-style home had a cherry-paneled drawing room, Italian murals adorning the walls of the dining room and hand-crafted moulding throughout. After the Joneses died, the family sold the home in 1949 to the Atlanta Historical Society.

Renamed McElreath Hall in honor of the organization’s first president, Walter McElreath, the home served as the society’s headquarters. It was used for teas and social engagements. Interestingly, Atlanta’s great historian, Franklin Garrett, lived in a small room in the home from 1947 to 52 when he was a bachelor. One of theQ ground-floor rooms was used for the society’s files.

Then, in 1967, the society purchased the Swan House and moved its headquarters to the current location on the corner of West Paces Ferry and Andrews Drive, leaving the former Jones house — McElreath Hall — empty and unoccupied. What happened to the home next could not have been predicted or believed.

Over the course of two years, thieves and vandals stole the cherry paneling, the Italian murals and the marble mantles. They took the fixtures, the doors, the plumbing and the moulding. The front porch even disappeared. The home was essentially destroyed.

In 1969 Ralph Oliver stepped in. He had driven past the house many times and had long admired it. When he learned it was to be demolished he bought it for $300 and had it moved in pieces to a lot on the corner of West Paces Ferry and Moores Mill roads. The lower section was split into three parts and the top was split in two. Following the move, the 7,500-square-foot home was dealt another indignity when the economy slowed halting the restoration. It sat in multiple pieces for nearly a decade before it was completed.

Today the Willis Jones House, 520 W. Paces Ferry Road, is a perfect complement to the neighborhood even though it is a relative newcomer. While it may have encountered trouble for a spell, the ultimate result was the rescue of an elegant and significant historic home.

It is difficult not to draw a parallel between the Jones House and the Randolph-Lucas House, which is in the process of preparing for its move from 2494 Peachtree Road in Buckhead to Ansley Park. Designed by Thornton Mayre and completed in 1924, the Randolph-Lucas House fell into a state of disrepair after years of neglect and was slated for demolition before the Buckhead Heritage Society mounted the campaign to save it.

There are lessons to be learned from the Willis Jones House, the most important of which is the rescue of a historic home is well worth the trials and tribulations.

Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at

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