DeKalb's oldest home may soon disappear

Brookhaven's Goodwin House for sale and could be demolished

Solomon Goodwin bought his family's home on Peachtree Road in Brookhaven well ahead of intown Atlanta's recent growth spurt.

How far ahead?

Well, let's see; when Goodwin bought it, Brookhaven wasn't called Brookhaven. It was known as Cross Keys. Peachtree wasn't really a street, either. It was a footpath that, if followed south for 11 miles, led to downtown Atlanta – only Atlanta did not yet exist.

Solomon Goodwin bought his family home in 1838 – one year after the Western and Atlantic Railroad founded a town called Terminus in what is now Five Points.

According to Franklin M. Garrett's 1954 history of the city, Atlanta and Environs, the Goodwin House, as it became known, was a welcome and welcoming stop on pre-Atlanta Peachtree.

"In the old days there was a long trough on the Peachtree Road side of the dwelling which was kept full of water from the nearby well so that all wayfarers could refresh their livestock," Garrett wrote. "Afterward, the travelers, in the leisurely fashion of the day, would sit for a while upon the wide porch and discuss politics, crops, and the weather with their host. Mindful of his standing orders 'Old Mitch,' the white-headed house servant, would soon appear with the requisite number of brandy toddies to lubricate the discussion."

The Goodwin House survived the Civil War and occupation by Sherman's troops. It survived a railroad that passes just feet from its foundation. It even survived being picked up and trucked 100 yards down a hill to make way for the widening of the intersection of Peachtree and North Druid Hills roads (an Extended Stay America hotel sits on the home's original location).

And it even survived the loss to development of all but 1.2 of the approximately 500 acres of farmland that once surrounded it.

Today, the Goodwin House is still owned by Solomon Goodwin's descendents. Worn but sturdy, the house sits at 3931 Peachtree Road – hidden behind a patch of magnolias, a shacklike Subway sandwich shop, a state historical marker and, recently, a large "For Sale" sign. The oldest documented home in DeKalb County and the valuable land upon which it sits are officially on the market for $3.5 million.

The land Solomon Goodwin bought for $2.80 per acre may now fetch $57 per square foot. And depending on who buys it and what that buyer chooses to do with it, a house that has stood since Martin Van Buren was in the White House might not make it to the next presidential inaugural.

"It's not like it was when I was a kid," says Lynda Martin, Goodwin's great-great-great-great granddaughter and the family's primary administrator of the property. "The hubbub of busy Peachtree Road increasingly penetrates. There are members of the family who don't even want to come here anymore."

Martin says the decision to let go of the house – a house six generations of her ancestors have lived in – was agonizing. It was also, she says, necessary. The time and expense involved in keeping up the house are getting to be too much.

Her father, Albert Martin Jr., who spends much of his free time tending to the home and its grounds, will turn 80 this year. Martin and her husband, both consultants, keep their offices in the home.

The Goodwin House started out as a log cabin. Between 1839 and 1842, the family built around the cabin and transformed the structure into a Plantation Plain-style home similar to the Tullie Smith House on the grounds of the Atlanta History Center.

Because the house was built in the 19th century, simple renovations now require expensive custom work, Martin says. When she recently looked into replacing the windows of the room she uses as an office, she got back an estimate for $5,000.

The community, she says, doesn't seem especially interested in the one-time landmark. The house is open to visitors for three hours on the third Sunday of each month, but "almost nobody comes by," Martin says. "Atlanta's not real historically oriented, you know."

Martin says the family has looked into programs, tax breaks and grants available to help them preserve the home, but the options they've investigated still require more money and time than the family is prepared to give right now. Moving the house to a rural location, she says, would cost a quarter of a million dollars. She says the family is willing to give the house away to anyone who can afford to move it off-site and take care of it.

"It's free to a good home," she jokes.

The property is zoned commercial, and Martin says the family's dream is for a developer to buy the property and incorporate the house into a new, mixed-use development.

Mark Miller, the broker who represents the property, says that if a buyer was able to buy one or more of the adjacent parcels, there might be enough space to keep the Goodwin House as part of a new development.

Regina Brewer, preservation planner for Decatur and chair of the city of Atlanta's Urban Design Commission, hasn't looked at the Goodwin House, but says several local developers have successfully incorporated historic buildings into new developments.

"There are a number of ways to save a historic building without moving it," she says, noting Auburn Avenue's Wigwam apartments as an example. Thanks to tax incentives for historic preservation, Wigwam's property tax bill is negligible, Brewer says.

Don Rooney, urban history curator of the Atlanta History Center, says the Goodwin House is at the "top of the list" of buildings in metro Atlanta worth preserving. There are only a handful of Plantation Plain-style houses left standing in the metro area.

"One need only to look at maps of Georgia to realize how this house was a landmark, even in its day," Rooney says. "I think whenever history is destroyed, it's a big loss. It's sad when something of this vintage is lost."