Cover Story: Whittier Mill Village

A century-old mill town retains its charm

Veronica Cooper doesn’t believe she lives in Atlanta. She’s far removed from the bustling city, shrouded by the huge oak trees and quaint cottages of her turn-of-the-century neighborhood. It’s a place where her 2-year-old son Jack can stomp in puddles on the brick walkway without constant supervision; where she and her husband - who moved into the neighborhood as newlyweds nine years ago - can spend summer nights chatting with neighbors on their front porch swing; where impromptu neighborhood cookouts and soccer pick-up games are the norm.

“We have our own little world here,” Cooper says, as she leans against her gray-blue siding and rearranges the cushions on her porch’s bistro chairs. “We’re close to the city, but far from it.”

Whittier Mill Village, located just inside I-285 in the northwest part of the city near Vinings, is an escape from Atlanta’s faux lofts and cookie-cutter gentrification. Nestled behind Bolton Road near the Chattahoochee River and 15 minutes from downtown, Whittier Mill residents take pride in a 30-acre, 110-home neighborhood that boasts front porches, brick chimneys, steeped roofs and sincere neighborly rapport.

“The neighborhood holds onto rural qualities that are disappearing elsewhere,” says Don Rooney, a 20-year Whittier Mill homeowner. “We still have dead-end streets and open land, unique characteristics that make it a village.”

Whittier Mill has its roots in the 19th century. In 1895, the village sprang up to house Whittier Textile Mill workers after the Whittier family of Massachusetts expanded its business to the South. Mill workers could rent the modest frame houses for about a dollar a week and had access to the “ark,” akin to a modern-day square, which housed a barbershop, shoe store, pharmacy and communal showers.

In 1925, the mill expanded, and another wave of houses was built to accommodate the workers. When the mill closed in 1972, many of the retired workers stayed on and helped maintain a cohesive community.

Most of the mill’s remains were demolished in 1988. All that’s left of the original 65,000-square-foot factory is a brick tower, which serves as the center of Whittier Mill Park. Though new homes on Butler Way obscure an old baseball field, and the newest houses facing the park look like they’re from the set of The Truman Show, history and character remain a vital part of the neighborhood. In 2001, the city of Atlanta designated the neighborhood as a Historic District, meaning the Atlanta Urban Design Commission must approve alterations to the exterior of cottages as well as designs for new homes to keep the neighborhood uniform.

Today, Whittier Mill Village boasts some of the only pre-19th-century homes available in Atlanta, and at reasonable prices. A two-bedroom, one-bath home built in 1895 is currently listed for $229,000; another, built in 1870, is going for $199,000. Many of the homes have original heart-pine floors, masonry fireplaces and bead-board walls. And though the lots are small - most are around a third of an acre - the 17-acre Whittier Mill Park provides ample room for neighbors to enjoy the outdoors.

Last year, the Arthur Blank Family Foundation Environmental Initiatives program gave the neighborhood association a $40,000 grant to renovate the remains of the old carpenter shop, located in a corner of the park. The association plans to turn the shop into an open-air picnic pavilion and playground.

“Though the neighborhood has gentrified, it’s done it naturally over time,” Rooney says. “There’s a wonderful combination of convenience and isolation.”

Three-year Whittier Mill resident Angie Bowman says she and her husband often take walks around the neighborhood at dusk - and don’t return to their pale yellow cottage until 11 p.m. They drink home-brewed beer with their neighbors and throw community parties - most recently an “Around the World” New Year’s Eve bash. This spring, they’ll help plant trees and clean up Whittier Mill Park with fellow neighbors.

“It’s a modern-day ‘Desperate Housewives’ without all the drama,” Bowman says. “As long as I’m in Atlanta, I’ll live here.”

?Fact Box
?Averaging $200,486 in 2004, down from $207,351 in 2002; a 3 percent decrease.
?Average rental: No info available.

?Bolton Academy (Elementary)
?Sutton Middle School
?North Atlanta High School

?White: 85 percent
?African-American: 15 percent

?Whittier Mill Park: Part of the long-defunct mill structure remains in the park. Located at the end of Whittier Avenue.
?Vinings Jubilee Center: Modeled after a town square, contains shops and boutiques. 2850 Paces Ferry Road.
?ArtRages Gallery: Featuring art glass, pottery and funky jewelry. 6035 Sandy Springs Circle.

?Bacchanalia: Perhaps the finest restaurant in Atlanta. Expect to spend a pretty penny, but it’s worth it. 1198 Howell Mill Road.
?Figo Pasta: Cheap, good, and lots of it. Choose your own pasta and accompanying sauce. 1170-B Collier Road.
?Nuevo Laredo Cantina: Delicious home- style Mexican food. Warning: Can be extremely crowded on weekends. 1495 Chattahoochee Ave.