History of the Benjamin Swanton House
Swanton House ca. 1890.
The Swanton House, with a log cabin at its core, is one of the oldest remaining structures in Decatur. The two-room log cabin portion was probably constructed by early DeKalb settler Burwell Johnson and later sold to Ammi Williams. The exact construction date for what is sometimes referred to as “the oldest house in Decatur” cannot actually be determined, but it is estimated to be about 1825. In fact, it is hard to date many early structures in DeKalb County because of a fire in the courthouse in 1842, which destroyed nearly all of DeKalb’s earliest records.
The house was enlarged and updated periodically, each change reflecting the current popular trends. Over the course of about 100 years, the original pioneer cabin was transformed into a Georgian cottage, which is defined by its floor plan of a central hallway with two rooms on either side. Around 1890, the house was embellished with an Eastlake style porch topped by an addition.
Benjamin Franklin Swanton arrived in Georgia from Maine during the 1830s during the Dahlonega Gold Rush to sell mining machinery. He came to Decatur, the seat of government for DeKalb County, and purchased the house in 1852. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Swanton established himself as a successful industrialist who engaged in a variety of businesses, including a brickyard, tannery, and machine shop.
Benjamin Franklin Swanton with grandchildren, (L-R) Sally, Estelle, and Arria, ca. 1875.
During the Civil War, Swanton and some of his family fled temporarily to Maine. On July 19, 1864, the Swanton House became the headquarters for the Federal Army of the Tennessee, who were en route to Atlanta. The Swanton House was spared destruction and remained in the Swanton family until 1965.
The 1890s chamfered wood columns, decorative spandrel, and brackets were replaced by square brick columns in the 1930s to update the porch to the craftsman style; those were retained until the house was moved to its current location.
Inside the Swanton House, 1952. Reclined in the chair is Josephine Swanton Kerr Thompson, the last member of the Swanton Family to reside in the home.
Swanton House on Atlanta Avenue prior to the move, early 1960s.
Concern for saving the Swanton House appeared to start around 1957 when articles about the house and its history were published in The Decatur News. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Thurman D. Thompson, wanted to move out of the area which had “become commercialized.” Mrs. Thompson was the great-granddaughter of Mr. Swanton and had lived in the house her whole life. Urban renewal swept through downtown Decatur in the 1960s – city fathers sought to preserve this particular structure from the path of demolition. The owner sold her property to the Decatur Housing Authority in January of 1965, with a right to reserve the historic structure which was appraised as having no value. But by then, Mills B. Lane, Jr., president of C&S Bank, was already interested in the house: his plan was to restore it on-site or move it to land owned by the City of Decatur. It appears from our 1970 file notes that he purchased “the house itself from Mrs. Thurman Thompson.” After considering his options: restore it on site or move it, Lane made the decision in 1970 to move the house and provide funds for its restoration to the DeKalb History Center if the city would provide land. Much of the urban renewal project had already been completed, with housing and businesses around the Swanton House already demolished. Wales W. Thomas of the Thomas-Denton Company, General Contractors, oversaw the move and restoration of the Swanton House. The city provided land, which was taken from Ebster Park to accommodate the house. The Swanton House was originally located at 240 Atlanta Avenue, just two blocks away from the historic DeKalb Courthouse; a location that was a little higher – and much drier – than its “new” location on West Trinity Place. It received a historic marker in 1957 which was moved with the house. On September 21, 1970, the City of Decatur leased the Swanton House to the DeKalb History Center for 50 years and in 1978, it was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is often pointed out that the house was moved to land once owned by Swanton for his tannery. Tanning hides to produce leather was a messy business that created foul odors; he might not have been pleased with its new location!
The Swanton House was officially opened and dedicated in 1972 as a house museum. But operational problems arose as early as 1982. A report to the DHC board stated: “The matter of successful Swanton House tours has been a problem of long duration. It was difficult for more than a few persons to hear the guide as the tour progressed through the house. The description of the various furnishings and construction of the house were complex.” Barriers were built to keep visitors out of the rooms and a “special element” was purchased for the typewriter to provide large font labels. But as is common with small antebellum houses – they were made for living, not for group tours – problems would persist. Preservationists wanted many people to visit, pay admission and see their work, but it was sometimes impossible to see, hear and learn from the guides.
Three other structures were also added to the park. In 1978, the Biffle cabin was moved to the city park (to help convey a detached kitchen) and in 1984 the Thomas-Barber cabin was moved to the “historic complex.” This was another trend seen across the nation – moving structures together in new locations to create a facsimile of a farm or village. 716 West, originally called the Mary Gay House, was also moved to West Trinity Place in August of 1979 and is used by the Junior League. The History Center advocated for the house to remain at its original site on Marshall Street, but downtown development pressures in Decatur were too strong. Today, the houses present an interpretation problem. In a small rural town like Decatur was in the 1860s, you would not have had two little prim cottages side-by-side. Moving a structure is still seen as a last resort, but is preferable to losing it altogether.
Across the nation, small house museums did not receive the thousands of visitors they all expected and this trend has worsened over the last three decades. Various problems can affect visitation at a small house museum: larger attractions are visited first, houses might be off the beaten path, interpretation and programming could be lackluster, locals do not return after an initial visit and so on. Soon organizations were faced with funding ongoing maintenance for these houses without enough visitors to offset repairs and other bills. The DHC had a Saturday open house in 1988 which was explained in a local paper as “a rare occasion as lack of personnel makes it impossible to keep the complex open to the public on a regular basis.”