"Finally the business section fell behind and the residences came into view. Scarlett picked them out as old friends, the Leyden house, dignified and stately; the Bonnells', with little white columns and green blinds; the close-lipped red-brick Georgian home of the McLure family, behind its low box hedges."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter VIIITucked in the passage above with the fictional Bonnell and McLure dwellings is a mention of the Leyden house, which was in fact a very real and prominent Atlanta residence from the antebellum period, through Civil War and beyond.
And it was near the Leyden house that Margaret Mitchell chose to situate the grand and towering Butler mansion. (“Before we left Atlanta I was dickering for that big lot on Peachtree, the one near the Leyden house. You know the one I mean?" as sayeth Rhett in the famous honeymoon-nightmare sequence, Ch. XLVIII.)
So the Leydens had the honor (or infamy, depending on your perspective) to be neighbors to Rhett and Scarlett. But who were the Leydens and what did their house look like?
A native son of Pennsylvania who moved to Atlanta in 1848, Austin Leyden established the town’s first foundry and metal fabrication company that same year. Leyden amassed a fortune and eventually sold the company, called A. Leyden & Co., in 1853 to a business partner. (Thereafter it became known as the Atlanta Machine Works and went on to play a central role in the Civil War, churning out weaponry and other goods for the Confederacy.)
Fate smiled on Leyden through one of his other business ventures: through partnership in a dry goods store with Atlantan William Herring, he met and married Herring’s daughter, Rhoda Catherine Herring, in December 1850. It was William Herring who first lived in what would become known as the Leyden house, built in 1859 or 1860 at 124 Peachtree Street between Cain and Ellis streets. Described as “one of the most beautiful and famous houses ever built in Atlanta,” it was developed on a lavish scale:
"The house was box-shaped, having four rooms downstairs and four rooms upstairs, with a central hall running from front to back. The impressive facade was dominated by twelve magnificent Ionic columns, eight of which paraded their fluted beauty, along the Peachtree Street frontage, while two more were visible on each side of the spacious piazza. Each column had a hidden opening at its base, presumably a hiding place for valuables. A small glass-enclosed observatory on the roof of the house provided a view of the entire town. At the rear of the structure were a brick smokehouse, a stable, and quarters for house slaves."The massive size of the house can be best seen in this aerial shot from 1895:
--excerpted from Peachtree Street, Atlanta
Image from ATLhistory.com
Austin Leyden and his family later moved into the house, which functioned as a hospital during the Civil War, before Mrs. Leyden and her young daughter vacated for Athens during the siege of 1864. Leyden himself served as a major in the Confederate army under the command of General James Longstreet.
On account of the Leyden house’s glass observatory, the home was frequently used by the Confederate Signal Corps as a lookout point to observe the movements of Yankee troops nearing the city. Of course, this wasn’t without danger as the Leyden house was a highly visible target and the Yankee sharpshooters regularly returned aim at their opponents, although they never succeeded in killing any of the Confederate signalers.
With the blessing of Mrs. Leyden, the Leyden house served as the headquarters of beleaguered Lt. General John B. Hood, beginning with several battles preceding and then during the siege of Atlanta. After Atlanta’s fall to the Yankees, the Leyden house was once again used as an army headquarters—though this time it was U.S. General George H. Thomas who procured the house as his command center. The Atlanta History Center has a great photograph here of the Leyden House during this time period, flanked by two Yankee sentries.
After the war, the Leydens returned to reoccupy their home and lived there for many years, but life did not remain tranquil for either the family or their grand old home. During the 1880s, two fires devastated the house. The first fire destroyed the roof and, upon rebuilding, the Leydens refashioned the home to include three stories, a mansard roof, and a fresh coat of green paint—a change that was met with about as much goodwill as Rhett and Scarlett’s engagement announcement by Atlantans, who viewed the renovation to be a “desecration of the beautiful and historic house” as describes William Bailey Williford in Peachtree Street, Atlanta. Fortunately, Atlanta could breathe a sigh of relief when, following the second fire which took out the second and third floors, the house was once again painted white and rebuilt to its original height.
Having fallen on hard times, in 1893 the Leydens decided to rent out most of their home to Mrs. Emma Bell for use as a boarding house. Ultimately, the story of the Leyden house drew to its final chapter in 1913 when the home was leveled by real estate investors, a sad ending to the long reign of the historic Leyden house as an Atlanta landmark.