Herndon Home full of history, but its future is unclear

The house, the 99-year-old Herndon Home, former residence of Alonzo Herndon and his son, Norris, is the only privately owned and operated African-American home museum in the United States.

Recent storms have damaged the shutters and two-story columns. Budget restraints have forced the home’s administrators to trim the staff, and tours are now available by appointment only.

“We are reducing our non-essential costs,” said Belinda Stubblefield, a member of the Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Foundation, which oversees the upkeep of the home.

“This is what we have to do in these lean times,” she said. “But it is important that we keep the Herndon message out there and remain visible and relevant.”

The challenge now is how to remain relevant as the home — one of only two African-American National Historic Landmarks in Atlanta, along with the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site — prepares to celebrate its centennial.

Built in 1910 by African-American insurance magnate Alonzo Herndon, the home was once one of the grandest and largest homes in Atlanta. The grandeur is still evident.

At a cost of $10,000, it took 10 carpenters two years to complete the home that was designed by Herndon’s wife, Adrienne.

She decorated the mansion’s 15 rooms with antique and vintage furniture from across the globe. She insisted on carved lion newel posts, arched doorways, Egyptian pottery and Roman glass. The floors were covered with Persian rugs and the walls were papered in silk.

It became a symbol of what black achievement could mean in the post-Reconstruction era.

Herndon was born a slave in 1858 to a white slave master who never acknowledged him. He would go on to open a chain of barbershops throughout Atlanta and create the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, becoming Atlanta’s first black millionaire.

“It is a real treasure from an architectural standpoint and a big part of the story of Atlanta’s African-American entrepreneurs,” said Jeanne Cyriaque of the historic preservation division of the state Department of Natural Resources.

When it was built — on a rise called Diamond Hill — the home was within easy view of the 29-year-old school for the sons and daughters of former slaves, Morris Brown College.

Morris Brown is almost gone now, and the Herndon Home is trying to prevent that fate. In recent years, other historic black institutions in Atlanta — the original Paschal’s restaurant, the APEX Museum, Southwest Community Hospital and even The King Center — have experienced similar financial difficulties.

Stubblefield said it costs about $70,000 annually to run the Herndon Home.

Signs of problems surfaced as early as 2005 when the foundation initially shuttered the home and fired executive director Carole Merritt, the author of “The Herndons,” in an attempt to redefine its mission.

The foundation, created by Norris Herndon to honor his parents, established a plan to identify ways to use technology to tell the home’s story and to find sponsors to fund the effort.

But later that year, with the house empty, storms and weather sprung a hole in the roof. Hardest hit was the music room. Rain weakened a plaster wall, causing an 18th-century oil painting to fall to the floor and a section of wallpaper to peel away from the wall. One of those valuable Persian rugs and the gilded Louis XV-style baby grand piano were also damaged, as was a silk-covered piano bench.

In 2007, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation placed the home on its list of “Places in Peril,” citing the water damage.

Two years later, the Trust noted the home’s progress because a new executive director had been hired and tours were being resumed twice a week. But since then, that executive director was fired and the position eliminated. Those walk-in tours were cut, and visitors must now make an appointment to schedule a tour.

On most days, the home is silent.

“We really wanted to have more focused times,” Stubblefield said. “There were a couple of days a week when no one came. And as you can imagine, having an executive director comes in at a higher cost. We are just trying to focus resources in the best manner possible.”

But it remains unclear how the foundation is leaning on others for help. Cyriaque said that for a struggling organization, being placed on a “Places in Perils” list could be a blessing in disguise.

Dorchester Academy in Midway, for example, used its placement on a National Trust list to kick off fund-raising efforts.

“Usually, people use that kind of publicity to garner support and to galvanize the community,” Cyriaque said. “I am not sure if the Herndon Foundation has done that. They’ve got to raise money. That is at the core.”

Stubblefield said the foundation has been partnering with other organizations, like the Auburn Avenue Library, and pursuing grants.

She said there are also about 175 “Friends of the Herndon Home,” who have helped with fund-raising or made donations.

Last week, there were no tours and the media wasn’t allowed inside the home because of maintenance work.

Stubblefield said workers were painting parts of the interior and cleaning carpets.

Scaffolding braces the outside of the home for workers to fix gutters and columns. Recent storms knocked down a tree that damaged the house, sidewalks, sprinkler system and lawn.

“We are staying focused on the basics,” Stubblefield said. “Like the upkeep of the home and the things that are fundamental to the maintenance.”

Stubblefield contends that the house has been alive with activity.

Last winter the foundation held its annual Christmas on Diamond Hill celebration. Recently, it hosted a Black History Month event, as well as Tea on Diamond Hill.

With the home’s 100th anniversary coming up, the foundation is looking to expand programming and produce a documentary of the Herndon legacy.

“There are wonderful things that are happening at the home,” Stubblefield said. “The doors are open.”

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