When Atlanta’s Avondale Estates neighborhood first opened to new residents in 1925, developer George F. Willis planned a quaint, old English city with beautiful homes flanking a picturesque town center. But the neighborhood was intended to be “whites-only,” like thousands of towns across the United States. The charming look of the neighborhood remains, but the DeKalb History Center endeavors to show how and where old attitudes on race may still linger, in the new exhibition “The Haven of Health and Happiness.” Curator and exhibit coordinator Rebecca Selem joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to share some highlights from the upcoming exhibition and insight into a remarkable and storied Atlanta neighborhood.
Avondale Estates sits east of Decatur and East Atlanta in DeKalb County. In the years when George F. Willis designed the neighborhood, the area was a “haven” due to its many amenities. “A dairy, a plant nursery, a pool, all these playgrounds, an ice house, an up-to-date business district,” according to Selem. “So it was pretty much a paradise for the people who lived here.” Unfortunately, the rules for who could obtain residence kept the neighborhoods exclusively white and mostly middle- to upper-middle-class.
Willis, a salesman of proprietary medicines, found such success in business that his wealth could kickstart an entire town’s construction. “He was just thinking about the things that he would want to have in his town, and encouraging people to take up residence with this perfect town he created,” said Selem. The Tudor-style architecture came from a visit Willis made to Stratford-Upon-Avon in England, William Shakespeare’s hometown, inspiring the characteristic white stucco and dark wood accents of Avondale’s buildings.
“Before Avondale Estates came in, the area was called Ingleside. There were a lot of residents living there; there were a lot of farms,” said Selem. “Two percent of Ingleside’s population was Black residents. And so when Avondale Estates came in… the Black residents, they were forced to leave because they were racially restrictive covenants, basically saying, anyone of color could not live in the city limits. But obviously, the white residents who were there before, they could stay – as long as they weren’t actually getting in the way of construction of Avondale Estates.”
“The whole idea of this exhibit was, we wanted to create a fuller picture, like a more whole history. Because a lot of times you’ll see Avondale depicted as this paradise, and it was perfect in every way, and everyone was happy here,” said Selem. “So I wanted to create an exhibit to show, like, no town is perfect. Every town has some ugly history that they have to deal with…. You have to talk about the things that make people uncomfortable, and the things that make people smile; you just have to tell the whole history.”
With a far more diverse population now than in its founding years, the neighborhood has come a long way. Fourteen percent of residents are Black, and four percent are LGBTQ+, according to Selem. But the curator hopes the exhibit will help Atlantans to consider the struggles minorities have overcome in finding their places in once off-limits “havens” like Avondale.
“Believe it or not, this exhibit started as just being an architecture exhibit,” said Selem. “Yeah, architecture is important, but… I think it’s important to talk about the people who lived in these places and who built these homes, and these towns.”
“The Haven of Health and Happiness” opens on Aug. 6 at the DeKalb History Center in Decatur, free to the public. More information is available at www.dekalbhistory.org.