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The Johnston-Felton-Hay House is one of the finest Italianate town houses in the United States, a residence displaying Renaissance Revival palazzo forms and stylistic detail normally found in nineteenth-century American commercial and institutional architecture. Mid-nineteenth-century Italian styling frequently found its principal catalyst in an English-revived “Italian villa” mode, but it spawned both a rural villa and urban town house progeny, the former popularized by the picturesque movement. Inspired by the writings of A. J. Downing, including Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850), and stimulated by the built works of A. J. Davis, the Italian Villa Style became popular among “picturesque” choices for residential styles at midcentury.
Hay House, as it is commonly called now, employs a four-square town house composition, which is marked by symmetrical front elevations, central cupolas (rather than asymmetrically placed towers), and an elaborate treatment of architectural detail (rounded or pedimented windows, pronounced quoins, strong bracketing, and heavier massing and surface textures). With sophisticated references to the urban palazzi of Renaissance Florence and Rome, rather than the villas of agrarian Tuscany, the Johnston-Felton-Hay House is one of the most lavish and best preserved Renaissance Revival residences in the United States. The style was not typical of the South (which was neither predominantly urban nor industrial); instead, William Butler Johnston’s association with banking and mercantile interests may well have encouraged him to follow the example of Renaissance bankers and merchant princes, such as the Medici, by building a palazzo in Macon, Georgia. Johnston accumulated substantial wealth from investments in banking, railroads, an ice factory, an insurance company, and public utilities (gas and water works), rather than from the Southern agrarian staples of tobacco or cotton (although he did invest in cotton mills). While others in the South during the antebellum era built great houses surrounded by colossal white columns, Johnston hired the New York architectural firm Thomas and Son to design a magnificent and urbane “Palace of the South,” to be ornately decorated, filled with artworks, and exemplify the pinnacle of civilized living.
In 1851, William Butler Johnston married Anne Clark Tracy, twenty years his junior and said to be even richer than he, and the two set off to honeymoon on a grand tour of Europe. They visited museums, art studios, and historic sites, acquiring an enviable collection of paintings, statues, fine porcelain, and other mementos. Upon their return in the early 1850s, the Johnstons built a mansion to house their new acquisitions. Although later owners remodeled some of the house, the entrance hall and dining room were restored, in 1991 and 2010–2011, respectively, to return to the period style of the late Johnston era, circa 1870–1890.
After Anne's death in 1896, the Johnstons’ daughter, Mary Ellen, and her husband, Judge William H. Felton, redecorated parts of the house, updated the plumbing, and added electricity. In the restoration completed by the Georgia Trust, the library and front porch were renovated to reflect the turn-of-the-century character of the Felton occupancy.
Following the death of the Feltons, their heirs sold the house in 1926 to Parks Lee Hay, founder of the Bankers Health and Life Insurance Company. Again, the house was redecorated, and the restoration of the music and living rooms reflect this era of the Hays. While it is unconventional to incorporate decorative traditions of different periods within a single house, the restoration and preservation philosophy of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation promotes the idea that a building should be a living museum of broad educational value. Hence, the full history of the house, rather than just one moment in time, is embodied in the bricks and mortar. The house has remained open to the public throughout the thirty-plus years of Georgia Trust restoration work.
The residence was built on an original estate of 3.8 acres, with the house set on a prominent hill overlooking the rolling landscape on the edge of town. The architects called it a “country house” and envisioned a large park with gardens, pond, stable, spring house, and trees that would grow in magnificence to balance the house. Among the nineteenth-century plantings that survive today are ginkgo, magnolia, and cedar trees.
The architects organized 18,000 square feet of space on four levels, with a multi-storied cupola bringing focus to both the outside and inside of the house. On the interior, the cupola acts as a chimney flue to ventilate the house by drawing air from the rooms and out through the top of the house. A wind tunnel in the basement at the end of the back hallway allows cool air to be drawn from underground spaces, to circulate through the house, and then exit out of the cupola, providing an innovative nineteenth-century controlled air system—a “green” air conditioner that functioned in accordance with the natural laws of thermodynamics. Other technological innovations at the house included hot and cold running water, central heating, a speaker tube system, and an in-house kitchen.
The basement contained both the servants’ work areas and the family’s summer living quarters. The servants’ areas included a kitchen, a scullery with furnace pit and areas for heavy washing, and a food-storage pantry, or larder. A summer dining room, summer bedroom (now staff offices), and the summer parlor (now the exhibit hall) provided living quarters for the family during hot months, and the decorative faux finishes, plaster work, custom cabinetry, and wood graining, indicated the intended use by the family of these customarily secondary spaces.
The grandeur of the house is evidenced, naturally, on the main floor. Here are the house’s largest rooms, which include three parlors, a dining room, and a fifty-foot long, sky-lit art gallery/music room, whose historic finishes were restored in 1990. Ceilings in the largest rooms are as high as thirty-two feet and are richly covered with plasterwork and gilding. The twenty-eight-foot-high dining hall ceiling is a shallow barrel vault. Lavish floors, woodwork including window and door trim, and cabinetry juxtapose oak, mahogany, walnut, and rosewood; stenciling, cast plaster, and tromp d’oeil paintwork abounds. The decorative finishes in the Marble Hall rival any in the country. Walls there are covered with faux-marble paintings by Swiss artist Auguste Tripod; some 95 percent of the wall finishes are original to the Johnston era and were restored in the 1990s. The second floor contains two bedrooms on either side of a central hallway, a children’s bathroom, and a master bath (two of the three baths in the house). On the walls of the hallway, paintings on unfinished canvas are made to look like tapestries.
Most of the furnishings date from the Hay family’s occupancy (1926–1962); a notable exception is the Eastlake-style dining room set from the Johnston era (1860–1896). Also from this period is the marble statue Ruth Gleaning, one of the Johnston collection’s most important works, executed in 1857 by the American expatriate Randolph Rogers. Other sculptures in the collection are copies of famous works, such as Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne (c. 1622–1625), the original of which is located in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. In many ways, the Hay House belongs to the citizens of Georgia: for thirty-five years its preservation and renovations by the Georgia Trust have been funded by public and private donations statewide, and its doors are open on a regular basis for public and private tours, for weddings, for corporate meetings, and for special events, including art exhibits. The latter might have especially pleased William Butler Johnston, whose grand tour to Europe in the early 1850s inspired the building of the Italian Renaissance Revival palazzo in the first place.
Lane, Mills. The Architecture of the Old South: Georgia. New York: Beehive Press, 1986.
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