Folks in my trade, history and architectural history, find buildings and landscapes interesting. Yet, it is the people who designed, built, lived, and worked in them who are the real stars in architectural history. Sometimes I meet a building’s earlier occupants through the property’s current stewards; the former homeowner or resident knocking on the door of a current resident is an almost universal motif in architectural history narratives. Those connections yield invaluable information sources for people who study old houses.
Over the past decade a different kind of connection has been becoming more frequent. The Internet has democratized the past in ways not anticipated by traditional historians accustomed to archival and field research; reporting in academic journals and conference papers; and, to dialogues with colleagues and students. In 2011 I wrote a blog post on the history of Parkwood, a suburban Atlanta, Georgia, subdivision. Parkwood was among one of the last subdivisions developed in Druid Hills, the large suburb historically linked with some of Atlanta’s leading Gilded Age entrepreneurs and noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his successors.
More than a year after the post went live, a woman living in Houston, Texas, used Google to search for pictures of her former Atlanta area home. On July 31, 2012, I got an email notifying me that a comment was awaiting moderation on my blog. “My name is Sandra Paul Harper,” the comment read. “And the Paul family, My Mother and Father, Alice and Harry Paul, purchased the property of 109 Parkwood Lane in  and we lived there until 1950.”
I sent Harper an email thanking her for the comment and our exchange led to a better understanding of the home where she lived. And, it adds some texture to the documentary record of her former neighborhood’s development history. Harper sent historical photos from her collection showing the former family home and her parents during the decade they lived in Druid Hills. In August 2012, I interviewed Harper via Skype to talk about her childhood memories growing up on Parkwood Lane and life in Decatur in the 1950s.
Sandra Paul Harper was born in 1935. “I was born in Dallas and we moved to Atlanta, I believe, when I was two or three, and there we stayed,” she explained in our Skype interview. Her parents were young adults when they arrived in Atlanta. Harry M. Paul (1903-1987) was a salesman with the National Theater Supply Company and his wife, Alice (1908-1995), was a stay-at-home mom during Sandra’s childhood.
The Pauls’ home was built in 1931 or 1932. It was one of the first few homes built in the Parkwood subdivision, an 86-acre tract first laid out in 1930 by the Druid Hills Company. A Candler family venture (the Candlers were wealthy Atlanta entrepreneurs whose venures included Coca Cola, real estate development, and backing Emory University), the Druid Hills Company in 1930 sold two adjacent parcels to John Candler. Candler, in turn, quickly transferred title to the properties to Emory University. The following year, Louis Isaacson bought the property that the Paul family later purchased and he built a 1.5-story English Country Revival home on the 0.5-acre lot on the north side of Parkwood Lane.
According to the 1940 U.S. Census, the Parkwood Lane home’s residents were renters: a sales manager named E.B. Scott and his wife, Estelle. Renters also lived next door at the street’s other home, 115 Parkwood Lane. The Paul family rented a home at 427 Lakeshore Drive, about 1.5 miles west of 109 Parkwood Lane. Four months after census enumerators left the Parkwood Lane and Lakeshore Drive homes, Harry Paul bought 109 Parkwood Lane. He paid $6,500 in cash and used a $5,250 mortgage at eight percent to pay the remainder.
Sandra Paul Harper grew up on a street in a subdivision on the cusp of development. It was a child’s dream landscape where vacant and wooded lots provided the setting for games and treehouse construction. “There were only two houses on the street at that time,” Harper recalled. “Across our street, it was all woods. Yes, woods from my house on over towards Decatur. That was woods. And then again, on the other side of the Wilsons, that was all woods. So it was heavily wooded.”
Harper grew up in DeKalb County’s upper middle class. Her parents belonged to the Druid Hills Country Club and they attended the Druid Hills Presbyterian Church. Like many Druid Hills families, the Pauls had an African American domestic who took care of the household and helped raise young Sandra.
“She was wonderful, our maid. Her name was Griff and she was a very large black woman and she would love me so much,” said Harper. When Harper’s parents stayed out late dancing, Griff spent the nights in the Pauls’ attic. Harper remembers Griff fattening and killing chickens in the family’s backyard. On at least one occastion, Harper visited Griff’s – Harper doesn’t recall her full name – home in Decatur’s Beacon Community, the city’s segregated African American quarter. “I remember going to her house one time. Well, it was really a little shack,” recalled Harper.
She cooked on a black potbelly stove and I remember she made potato pancakes. They were out of this world. And I slept on a pallet. I think she had dirt floors but I can’t remember exactly.
The Parkwood Lane home was one of the last houses in Parkwood inside Decatur’s city limits. Harper attended elementary school at Decatur’s Ponce de Leon elementary school; in the 1960s a new central post office was constructed where the school once stood. “It was a mile and a half or three-quarters walk from my house to the school,” she said.
I always walked. I walked alone or rode my bicycle and things were quite a bit different there. There was no fear of being by yourself, walking all the way to Decatur, which I did every Saturday morning to the movies there. They had childrens’ movies and then they had lots of wonderful serials. And I understand that that theater is no longer there, either.
The Pauls sold their Druid Hills home in 1952 and moved to Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood. “They wanted to build a house and so we moved to a place off Blackland Road,” said Harper. When her father died, Harper moved her mother to Texas and the home was sold. “And that house has been torn down – my house has been torn down – and there is like a huge French chateau there now,” she said.
Harper’s memories and their ties to her former community’s past and its present are a commanding reminder of the power of place. Nostalgia and memory play critical roles in transforming the past into history. As the Internet continues to allow people from a place’s past to connect with others in its future, opportunities for historians will continue to expand beyond archives and physical communities. Cyberspace is a virtual community where tradition bearers, like Harper, can become researchers and collaborators in constructing more vivid and complete histories.
I didn’t save the high resolution photo used illustrate the 2011 blog post and I returned to Parkwood Lane the final weekend in September 2012 to get a new one. A Realtor‘s sign was posted at the property and the home’s first open house was scheduled for the following day. I sent Harper a draft of this post along with the link to one of the real estate sites advertising her former home. “Man, how the house has changed,” she replied in an email. “And the asking price…WOW! In many ways I wish I could buy it and return to my roots so to speak!”
Harper added, “David, your article on doing research on my home and all of the pictures and descriptions made my mind come alive and buzzed!!!” Her response was priceless. That’s what makes history fun.
© 2012 D.S. Rotenstein