The Gutzon Borglum House

Gutzon Borglum house

I have long been an admirer of Gutzon Borglum’s monumental carvings on Mount Rushmore. We lived in South Dakota for a few years and made several trips to see them. So imagine my delight when we happened upon a historic marker bearing his name on one of our evening walks. Karen and I live in Avondale Estates, a historic suburban neighborhood outside Decatur. So, apparently, did Gutzon Borglum for a short time.

Avondale Estates was founded in 1924 as one of Georgia’s first planned communities. Everything in the one-thousand-acre development sprang from rolling, pastoral farmland. The streets and homes were carved out of pastures. The lake was created by excavating a depression and damming a creek. And the downtown was built from scratch at the intersection of Covington highway and Clarendon avenue—a striking and incongruous replica of an English Tudor village.

According to the marker, Borglum moved to the house at 10 Avondale Plaza in 1924 at the invitation of the city’s founder and his close friend, millionaire George Willis. Borglum was drawn to Avondale Estates because it is located eight miles east of the Gold Dome in downtown Atlanta and about halfway to another dome—a giant dome of rock that juts up from the surrounding plains. It is called Stone Mountain.

By the time he moved into my neighborhood, Borglum was a well-respected sculptor. Though he grew up on the frontier of the American West, he moved to Paris to study art while still in his teens. He worked in France, Spain, and England before returning to America in 1901 to make a name for himself.

Back in this country, Borglum created a number of statues and monuments. One of his works was a colossal head of Abraham Lincoln that he carved out of a block of marble. It was eventually placed in the rotunda of the Capitol Building and it inspired Helen Plane, President of United Daughters of the Confederacy, to contact Borglum. Her group wanted him to carve the head of Robert E. Lee on the side of Stone Mountain as a monument to the Confederacy.

Borglum was an ambitious, 48-year-old artist and sculptor who visited the site in 1915 and agreed to the project but soon had much bigger plans. His proposal featured a massive relief carving of four horsemen—Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and J.E.B. Stewart—riding across a 1,200-foot-span of the mountain’s eastern face. And, as it turned out, he would finance the project from an unexpected source.

At the same time Borglum was drawing up his plans for Stone Mountain, the epic silent film “Birth of a Nation” was being released. The movie about the Civil War and Reconstruction opened in January 1915 and grossed an astonishing $60 million in its first run. It also inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that became a major funder of the memorial. Helen Plane worked out a fundraising scheme whereby an Atlanta theater donated its box office proceeds from a screening of the film to the Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain.

The project was halted when the United States entered World War I, but Borglum was back on the job soon after the war ended. He was photographed in June 1923 with a jackhammer in hand, doffing his hat for the camera as he leaned off the side of the mountain in his harness.

Borglum’s technique for carving on such a massive scale began with models that he was able to scale up to a monumental size. He used dynamite to blast away tons of rock, giving him and his team a rough shape. Next they dangled over the stone face of the mountain and drilled a honeycomb of holes to a precise depth. This allowed them to shed even more rock and refine the carving. Finally, it was down to hammers and chisels to make the stone come to life.

By early 1924, Borglum had removed enough rock on the mountain to host a dinner party on a ledge that would become the shoulder of Robert E. Lee. A photograph shows Borglum, his wife, and son standing beside a long table with more than a dozen dignitaries seated for a formal dinner.

But work soon stalled. Borglum’s scale of carving wasn’t the only thing that was massive. So, reportedly, was his ego. The people who had hired him grew tired of his “delusions of grandeur” and sometime in early 1925, they fired him. Borglum, true to his reputation as a temperamental artist, destroyed his models in a fit of anger. But those models were the property of the people who paid for his services, so they had a warrant issued for his arrest.

Borglum hastily packed his bags at 10 Avondale Plaza and, before the police could find and arrest him, he raced out of Atlanta and into the history books. He landed on his feet with a new project on a mountain named after Charles E. Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The Great Depression of the 1930s and the country’s entry into World War II stalled the Stone Mountain project and the Confederate memorial remained unfinished for decades. Then, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, the state of Georgia purchased Stone Mountain Park in the 1950s and signed legislation to establish a state authority to run the park. The state and the authority agreed to finish the carving and in 1970, the memorial was finally dedicated.

Some say the carving is offensive and should be blasted off the mountain. But perhaps it is no more offensive than having the likenesses of slave-owning presidents memorialized on a mountain in Western South Dakota. Maybe it is a good reminder of a darker past and a warning that sinister tendencies still lurk in our society.

It seems ironic to me that Stone Mountain Park with its massive monument to the ideals of the Southern Confederacy is now freely enjoyed by everyone. On a recent visit, I saw many people of color walking the trails, riding their bikes, and enjoying family picnics in the shadow of the monument.

The house that Borglum inhabited 10 Avondale Plaza was also built and most likely inhabited by people with racist inclinations. But today, our neighborhood is a vibrant, diverse community where people of all types stroll its sidewalks. Both Avondale Estates and Stone Mountain are clear evidence of a healthy multiracial, multiethnic society that the people who hired Borglum and developed the monument sought to deny.

Doug Porter lives in Decatur and writes about animals, nature, and the outdoors in his books and on his website:

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