Atlanta’s Historic Swan House

The east-facing facade of Atlanta’s Historic Swan House. Image © Design Diary.
The east-facing facade of Atlanta’s Historic Swan House. Image © Design Diary.

Nestled into the plat of land that holds the Atlanta History Center and a number of educational venues, all surrounded by planted gardens, is Swan House. One steamy summer day, not unlike the ones we’ve been experiencing recently, we trekked to the mansion with Bethanne Matari, Currey & Company’s public relations maven, who had scheduled a guided tour of the home. 

Bethanne Matari sitting in the gardens that surround Swan House. Image © Design Diary.
Bethanne Matari sitting in the gardens that surround Swan House. Image © Design Diary.

Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Swan House was designed by Philip Trammel Shutze in 1928 for Edward and Emily Inman. The interiors were designed by Ruby Ross Wood, a prominent design journalist-cum-decorator from New York City who ghostwrote Elsie de Wolfe’s influential book The House in Good Taste and then her own treatise The Honest House. The affluence that made hiring a well-known architect and a big-city decorator possible was generational, as Edward Inman was heir to a large cotton brokerage fortune amassed after the Civil War. He was an Atlanta businessman with interests in real estate, transportation, and banking.

Photograph of Edward H. Inman and guests at a house party probably held in Rome, Georgia at the Inman summer home. Back row, (l-r) Emmie McDougald, Edward Inman. Middle row, (l-r) Austell Thornton, Emmie Johnson Vaugh Nixon, Eugenia Ogelsby, Josie Stockdell, Phinizy Calhoun, and Bessie Draper. Front row (l-r) Arthur Clark, Adelaide Howell, and John Turner.
Photograph of Edward H. Inman and guests at a house party probably held in Rome, Georgia at the Inman summer home. Back row, (l-r) Emmie McDougald, Edward Inman. Middle row, (l-r) Austell Thornton, Emmie Johnson Vaugh Nixon, Eugenia Ogelsby, Josie Stockdell, Phinizy Calhoun, and Bessie Draper. Front row (l-r) Arthur Clark, Adelaide Howell, and John Turner. Image courtesy Atlanta History Center and Kenan Research Center.

His wife Emily was involved in philanthropy, politics, and society. It was in 1924 when they hired the architectural firm Hentz, Reid, and Adler to design the mansion in Buckhead, which was then a residential suburb of Atlanta. The firm designated Shutze, who was a noted architect at the time, to design the building and the surrounding gardens. He melded Italian and English classical styles into a residence built for 20th-century living, and referenced European influences for the gardens as well. The result: many consider Swan House to be his finest residential work.

The west-facing façade. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center.
The west-facing façade. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center.

The Second Renaissance Revival style of Swan House represents the epitome of the architectural and decorative tastes of affluent Americans in the late 1920s. The house is set on a rising slope that is the perfect pitch for the Italian Mannerist façade that flows down the property with double stairs descending on either side of a cascade. This is the west-facing façade of Swan House, which is shown above, and is actually the rear of the home. This side of the home is symmetrical in every way. It has a central doorway at the top of a double winding staircase that is heavily framed and topped by a segmented pediment. It is supported on scroll brackets with a sculptural decoration at its apex. 

The entry portico on the east-facing façade. Image © Design Diary.
The entry portico on the east-facing façade. Image © Design Diary.

The front of the mansion, which is depicted in the lead image in this post and above, is English Palladian in style. Whereas the rear is ornate, the front of the home with its four-columned portico is robust, which is more in keeping with how main entrances to this style of house were designed at the time it was built. Baroque-inspired lawns, stone obelisks and retaining walls, and two stone fountains are other Renaissance elements found on the grounds. 

One of two swan tables in the dining room. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center.
One of two swan tables in the dining room. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center and Hales Photo.

The name of the house was inspired by the bird motifs that grace many of the interior rooms. One of the most ornate examples is a pair of 18th-century giltwood and gesso consoles placed between the windows in the dining room. They depict swans nesting in bulrushes, one of which is shown in the image above. These antiques are attributed to the architect/designer Thomas Johnson and were brought to America from Bath, a British city known for its high-quality furnishings. The interiors of Swan House are as elaborate as the exterior, particularly five rooms of distinction: the entrance vestibule, the entrance hall, the library, the morning room, and the dining room. Other rooms include four bedrooms, a sitting room, a full basement, and an apartment in the attic

The morning room with its beautiful green walls. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center.
The morning room with its beautiful green walls. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center and Hales Photo.

Noteworthy interior details include bold door pediments, well-composed wall ornaments, and refined classical detailing inspired by English Palladian country houses. There are also occasional American references. These include the rope molding, curled at the base, that adorns the windows of the morning room, the inspiration for which is attributed to William Buckland’s carvings at the Chase Lloyd House in Annapolis. We gleaned these details from an article written by Robert M. Craig for the Society of Architectural Historians.

The wall ornaments on the staircase mentioned by the SAH below. Image © Design Diary.
The wall ornaments on the staircase mentioned by the SAH below. Image © Design Diary.

The piece also notes that Marcus Binny has linked certain Swan House features to various sources that include the Palazzo Corsini in Rome (the cascade), Duncombe Park in Yorkshire (east facade portico), Marble Hill House in Richmond (staircase wall ornament), Mereworth Castle in Kent (stair hall pedimented doors), Branham Hall in Yorkshire (west front horseshoe staircase), and Badminton House in Gloucestershire (west facade attic with brackets and pediment). The organization believes this borrowing of stylistic references is typical of architects of Shutze’s generation, as they used books, photos, postcards, sketches, and notes from those who took Grand Tours during the 18thcentury and read volumes by architects who had studied abroad for their research.

The stair hall at Swan House with its black and white marble floor (laid by Italian craftsmen who were imported for the purpose). Image © Design Diary.
The stair hall at Swan House with its black and white marble floor (laid by Italian craftsmen who were imported for the purpose). Image © Design Diary.

Craig, who called the Swan House stair hall “one of Atlanta’s finest,” went on to say, “The black-and-white checkered floor continues into the stair hall where an elegant, elliptical spiral staircase effortlessly rises past the classical wall ornament and west window to the second floor. A coffered barrel vault over a shallow vestibule to the left opens to the library; broken pedimented doors deeper within the stair hall, left and right, provide entry to the morning room (or green room, as it is also called) and dining room, respectively. These door enrichments are in the spirit of Colin Campbell, and like Shutze’s classical work elsewhere, are meticulously studied in both proportion and detailing.”

The library of Swan House. Image © Design Diary.
The library of Swan House. Image © Design Diary.

About the most important detailing in the library, which is at the southeast corner of the main floor, Craig wrote, “The wood overmantel is enriched by a carved garland, depicting a dead bird and hanging clusters of plants, in the tradition of Grinling Gibbons, whose work at Petworth and St. Paul’s Cathedral is renowned. The overmantel dates to about 1690 and was transferred from England, initially installed in the Inman’s former house in Ansley Park and then moved again here. The mantel itself dates to circa 1750 and is also from England. Shutze’s assistant, woodcarver Herbert J. Millard, carried the white pine and linden woodwork around the other walls of the library to complete the room.”

The morning room with its eighteenth-century spirit, the fireplace to the left. Image © Design Diary.
The morning room with its eighteenth-century spirit, the fireplace to the left. Image © Design Diary.

He calls the morning room “distinctly eighteenth century in spirit,” adding, “Its focus is the fireplace, projecting into the room, framed by ornate Corinthian columns, on which swans and lilies replace the traditional acanthus and whose flaring pediment is inspired by chinoiserie. Also noteworthy are the dado and chair rail, the cornice and coved ceiling, the rope molding at the windows, the Rococo foliate carving on the central panel of the fireplace mental, and the fine pedimented overdoor.”

The dining room with its chinoiserie elements. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center.
The dining room with its chinoiserie elements. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center and Hales Photo.

In the dining room, he highlights the Chinese-inspired wallpaper festooned with flowers and exotic birds; the eagles, which were Edward’s favorite bird, that flank the fireplace, and the two elaborate gilt console tables depicting swans, which Emily favored, that we described above. The Inmans, who never actually referred to their home as Swan House themselves, moved into the mansion in 1928, a year before the Great Depression began. Just three years later, Edward died suddenly at the age of 49.

A vignette from the morning room. Image © Design Diary.
A vignette from the morning room. Image © Design Diary.

Emily asked her oldest son Hugh, his wife Mildred, and their two small children to live with her. Grandchildren Sam and Mimi grew up in the home and moved out after they were married. Emily lived in Swan House until her death at the age of 84 in 1965. In 1966, the Atlanta Historical Society purchased the home and most of its original furnishings that range from 18th-century antiques to 20th-century objects. The home opened to the public in 1967 as a house museum and is the headquarters for the Atlanta Historical Society. We salute the museum’s visionaries for how intimately they have staged the interiors—it’s as if we could feel an affluent family living there, as you can see from the image of the morning room above. 

One of the hand fans we spotted at Swan House. Image © Design Diary.
One of the hand fans we spotted at Swan House. Image © Design Diary.

Several of our favorite objects in the interiors were in this room—they are delicate hand fans that were in vogue during the era the home was built and the early years the family lived in the mansion. We had never researched the origin of hand fans so we did some digging and found one reference that they can be traced back to Egypt as early as 4,000 years ago. They were seen as a sacred instruments in that country then and were often used in religious ceremonies. They were also symbols of power, as is illustrated by two elaborate examples found in King Tut’s tomb. 

A detail of the hand fan above. Image © Design Diary.
A detail of the hand fan above. Image © Design Diary.

One of the Egyptian fans had a golden handle and was covered in ostrich feathers, while the other was ebony overlaid with gold and precious stones. According to ancient texts, the Hebrews, Persians, Greeks, and Romans also used hand fans in various forms in antiquity. Japan and China claim that their legends prove they were the creators of these beautiful and useful accessories. Whether they invented them or not, it was the Far East from which they reached Europe in the 1500s along the famous trade routes from the Orient.

The most elaborate hand fan we saw at Swan House. Image © Design Diary.
The most elaborate hand fan we saw at Swan House. Image © Design Diary.

Before long, hand fans had become exotic and stylish symbols of wealth and class on the Continent. Period films are filled with scenes in which courtiers coquettishly employ them in their flirting, which is why the softly delicate ones in Swan House appealed to us so greatly: they seemed to have certainly belonged to more innocent souls, as they were made of delicate lace with embroidery or ethereal hand-painted figures. In seeing them, we felt we were witnessing a thread winding its way through history, as wealthy Americans of the Inmans’s day would have emulated the trends in European fashion at the time.

A detail of the hand fan above. Image © Design Diary.
A detail of the hand fan above. Image © Design Diary.

It was the artifacts like these hand fans that made the tour of the home so enjoyable. And though we loved the main living spaces, there was one richly adorned space in Swan House that appealed to our stylistic senses the most. It was Emily Inman’s fanciful Directoire bathroom, which was painted by Athos Menaboni, in which ceiling murals depict swans and niches have midnight skies illuminated with golden stars. 

Emily Inman’s bathroom at Swan House.
The swan festooned ceiling of Emily Inman’s bathroom at Swan House. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center.

The entire room was like a beautiful bonbon that was difficult to leave knowing we’d be heading into the bright sunlight and blasting heat of a summer afternoon in Atlanta. It was a bit of a rude awakening to exit the bygone era to navigate through the glut of traffic in a Buckhead that Edward Inman could never have imagined when he brought together a talented team of professionals to build what has become a monument to another time.

A view of the beautiful niches in the bathroom. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center
A view of the beautiful niches in the bathroom. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center.

We hope you enjoyed this leisurely look at this important historical property; and we highly recommend a tour of Swan House, which is located at 130 West Paces Ferry Road. We were eager to get this post up before the busy fall design season heats up. We have so many shows and events to cover during September, it makes our heads spin. Stay tuned for all the design news that’s fit to print in the coming weeks!

A view of the beautiful niches in the bathroom. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center
Another view of Emily Inman’s bathroom. Image courtesy of Atlanta History Center.

Citation for SAH article: Robert M. Craig, “Swan House”, [Atlanta, Georgia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/GA-01-121-0055.

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