THE STORY OF PIEDMONT HEIGHTS
Piedmont Heights is the oldest community in Atlanta, settled almost 200 years ago.
In 1822 Benjamin Plaster was granted 3,000 acres of land along Peachtree Creek near its tributary Clear Creek in Dekalb County, Georgia in recognition of his military service in the War of 1812. The tract was former Cherokee Indian tribal land and featured a prominent rocky knoll, called “Council Bluff” where the chiefs gathered to hold important meetings. Plaster’s arrival was at least two years before Archibald Holland acquired another tract several miles to the east where a village called Terminus was to be founded in 1837 and later renamed Atlanta.
Mr. Plaster built a bridge across Peachtree Creek and the trail to it became known as Plaster’s Bridge Road. The stone abutments of his bridge remain in place today under the current Piedmont Road Bridge. A short section of the old Plaster’s Bridge Road, now called Plasters Avenue, runs along the northern boundary of Piedmont Heights and another section remains in the northeast corner of the neighborhood and has been renamed Piedmont Circle.
As other homesteaders settled around Mr. Plaster’s holdings a township called Easton grew up on the east side of Clear Creek at the site of Today’s Ansley Mall, where Walker’s Mill (also known as Jones’ Mill) ginned the local farmer’s cotton and ground their corn. Although the township never achieved official city status, and is now all but forgotten, the community it spawned has evolved into Atlanta’s most unique inner-city neighborhood.
In 1835 a one-room log schoolhouse was built near Council Bluff, at the intersection of today’s Piedmont Road and Rock Springs Road, beside a “cool, clear sparkling spring” bubbling from under a rock and the area became known as the Rock Spring Community.
Around 1850 Captain Hezekiah Cheshire arrived from South Carolina. His sons, Napoleon and Jerome, settled on opposite sides of the south fork of Peachtree Creek and built a bridge across it to connect their farms near the present intersection of Piedmont Road and Faulkner Road. The bridge became a local landmark and the road to it became known as Cheshire Bridge Road.
In the mid-1860s Civil War veteran Captain James M. Liddell acquired 40 acres in the Rock Spring Community and built a two-story house, now the second oldest in Atlanta, on Montgomery Ferry Road across from Council Bluff.
In 1864 when General Sherman’s soldiers swept through Georgia on his Civil War march to the sea General T.J. Wood’s troops were entrenched on the eastern edge of Easton, putting the community on the periphery of the battle of Atlanta. After the war the schoolhouse was rebuilt and Professor Joel Mable, a Scottish Presbyterian from North Carolina, arrived and expanded its curriculum to include religious principles and technical training.
In 1868 Professor Mable organized the Union Sunday School in Rock Springs and began holding meetings in the schoolhouse. The Rock Spring Presbyterian Church was formed in 1870 and the following year a church building was erected on the school house site. The Atlanta Constitution newspaper described the church as “…on a level and beautiful spot with a noble forest growth around it is a neat-looking attractive church, flanked by a cozy little school house…” The cornerstone of the present church, designed by noted English architect Henry Hopson, was laid in 1922. Hezekiah Cheshire was a charter member of the church, and today the seventh generation of his descendants is active in the congregation and one recently wrote a book on the church history.
In the 1870s the Atlanta and Richmond Air Line Railway was built and a depot located at Easton. The Air Line Belle train, said to be the finest on the line, began daily service between Atlanta and Toccoa, Georgia. There was no bridge over Clear Creek at the time and many folks in Easton commuted to Atlanta by train. The rail line serving Easton was called the “Southern Railway Belt Line” and in 1883 the “Georgia Pacific Belt Line Railroad” connected with it just north of Easton at Belt Junction, later known as Armour Station, then Armour Yards and today as Armour/Ottley. The Easton depot, soon followed by a U.S. Post Office, spurred the growth of the township to 100 residents by 1888 although the surrounding area remained rural in character and would be mostly devoted to farming and dairying for several decades to come.
In 1895 North Boulevard was built, running through Easton parallel to the railroad, as a main highway into Atlanta.
In 1904 the post office closed but the Ansley Park neighborhood opened across Clear Creek the same year and focused new attention on the Easton area, which was annexed by Fulton County in 1912 and renamed Piedmont Heights. Then, in 1918, the Air Line Belle discontinued service. Piedmont Heights was still considered the “country” to Atlanta residents and in 1924 the Governor’s Horse Guard Stables were relocated to a site near Montgomery Ferry Road.
In 1925 W. L. Monroe bought 15 acres on North Boulevard at the intersection with Wimbledon where he operated a popular nursery for many years, attracting other businesses and residents to the area. Remnants of two small stone structures that Monroe built, today resembling English garden “follies,” remain on the site, now occupied by Ansley-Monroe Villas Condominiums. North Boulevard was renamed Monroe Drive in 1937 in honor of Mr. Monroe. During this period the Twelve Oaks restaurant, at the intersection of Piedmont and Cheshire Bridge Roads, was a favorite local hangout for Atlanta teenagers getting out of town and far away from parental supervision.
In 1928 the City of Atlanta began annexing Piedmont Heights, first taking in the lots on North Boulevard. In the 1930s new homes sold for $4,700 on North Boulevard and Wimbledon Road which crossed North Boulevard and connected to Plaster’s Bridge Road further north.
A Neighborhood in name only
By the late 1940s Piedmont Heights was experiencing fast residential growth on Flagler Avenue and North Boulevard, spreading up Rock Springs Road to the newer Allen Road and Piedmont Way, but most of the land remained undeveloped. There were a few buildings around the intersection of North Boulevard and Piedmont Road but the land along Clear Creek from Piedmont Road to Montgomery Ferry Road was completely vacant. The land west of North Boulevard all the way to Rock Springs Road was undeveloped except for the Liddell House on Montgomery Ferry Road and a scattered few others. North of Wimbledon Road it was all heavy forest.
Because Piedmont Heights had no official neighborhood boundaries yet its edges were susceptible to expropriation. The most significant “bite” occurred in the late 1940s when a large swath of right-of-way was acquired in the northern part of the community to build Interstate Highway 85. The new highway was elevated on earth fill, creating a physical barrier between Piedmont Heights and the Armour/Ottley area, and limiting access to a single street off North Boulevard which funneled heavy truck traffic through the neighborhood. In addition, the highway access ramps clogged Piedmont Heights with commuter traffic and impeded residents’ access to their homes.
In 1951, a newly formed church in the abutting Morningside neighborhood purchased a 14-acre forested tract between Piedmont Road and Montgomery Ferry Road where Council Bluff is said to be located. The Morningside Baptist Church was erected on the site, which today it shares with the Heritage Preparatory School, but approximately half remains beautifully undisturbed green space.
Because Piedmont Heights developed slowly and haphazardly along the old farm roads and early highways it had no organized street grid, unlike the later surrounding neighborhoods. North Boulevard ran north and south completely through the neighborhood but a shortage of cross streets results in residential “blocks” almost a quarter-mile in length. And, the almost total lack of sidewalks makes it impossible for residents to walk safely inside the community. Until 2008, only three streets had sidewalks. Two more have since received sidewalks, but only on one side. Today many residents still walk in the streets to visit neighbors or frequent the nearby businesses.
Organizing the Neighborhood
On the evening of October 12, 1956, 103 residents met at the Rock Spring Presbyterian Church and formed the Piedmont Heights Civic Club for the purpose of protecting the “vitality and beauty of the neighborhood,” which was severely threatened by urbanization from the growing and sprawling City of Atlanta. Minutes of the meeting show that the group considered the neighborhood to be narrowly defined and bounded only by “Piedmont Road, Montgomery Ferry Drive, Belt Line Railroad, Expressway, Plaster Road to Piedmont.”
In 1960, the Stein Printing Company’s successful re-zoning of land on Monroe Drive for a printing plant challenged the Civic Club’s objective. Although the company deeded to the club 2.5 acres of land, now Gotham Way Park, as a buffer for homes close to the printing site, this was only the first of many such re-zonings which slowly ate away at neighborhood undeveloped land slated for single-family homes. In the years since, many homes on the remaining 470 single-family lots have been converted to duplexes and triplexes -with one house containing 8 apartments – even further reducing the number of owner-occupied homes.
Meanwhile, neighborhood businesses multiplied. In 1964 Ansley Mall opened at the corner of Piedmont Road and Monroe Drive near the former Easton train depot. Over the years the mall has expanded to over 50 stores and spawned the smaller center Ansley II across Monroe Drive. Ansley Square on the opposite side of Clear Creek added additional businesses. Three of the four corners of the Piedmont-Monroe intersection became more commercialized, a trend which continues today as houses along Piedmont Road’s northern arc are converted into restaurants and business offices.
Eventually the Civic Club began referring to itself as the Piedmont Heights Civic Association (PHCA) and formalized the new name in 1992 with membership open to the entire neighborhood. But the focus remained on the single-family district, which was highlighted on the Association’s unofficial map of itself until 2005, and ironically the construction of apartments and other multi-family units in the neighborhood had by then relegated single-family home owners to a significantly minority.
With the arrival of the twenty-first century, the neighborhood demographics began to change. Younger couples began moving in and having children, traffic congestion became worse and there was a growing problem with adult businesses proliferating in certain areas of the neighborhood.
Blueprints Piedmont Heights
Fortunately, the PHCA Board began to evolve as well. Newer residents with fresh ideas and energy began to replace the old core group, some of whom had been serving for years.
In 2005 the City announced the Atlanta BeltLine, a public transit system which would circle the city and run the along the neighborhood’s western border in the old Air Line Belle railroad corridor, promising that one day Piedmont Heights’ residents would be able to “commute to Atlanta” again.
The following year PHCA formed a planning committee, its first, to prepare for the anticipated new development, evolving demographics and the worsening traffic problems. It immediately updated the neighborhood map to match that of the City, graphically revealing that the single-family homes represented barely 1/3 of the land area and less than 1/4 of the total dwelling units. And, almost half the neighborhood was non-residential and contained a broad mix of commercial uses.
An invasion of land speculators and developers ensued, each trying to get ahead of the expected real estate boom. Several multi-family and multi-use developments were announced, although only one apartment complex and a few townhouses were built, but the number of residential units in the neighborhood increased virtually overnight from approximately 1,500 to over 2,000.
A comprehensive master plan for Piedmont Heights was clearly needed. To begin the process PHCA asked the Livable Communities Coalition to facilitate a workshop to develop objectives for the neighborhood’s future. A list of goals resulted but the first recommendation was that the neighborhood should engage its abutting neighbors and develop working relationships with them.
Piedmont Heights is located at dead center of a cluster of seven neighborhoods, the Armour/Ottley industrial area on the north and a transitioning commercial district on the east. It is impacted by a unique convergence of transportation infrastructure including an interstate highway, several major thoroughfares, a MARTA rail line, the Atlanta BeltLine, the AMTRAK rail line, other commercial rail lines, and surface streets connecting with the abutting neighborhoods. Piedmont Heights would not be able to solve its infrastructure problems within its own borders and needed its neighbors’ participation. The Planning Committee created a second map illustrating Piedmont Heights within this larger context, which it called “Greater Piedmont Heights,” and began calling on the neighbors.
Next, it asked the Georgia Conservancy to conduct a neighborhood planning exercise. Over $11,000 was raised to cover expenses, the abutting neighborhoods joined in and planning began. In 2007 “Blueprints Piedmont Heights” was finalized and, although not a true master plan, proposed many innovative solutions for the neighborhood’s problems. For example, it suggested that the Ansley Mall area be converted into a mixed-use “town center” with small blocks, streetscapes, and pedestrian plazas with connectivity not only to the Piedmont Heights’ residential areas but to the abutting neighborhoods as well. The centerpiece would be “Water Gardens” in the Clear Creek channel which was proposed in an earlier BeltLine Arboretum plan.
Meanwhile, as the BeltLine planning proceeded, Piedmont Heights’ volunteer residents played significant leadership roles and the neighborhood was often cited by BeltLine planners as the example others should emulate. The ultimate endorsement of the Blueprints document came when its concept for Ansley Mall was incorporated into the final BeltLine plans.
The Greater Piedmont Heights Master Framework Plan
In 2011 it was realized that if the many plans proposed in and around Piedmont Heights by others were all realized chaos would result. Linkages that Piedmont Heights had forged with surrounding neighborhoods had generating stakeholder awareness of the need for a comprehensive vision for the greater community. Greater Piedmont Heights was not an ordinary cluster of neighborhoods but truly a one-of-a-kind “greater community.”
In 2012 a consortium of planners intimately familiar with the area, Peter Drey (Peter Drey Architects) John Wyle (Rosser International) and David Green (Perkins+Will) agreed, essentially pro bono, to prepare the plan and $15,000 was quickly raised to cover the hard costs. The entire greater community of seven neighborhoods collaborated on the almost year-long process.
In September, 2012 the final stakeholder presentation of the “Greater Piedmont Heights Master Framework Plan” was enthusiastically received by the stakeholders. The highlight of the evening occurred at the very end when a lady stood up and said, “I came tonight because I was against the plan - but now I’m for it!” The audience burst out in laughter and loud applause.
Small Town in the Big City
An unexpected outcome of the planning exercise was the realization that Piedmont Heights, unlike any of its neighbors, contains all the components of a small town. If the neighborhood could be picked up and put down 50 miles away it would be as self-sufficient as any municipality. It has over 3,000 residents occupying single-family homes, town homes, condominiums, one of Atlanta’s first co-op apartment complexes and mid-rise apartments. Its over 100 businesses include two shopping centers, two major grocery stores, two drugstores and shops providing all manners of goods and services. There are 16 restaurants, a bowling alley, a gym, several bars and even a tattoo parlor. Add three banks, two pharmacies, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, the Red Cross, a hotel, a bicycle shop, two churches, an elementary school, three gasoline stations, three auto repair shops, a body shop and the landmark Two MInit “Gorilla” Car Wash (since 1951) and you have a real town.
The Piedmont Heights of today is far evolved from its farmstead beginnings, the township of Easton and the proud little residential enclave of the 1950s. But the new master framework plan harks back to its humble roots and one day BeltLine transit will replace the Air Line Belle, Clear Creek water gardens will be the centerpiece of a revitalized commercial district and residents will walk throughout the neighborhood on attractive sidewalks. Piedmont Heights will come full circle to embrace its heritage as Atlanta’s “small town in the big city.”
In 2013 the Greater Piedmont Heights Master Framework Plan received the prestigious “Award of Merit” from the Atlanta Urban Design Commission and the Georgia Planning Association cited it as an “Outstanding Planning Document.” Also in 2013 the non-profit Piedmont Heights Community Improvement Foundation (PHCIF) was formed to provide funding for neighborhood improvements and the maintenance (and, hopefully, expansion) of Gotham Way Park.
Prepared in February, 2014 by PHCA Board member Faset J. “Bill” Seay, this history was drawn from notes recorded during the preparation of the Greater Piedmont Heights Master Framework Plan, the “History of the Piedmont Heights Civic Club – 1956 to 1961” by Vada M. Tierney, the book “The Spirit of Rock Spring” by Barbara Wright Cheshire and various other historical records.