First midcentury planned subdivision introduced Athens to modern living
Jack Miller came to Athens in 1953 in his late 20s with a dream to build a new life and home for his wife and growing family. They were renting a house in Five Points while Jack settled into his new job teaching dairy science production and reproductive physiology at the University of Georgia. Their new house was already under construction in early 1957 when their landlord died, which forced an accelerated move into their unfinished home in Beechwood Hills. Now 94 years old and the longest and oldest living Beechwood Hills resident on record, Jack reflects upon the house he and his late wife Marianna built in the first ranch-style planned subdivision in Athens.
The Millers’ unassuming red brick house is nestled toward the back of the neighborhood on Harben Place at the top of a slight hill, among a grove of old hardwoods mixed with new undergrowth. They paid a whopping $3,000 for their .67 acre lot, chosen because, according to Jack, it had the best garden spot in Beechwood. The dream of achieving the all-American life was heavily influenced by his hard-working parents in rural North Carolina who built their house about a mile from a new high school during the Great Depression just so Jack could continue his education.
With the influence of that pioneering spirit, Jack and his family became the first residents in the Beechwood Hills planned development — a remarkably new concept of ranch-style housing in a neighborhood separate from other houses.
Jack and his wife Marianna had two daughters, 3- and 4-years old, and were pregnant with their third child when they drew up house plans from a combination of modern designs and broke ground on March 1. Jack’s uncle from North Carolina joined the project shortly thereafter to help with building, electrical and painting, while they worked around the professional subcontractors hired for plumbing, kitchen cabinet and heating system installment. They had just completed the electrical, plumbing and subflooring when their eviction notice arrived from their deceased landlord’s family. Rather than rent another place and move twice, they moved into the unfinished yet livable house 13 days after their third child was born on May 8.
The move was challenging, but the family took the living situation in stride and worked to complete the house. With two small children and a newborn in tow, Marianna helped Jack install sheetrock, paint and finish the heart-of-pine paneling and wood on the kitchen cabinets. She made the formal cornice drapes that still hang in the living room and hung contemporary floral wallpaper throughout the house. Before they installed carpet and hardwood flooring on the main level, they maneuvered about the small gaps in the subflooring in good humor.
“How much fun it was when you wanted something down in the basement, you just put it through the crack here in the floor,” Jack laughs.
Navigation to their house on the hill proved a bit tricky when it rained. Some of the streets at the front of the neighborhood along Riverhill Drive were paved, but Harben Place was still dirt.
“The driveway had to match the street. And they hadn’t built the streets yet,” Jack recalls. “Since the streets were mud roads when it rained, often we parked on Pine Valley Place and walked through the woods to Harben Place. The steps and stoop to the front door had not been built. We entered the house with timbers placed on blocks.”
The early to mid-50s following World War II was a time of unprecedented population growth of the Boomer generation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia’s population increased by more than 1,400,000 people (47%) between 1940 and 1970. The economy was strong, and post-war families were looking to settle down and raise families. Many took advantage of the benefits offered by the government, including FHA and VA loans to purchase new homes, primarily brick ranch style house plans promoted through popular magazines like Better Homes and Gardens. According to a 2010 report by the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, “as many as 200,000 ranch houses may have been built in Georgia between 1940 and 1970. At no other time in Georgia’s history has a single new type of house housed so many people in such a short period of time.”
Athens began to see new outcroppings of ranch-style homes in the mid-’50s, including in Forest Heights, Bel Air Heights, Five Points and Normaltown. But Beechwood Hills was the first fully-planned subdivision of its kind in Athens, for which other subdivisions followed in the late ’60s and early ’70s, including Green Acres, Clarke Dale and University Heights on the east side and Homewood Hills on the west side.
Before Beechwood was built, pine trees had taken over the rolling hills of abandoned cotton fields. The Millers’ lot was covered with mature pine trees, the oldest dating back to about 1910, which had to be cleared to make way for Jack’s garden.
In May 1957, two lone tenant houses sat in the middle of an open field where the Beechwood Shopping Center was later built in 1963. Across the street from the tenant houses, about 300 cars filled the old Alps Drive-in Theater for Friday and Saturday night double features of John Wayne’s “Wake of the Red Witch” and Don Taylor in the Technicolor film “Destination Gobi.” Uppy’s Short Order and Malt Bar Drive-In was luring clientele at the Atlanta Highway corner, and Alps Road Elementary had just been built across from the theater. It was a burgeoning area on the cusp of explosive development, with roads not yet fully paved.
In the time slide above, only a few houses were yet built in 1960 Beechwood Hills (bottom left corner, just above the Middle Oconee River). Compare with the more than 260 homes currently in the subdivision. In 1960, the Alps Drive-in Theater (triangular shape, middle of the photo) was the center of activity, accessible by the graveled Baxter Street.
“Baxter Street was a mud road, and you didn’t go down there when the rain came. There would be a stream of water going across the low spot down there. So you couldn’t drive down that in wet weather,” Jack says.
Baxter Street was finally asphalted after the completion of the Beechwood Shopping Center in 1963, quite literally paving the retail road of progress from the University of Georgia campus to Alps Road and connecting downtown Athens with the new Beechwood Hills community.
By 1963, the Beechwood community began bursting at the seams with the construction of the new Beechwood Hills Shopping Center. The new stores meant residents could shop for groceries, clothing and other goods within walking distance of their homes. The newly paved Baxter street made travel more easy from Beechwood to the University of Georgia campus and downtown Athens.
A new style of living
By all accounts, Jack’s 2600-square-foot home fits the typical mold of ranch style housing introduced through magazines like Better Homes & Gardens’ 1952 publication of “Demonstration Ranch House.” The red brick, one-story construction is a signature model midcentury architecture, a simple style embraced in a post-war culture and healthy economy that promoted a new style of modern living. Red brick ranch houses first appeared in Georgia in the early 40s and then more significantly around 1947.
Built horizontally across the lot with Georgia red clay, the house is low and close to the ground, with the basement built into the land that opens into the backyard. The windows are mostly horizontal, including the three staggered panes that look like sideways fingers on the upper portion of the front door. The wide eaves extend over the large horizontal paned windows to provide shade from summer heat. And an attached carport brings the family car, once housed in a detached garage, into the living space, heeding importance to the automobile as a status symbol.
The interior rooms of Jack’s house are divided by sheetrock walls, except for the kitchen and dining room area covered in heart-of-pine paneling and pine cabinetry. The chrome trimmed turquoise laminate counters bring a pop of contrast to the reddish pine, and the terrazzo flooring sparkles with chips of quartz and glass. The front room is designed for family and visitors alike, a new 50s “living room” concept that departed from the formal parlors of older homes. The bathroom walls are lined with muted pink ceramic tile and the floors with an inlaid gray, pink and white herringbone pattern.
Block after block of red brick homes appeared in the neighborhood. Beechwood Hills eventually expanded to fit around 260 homes over the years. Some houses were built as early as last year, returning to a craftsman style that predates the midcentury modern homes in most of the neighborhood. Many of the red brick houses in the neighborhood have been updated with exterior paint and front porches, completely changing the character of the homes with a 21st century flair.
Since Jack lost his wife Marianna in 2012 to Cushing’s disease, he’s led a self-sufficient and independent lifestyle for nine years in the house they built together 64 years ago. That’s a lot of memories accumulated in one house, which he’s rediscovering as he prepares to move down the street into the Wesley Woods senior living community.
The basement where his girls once rollerskated on the cement floor contains relics of family life, including the horse curtains his wife sewed in the bedroom and the pool table in the playroom where the children congregated. He recently unearthed his silver coin collection, which he divided between his four children. Parting with his home is difficult, but he realizes it’s necessary. Because he’s technically still in the neighborhood, Jack gets to keep his title of longest living resident in Beechwood. And his house will be perfect for the next family to start their new life in the house that Jack built.
Many thanks to Meriwether Rhodes, the Beechwood Hills historian, who steered us to Jack Miller’s story.
Sources for historic architectural design: “The Ordinary Iconic Ranch House,” by Richard Cloues, PhD, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Sept. 2011; “The Modern Classic City: Analyzing Commercial Development in Athens, Georgia from 1930 to 1981” by Lauren Patterson, MHP 2019.
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