Monday, January 17, 2011

Wren’s Nest: Home of a Prankster and a Rabbit

Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox
Brer Rabbit and
Brer Fox

Atlanta's history is peppered with citizens who were and are pioneers, trendsetters, trailblazers, innovators, avant-garde, and one prankster-turned-author who would be instrumental in changing minds all over the world.

That person was Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus, and his home is the Wren's Nest.

Joel Chandler Harris

Born on December 9, 1845, previously thought to have been in 1848, Joel Chandler Harris is best known for giving a voice to African-American folklore through Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit.

Working on a plantation in his birth city of Eatonton, Georgia, Harris heard first-hand the stories that had been passed down by enslaved Africans. When he started retelling the stories in print, he told them in the dialect in which he heard them, giving more authenticity to the stories and to the folklore that would become a global sensation.

The Wren's Nest
The Wren's Nest
In early adulthood, Harris worked as a newspaperman and continued to do so for much of his life, despite his success as an author. He worked his way up to Associate Editor of the Atlanta Constitution, where he was an advocate for the New South and regional and racial reconciliation.

The bastard-child, red-haired, humorous, practical jokester would become a husband, father of four, friend to the U.S. President, and legendary writer beloved by countless fans (of all ages) around the world.

Joel Chandler Harris
Joel Chandler Harris
Harris passed away on July 3, 1908 and the following day the headline, coupled with a portrait of the literary giant, of the Atlanta Constitution read, "Joel Chandler Harris Summoned by Master of All Good Workmen."

The Wren’s Nest

Harris purchased the 1870-built home from his employer at the Atlanta Constitution in 1883, after having lived there as a renter since 1881.

Already a nice home, Harris took it up a few notches giving it a distinctive Queen Anne Victorian style exterior. It's one of the few remaining examples of upper middle class Queen Anne Victorian homes from the era still standing in Atlanta.

Harris' (partial) Book Collection
Harris' (partial) Book
The Wren's Nest got its name from an actual wren's nest. In 1900, wrens built their nest in the Harris' mailbox! A second mailbox was erected so as to not disturb the new residents, but the newly built mailbox quickly became home to even more wrens. The name "Wren’s Nest" was soon adopted as the name of the house and it stuck.

When Harris moved in, he had just published his first Uncle Remus book and would write the significant portion of the total 194 stories while sitting on the front porch of the Wren's Nest.

The Wren's Nest (the home itself, not the mailboxes) was named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1962.

Throughout 2008-2009, the Wren's Nest underwent a major renovation. The before-and-after photos show the remarkable job that was done and what an awesome place it is to visit today.

The Tour

Storytelling Room
Storytelling Room
I had planned to visit The Wren's Nest earlier in the week, but Mother Nature's plans superseded mine, so I visited on the next day it was safe to drive—this past Saturday.

I'd been excited about visiting the Wren's Nest and was momentarily deflated when I arrived and the parking lot was covered in snow. I noticed, across the street, a couple who had parked and were taking photos of the house. I pulled into the same parking lot and asked them if they knew if house was open and they told me that they had just come from a tour—my excitement returned.

Family/Music Room
Family/Music Room
I carefully navigated the few remaining patches of snow on the sidewalk leading to the house. I made my way to the front door, but found it locked. The tourists I had just chatted with told me they had just had a tour, so intent on pursing my objective I rang the doorbell.

Almost immediately the door opened and I was greeted by Lain Shakespeare, the Executive Director of the Wren's Nest. I recognized him from the website and was hoping to meet him and Amber, the Wren's Nest blog authors…I really like the writing style.

Lain also happens to be the great, great, great grandson of Joel Chandler Harris. He assumed the role of Executive Director of the Wren's Nest in July 2006, fresh out of college…the youngest Executive Director I've ever heard of (I was impressed).

Mrs. Hariss' Piano
Mrs. Harris' Piano
Lain welcomed me into the home and told me that their docents could not make it in that day because of road conditions (lots of Atlanta locals, not to mention visitors, are not thrilled with the City's lack of preparedness for snow…I fall into that camp after being stranded at home for five days, but I remain hopeful for improvement). Lain invited me to accompany him and other visitors who were midway through a tour.

I joined a married couple who had brought their three year old, a reader of Harris' works. As fate would have it, at the end of the tour the doorbell rang. Two more visitors arrived for a venture through the house (it turned out that they were on a trek to explore historic homes in Atlanta, the Margaret Mitchell House being their next destination).

The Girls Room
The Girls Room
I joined them for the first half of the tour and when we got to the point where I first came in, I went off on my own to make a few photographs (flash photography is not permitted, but non-flash is fine).

Lain was the perfect host (and I was quickly learning that he's a model Executive Director). He checked on me again when he finished the tour and asked if I wanted to see the attic. "Absolutely," I enthusiastically said following him to the stairs.

The four of us climbed to the second story (which is actually a half story) of the home. Lain had explained earlier that the second story was built after Harris bought the home, intended probably as a writer's workshop, but it ended up not being used by the family so much. Today, it’s used primarily as storage.

The Dining Room
The Dining Room
Practically every room in the house is on the tour and one could write a novel filled with facts and factoids about the years the Harris family lived in the Wren's Nest…but in lieu of said novel, here are a few highlights of the tour…the rest I'll leave to you to explore when you visit to the home.

I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite room in the house, but in the top few would be the storytelling room. Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Tar Baby welcome guests to the room. The original mail box where wrens made their nests every year, the namesake of the home, is also in this room.

Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit
Brer Fox and Brer
Rabbit carving
In an adjacent parlor (or the living room) is what Lain told us is his favorite artifact in the home. It's an intricate wood carving of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. I actually thought it was a bronze, so I was really surprised when Lain flipped back their heads to reveal that the carving is a humidor!

In the next room, presumably the music room given is where Mrs. Harris' amazing piano resides, as are photos of the family, including the Harris' four sons and photos of President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited the Wren’s Nest on numerous occasions. There’s also a taxidermy owl near the ceiling, a gift from Roosevelt, which watched over the Harris family.

Mr. Harris' bedroom is the only room in the home that is roped off. It is nearly exactly as it was in 1908 when Harris passed away. Except for the occasional cleaning and restoration, the room is not entered, but you have a great view from the hallway.

Harris' Bedroom
Harris' Bedroom
Also on the tour are the girls room; the dining room (with original dining table and chairs purchased from a Sears catalog); the kitchen; and the main hall (where the boys usually slept on cots and where an amazing collection of international versions of Harris' works are on display).

In the back yard there's a reading garden and the tour isn't complete without exploring and just hanging out for at least a few minutes on the spacious front porch—Harris' favorite spot to write.

The Programs

Under Lain's leadership, the Wren's Nest is now more than the oldest house museum in Atlanta; it also is home of many literary and community programs and events, including:
  • Wren’s Nest Home Tours
  • Wren’s Nest Fest
  • Wren’s Nest Publishing Co.
  • Storytelling Saturdays
  • KIPPS Scribes Mentor Program
  • Decatur Book Festival
The Gravesite

It's not part of the Wren's Nest tour, but I wanted to share this quote. Harris' corporal remains reside in the nearby Westview Cemetery at a site marked by a boulder with an engraved epitaph that reads:

I seem to see before me the smiling faces of thousands of children some young and fresh and some wearing the friendly marks of age. But all children at heart and not an unfriendly face among them. And while I’m trying hard to speak the right word, I seem to hear a voice lifted above the rest saying you have made some of us happy. And so I feel my heart fluttering and my lips trembling, and I have to bow silently and turn away and hurry back into the obscurity that fits me best.

The Return

Does the story of a world-renowned author tempt me to return to the Wren's Nest? I think so. Every Saturday there's storytelling at the Wren's Nest, except for the Saturday I visited—but that was Mother Nature's doing (remnants of a major snow storm prevented storytellers from getting to the Museum safely). So, I can hardly wait to go back for an afternoon of animated, enthusiastic storytelling.

Touring the Wren’s Nest

Date toured: Saturday, January 15, 2011
Hours: 10 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; Closed Sundays and Mondays; Storytelling Saturdays at 1:00 p.m.
Location: 1050 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd, SW
(directions and map)
Cost: $8 adults; $7 students and seniors; $5 children
MARTA: West End Station; Bus #71
Parking: Free onsite parking

Wren's Nest Pathway
Wren's Nest Pathway

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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