Ghosts of Grandeur: 902 Broadway
We are starting a new series to kick off Preservation Month. This series is a combination of celebrating architecture and the stories behind the families who were a part of their creation and history. We will also be highlighting several of Historic Columbus' past projects on our Facebook and Instagram pages, so check those out too.
Today is the Johnson - Booher House, 902 Broadway. We included this house in our first exhibit, Lost Columbus, but never knew anything about it other than it was included in the photographs taken in the 1930s for the Historic American Building Survey, as well as the home to Skateland and now RiverCenter.
SOURCES: Davis, Matthew. "James Johnson." New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Nov 12, 2019. Family Record of David Lehman Booher and his wife Elizabeth Nutts by Mary Palmer Phillips, 1956. Ghosts of Grandeur: Georgia’s Lost Antebellum Homes and Plantations by Michael W. Kitchens, 2012.
When famed architectural photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston came to Columbus in 1939 to record Southern structures of interest, she took a few photographs of a house about which she knew almost nothing. She identified the house only by its street address – 902 Broadway, Columbus, Muscogee County, Georgia. Little did she know that she was capturing the faded glory of one of Columbus’ more historic dwellings.
Frances Benjamin Johnston was an early American photographer and photojournalist whose career lasted for almost half a century. She is most known for her portraits, images of southern architecture, and various photographic series featuring African Americans and Native Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. She was given a grant in 1933 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to document Virginia's early architecture. This led to a series of grants and photographs in eight other southern states; copies of all of her photographs from these projects were given to the Library of Congress for public use.
The highly appealing Greek Revival home Johnston chose to photograph had been built in 1854 by James Johnson (1811 – 1890). Johnson was born on February 12, 1811, to Nancy McNeil and Peter Johnson in Robeson County, North Carolina. He attended the University of Georgia with a scholarship from the Presbyterian Society of Athens. After graduating with high honors, he began studying law. In 1834 he married Ann Harris of Jones County. Following a brief stint working as a teacher to pay for his legal training, Johnson was admitted to the bar in 1835. He then moved to Columbus to start a law practice. An ardent Whig, Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1851 but lost his reelection bid to future Georgia governor Alfred H. Colquitt in 1853. From there, Johnson’s political career continued to veer away from mainstream Georgia politics, as he supported the American (or Know-Nothing) Party instead of the growing Democratic Party within the state. This independent streak served him well in the difficult days of secession and Civil War. On his return home from Congress in 1854, Johnson built a new dwelling that was modest in size but extravagant in style. It was a high-style Greek Revival dwelling. Its proportion, detail, and unity of concept suggest the design came from the hand of a trained and talented architect. However, no records survive identifying its designer or builder.
The completed residence was one story over a raised basement. Six fluted columns, each two feet in diameter, were spaced evenly across its front and supported a monumental cornice with a parapet, which projected the occupant’s power and authority to all who traveled down Broad Street. An extremely rare design choice employed on Johnson’s home was the use of wood siding carved to look like beveled stone blocks. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, a much earlier structure, employed the same siding style. The central bay of the five-bay façade was a double front door. The panels and trim work on these doors were hand carved by skilled craftsmen. Oversized wood trim of the architrave and pilasters surrounding the door added yet another element intended to emulate Greek architecture. The sidelights and transom over the door were filled with ruby glass, and when the sun set over the Chattahoochee River in front of the house, its hallway was bathed in a red glow. The central hall was twelve feet wide and thirty-two feet long. It was known to be the home’s coolest spot on hot afternoons when the front and rear doors were opened to allow for cross-ventilation with breezes coming off of the Chattahoochee below. Thirteen-foot-tall ceilings throughout the house were slightly higher than the ceiling height of many other homes built during the same period. Front rooms on either side of the hallway were a roomy seventeen and a half feet square, while both rooms at the back were seventeen and a half feet wide by fourteen and a half feet deep. The kitchen was located in the basement directly underneath the dining room rather than in a separate structure behind the house. The hallway and front rooms on the main level were embellished with three-foot diameter plaster ceiling medallions and carved cornice moldings with acanthus leaf motifs. Although Johnson’s new residence was in the middle of town, the lot was sufficiently large to include outbuildings such as a smokehouse, washhouse, stable, and living quarters for those enslaved on the property.
James Johnson (pictured above) and his family did not live in his new town house for long. In 1862, David L. Booher purchased 902 Broadway. However, the home’s original owner continued his involvement in the state’s political affairs. When Georgia seceded from the Union at the secession convention in January 1861, Johnson was not among the politicians of the state celebrating this momentous act. He opposed secession and remained loyal to the United States throughout the Civil War, and during the war he continued to practice law in Columbus. The Confederacy fell in early 1865, and with the reestablishment of Union authority in Georgia and the subsequent arrest and resignation of Governor Joseph E. Brown, Georgia’s future was subject to Washington, D.C. The decision to appoint a provisional governor fell to U.S. president Andrew Johnson, who looked to James Johnson (the two men were unrelated), his old friend from Congress. Through executive order, Johnson assumed the governorship in June 1865 and began the process of initiating the directives assigned to him by the president. These duties included the calling of a state convention and the implementation of President Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. Meeting in October 1865 at the state capitol in Milledgeville, delegates quickly set about repealing the Ordinance of Secession, abolishing slavery, and repudiating Georgia’s war debts. In addition, the convention adopted a new state constitution, which incorporated the policies of Reconstruction, limited governors to two successive terms, and empowered the legislature to appoint judges to the state supreme court. The convention adjourned on November 7, 1865, and was soon followed by the election of Charles Jones Jenkins as governor on November 15. Johnson vacated the office on December 19.
For the remainder of his life, Johnson served in a variety of appointed government positions. From 1866 to 1869 he was the customs collector for Savannah, and later he served as a judge of the superior court in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit. He then returned to Columbus, where he reestablished his law firm. Johnson died on November 20, 1891, and is buried in Linwood Cemetery.
David Lehman Booher and his wife Elizabeth Nutts Booher
David Lehman Booher was an Ohio native who first visited Columbus on company business. So well did he like the city and the opportunities it afforded that he moved his wife, Elizabeth Nutts, and their children to Columbus in 1842. After a failed partnership to build a cotton mill near Wesson, Mississippi, Booher operated a supply house in Columbus, servicing the many planters who managed plantations in the countryside of Alabama and Georgia. Booher fared better in this endeavor. When he bought the Johnson house in 1862, he was purchasing one of the coveted residential sites in town. The Booher family and those they enslaved were in the home during the Battle of Columbus. According to family history, Elizabeth Booher had hidden their gold and precious items in the rosebushes where the soldiers, who came to the house, could not find them. Booher’s son, Milo, was taken prisoner and placed in the stockade near the 14th Street Bridge. He was able to sneak out of the stockade and get home thanks to civilian clothes that were smuggled in for him through the stockade walls.
When the soldiers left Columbus, the city was under military rule. The barracks were located on the corner of Ninth Street and First Avenue, across the street from the Booher property. David Booher began trading in cotton and started to regain a portion of his wealth lost during the war. By the time he died in 1886, he had become one of the largest merchants in Columbus. His descendants would occupy the home until the mid-1930s.
By the time Frances Benjamin Johnston found the house several years later, it had begun to deteriorate. It would stand only until 1941 when the new owners razed it. 902 Broadway was located in a transitional section of Broadway with industrial uses across the street and general commercial growing to its north. The property would soon become industrial in its use and by the 1970s it was home to Skateland. Now, it is one part of the property that has become a major cultural arts site for our community, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts. NEXT WEEK: We will uncover more Columbus stories from Ghosts of Grandeur!