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Six Weeks of Wynnton: Wildwood Circle - Hillcrest

Week 5:  Wildwood Circle - Hillcrest

Wildwood Circle – Hillcrest was essentially all developed by John Francis Flournoy.  His home, Hillcrest, was built in 1890, and the surrounding land became a family compound where his children built their homes and later sold off their inherited pieces of the estate. Flournoy’s real estate company established Wildwood Circle as a subdivision in 1911. Beginning in the 1880s, John F. Flournoy was the pioneer suburban developer in Columbus and he continued to be one of the most active developers through the 1920s. Flournoy would develop many areas of Wynnton, East Highlands, Weracoba, and Peacock Woods.  He also greatly influenced residential development east of downtown Columbus.

Flournoy built his home on the highest hill in the Wynnton neighborhood and he placed it two blocks east from the new park he created at Weracoba Creek (Wildwood Park).  His home would also face the streetcar line he established near the middle of his proposed subdivisions. Hillcrest (designed by architect L.E. Thornton) was one of the city’s best and now the only remaining example of high-style Eastlake architecture.  According to family tradition, Flournoy’s second wife, Mary Reynolds Flournoy, purchased the land and paid for the house, so she dictated its style.  She wanted something completely different from her Greek Revival family home in Alabama.  The contractor went into bankruptcy while building the house because it was so elaborate.  The home remained in the family until 1995 and remains in excellent condition thanks to its current owner.

Beginning in 1906, Flournoy’s children built four houses to the south of Hillcrest.  In the 1930s and 1940s, John’s children, Josiah and Rebecca (Hamburger), subdivided the front of the tract into 14 lots – seven facing Wildwood Avenue and seven facing Carter Avenue.  Because these lots evolved from a family compound, their sizes are larger than adjacent neighborhoods.  Hillcrest occupies one acre and Tranquilla, c. 1906, occupies a two-and-a-half acre tract. 

Wildwood Circle is almost a perfect microcosm of the history of Wynnton.  By the late 1830s, three antebellum homes were in the area – the Chambers House (demolished in 1965), the Bedell-Stark-Browne house (pictured below courtesy of the J. Rhodes Browne and Rhodes Browne Papers MC 201 CSU Archives), and Hilton.

Originally a Georgian cottage with Greek Revival detailing, 1410 Stark Avenue was built for William A. Bedell in 1838.  Mary E. Stark acquired it in 1877 and owned it until 1884, when it was sold to H.H. Epping (father of John Flournoy’s first wife, Rebecca Epping, who died in 1873).  Flournoy married Mary Reynolds in 1881, and she purchased the house and surrounding land for $7,500 in 1885.  Four years later, Mary would sell the tract to the Muscogee Real Estate Company (later Flournoy Realty).  Her family lived in the house while Hillcrest was being constructed.  It was during the 1870s – 1880s that the Victorian porch was added.

Rhodes and Nina Browne, and then Marjorie Browne Hunt, lived in the house from 1913 to 1987 and owned the house from about 1922 to 1988.  Nina Browne was the owner due to Rhodes' bankruptcy during the Great Depression.  During the Depression, Nina took in boarders to make ends meet.  She would give up her room and sleep on the side screened porch. She also hired Columbus architect T. Firth Lockwood and remodeled it to its former Greek Revival style.  Today, it has been beautifully restored and is maintained by an active young family.

In 1838, Dr. Lovick Pierce, a Methodist minister and later bishop, built a four-room house at the site.  William Waters Garrard, a cotton merchant, bought the property in 1855, and transformed the house into a villa he had admired while traveling in Italy in the early 1850s.  Garrard reversed the orientation of the house, added on to the house, and built a new two-story section to the front of the house.  To complete the remodeling, the new portion was covered with stucco, scored, and painted pink to resemble ashlar, and all of the appropriate Italianate details were added.

The Garrard family lived there until 1887 when it was sold to Muscogee Real Estate Company (later Flournoy).  When the company was assembling land for their large East Highlands tract, they purchased Hilton estate (28 acres for $24,000) from the family. Hilton was one of the premier houses in Wynnton, the company retained 22 acres, and in 1917, when they began selling lots in Wildwood Circle, they sold Hilton and six acres to Annie K. Small.  Two years later, she sold it to the Bickerstaff family where the ownership has remained until the present.  In 1983, a fire consumed the house.

In 1911, Flournoy’s real estate company platted the subdivision, but like other neighborhoods it didn’t start to develop until after World War I and it took four decades to fill the entire development.  Wildwood Circle consisted of Stark, Wildwood, and the west side of Hilton Avenue and was almost filled by 1929.  In what was called Wildwood Circle Addition – east side of Hilton Avenue, Dixon Drive, Harding Drive, and 15th Street – these houses would be built in the 1940s and early 1950s.

In terms of house types and architectural styles, the area perfectly reflects the building trends in Wynnton.  A third of the houses were also designed by Columbus’ leading architects – Charles Hickman, John C.  Martin, F. Roy Duncan, T. Firth Lockwood, and James J.W. Biggers. Sr.  Almost from inception, the area included upscale apartment buildings – and the creation of Fort Benning and the impact of World War II accelerated that trend.  

The Wildwood Court Apartments were built in 1927.  They were advertised in the Industrial Index before construction as being financed by D. Lewenstein of Atlanta and built by the Williams Lumber Company at a cost of $150,000.00.  They are comprised of two, two-story brick buildings arranged in a U Shape around a central court.  Monumental, two-story Corinthian columns delineate each block of the building.  

This house was the childhood home of Carson McCullers from 1927-1934.  She often returned to the house from the late 1930s through 1944 to recover from her frequent illnesses.  Many of McCullers’ works were conceived, written or rewritten in the house; including The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Member of the Wedding.  McCullers described the importance of Columbus and her home on Stark, “I loved my home with its garden and the old familiar furniture ... but on the whole, Columbus gave me that same tranquility and calm that was so necessary to my work.”  Today the home is the property of Columbus State University and is The Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. The house is located at 1519 Stark Avenue.

Lula Carson Smith and her family moved into the home when she was ten years old. Seeking to improve her daughter’s education and circumstances, Margarite Waters Smith rented a house at 2417 Wynnton Road so that Carson could enter Wynnton School in 1925, the first year it became a public school.  Two years later she would buy the home on Stark Avenue.

The most important developments in the Hillcrest and Wildwood Circle area, and in all of Wynnton from 1890 until 1937, revolve around John Francis Flournoy.  His significance to the development of Columbus in the late 19th and early 20th centuries transcends the small area of this historic district.  His streetcars allowed the creation of the finest suburbs in the area, and his political skills would also bring essential ingredients to the neighborhood:  Columbus High School, Wynnton School as a public school, annexation to the city, and the 13th Street viaduct.  Flournoy and his son, Mallory Reynolds Flournoy, would also actively work to secure the permanent installation for Fort Benning south of the city (Camp Benning was originally located a mile southeast of Hillcrest). Below is a section from larger map of Columbus in 1914.

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