The John M. Fontaine House
SOURCES: Ghosts of Grandeur: Georgia’s Lost Antebellum Homes and Plantations by Michael W. Kitchens, 2012. Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress, 1936. Columbus on the Chattahoochee by Etta Blanchard Worsley, 1951.
The original plan for the city of Columbus was drawn up in 1828. That same year, John Fontaine arrived in west central Georgia from Virginia. John Fontaine was descended from a Huguenot family that had lived in Virginia for more than one hundred years. One of his ancestors was another John Fontaine, who rode with Alexander Spotswood, the governor of the Virginia colony, to explore the Shenandoah Valley for Virginia and opened it for settlement in 1716. In 1825, John Fontaine married Mary Ann Stewart of Greene County, Georgia. They had seven children. Henrietta Hargraves, Mary Elizabeth, John who died as a youth, Benjamin, Theophilus, Francis, and George. Five other children died in infancy.
John had acquired tremendous wealth as a cotton factor, planter, steamboat owner, and merchant. By 1829, he is listed among the cotton merchants. In 1836, he became the first official Mayor of Columbus. By the mid-1800s, John Fontaine owned acreage in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. In addition to his in-town residence, Fontaine also had a second residence on his Alabama plantation, which he named Bellefonte. The family used the town house mostly in the winter for the social season and the plantation home during the summer. He also owned his own interests in manufacturing facilities, including the Columbus Factory cotton mill, which was burned in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. It was later rebuilt as the Columbus Manufacturing Company. The Fontaines were well known for their hospitality at their Front Avenue home in Columbus. It was built in the 1830s and overlooked the Chattahoochee River with a panoramic view of Alabama’s hills beyond. His home was of brick construction with walls 18 inches thick of bricks, and it was designed to reflect the Greek Revival style. It was fronted by six monumental Ionic columns supporting a massive entablature. Its architect is not recorded, however, it was someone with significant training and talent, for its scale was sophisticated and precisely proportioned.
The bricks on the side and rear walls were left exposed. The front façade was covered with stucco and scored to look like stone. It had an exceptionally graceful front entrance with pairs of fluted Ionic columns and an elliptical fanlight with a pair of carved double doors at its center. Above the entry way was a balcony with wheat and sheaf balusters. The roof, which was of slate, was connected with a water cistern to catch and store rainwater for the family’s use.
The home’s wide central hall was divided by pairs of Ionic columns supporting a broad archway, which framed the beautiful circular stairway with mahogany handrails and trim. Tucked behind the circular stairway was a smaller unadorned staircase that led to the basement. On either side of the central hall were four large rooms. As you entered the hall, the first room on the left was the parlor. One could not help being impressed by the beauty of the details of this house. At the top corner of each of the deeply recessed windows were carved acorns and oak leaves. This motif was followed throughout the house and in the dadoes surrounding the chandeliers. In the parlor and dining room adjoining were black marble mantels over which hung gold framed mirrors. On the mantel in the parlor sat a French clock which had ticked away generations. When you left this room, you passed through mahogany folding doors to enter the family dining room where the Fontaine’s hospitality was enjoyed by so many throughout the South.
The house was situated on a terraced lot occupying nearly an entire city block with flower gardens to the sides and rear of the house. Originally, gardens stretched before the house leading down to the river where Fontaine had a private wharf. There were also gardens at the rear of the house that were divided by brick walls leading to the stables and quarters for those he enslaved. Mary Ann Fontaine died September 16, 1852, and John passed away on November 6, 1866. The house would remain in family hands until the 1940s. Benjamin Bruton Fontaine, John Fontaine’s son, married Elizabeth Shorter, daughter of James H. Shorter. He gained ownership of the home after his parents’ deaths. Benjamin served as a captain in the Third Georgia Calvary under General Joe Wheeler and equipped the entire company at his own expense.
The Fontaine House was also a forerunner to additional large-scale homes that would soon be constructed along Front Avenue and known as “Golden Row.” The Front Avenue homes were called “Golden Row” due to the number of bankers and successful businessmen who had houses there, all with gardens down to the river. The last private owner was Mary Fontaine Pou (Mrs. John Dozier Pou), granddaughter of John Fontaine. The house was documented by the Historic American Building Survey in 1936. At that time, the home had left private hands and was the property of the Elks Club. The Fontaine home was demolished by the middle of the twentieth century. It is now the site of a parking deck.
The Fontaine House by Rick Spitzmiller