The J.R. Carmichael mansion, known to the locals of Jackson, Georgia as “The Carmichael House” is both a town landmark and an imposing architectural treasure that is unique in this area. Constructed in the Queen Anne style of architecture during what is now known as the Victorian era, the house includes styling elements of both, making it a very interesting architectural hybrid that has fascinated local citizens and visitors to the home over the past century. Construction began on the Butts County house in 1897 and concluded in 1898.
The history of the mansion, located in the county seat of Jackson, is short in comparison to the history of the family that built it and their place as one of the first families of Butts County spans not only the 188 year life of the county but many of the years preceding it. Joseph Carmichael, the patriarch of the Carmichael family, was born in South Carolina in 1766 and later moved to Georgia, where he and his wife Elizabeth had their children. He died on June 9, 1854 and is buried next to his wife in the Fellowship Presbyterian Church cemetery, one of the earliest established cemeteries. They had seven children, the third of which, Hugh W. Carmichael, was the father of the man who would someday build Jackson’s most lavish and extravagant mansion.
John Robert Carmichael was the ninth and last child of Hugh and Agnes Carmichael, being born on October 7, 1856. His name features prominently in the History of Butts County as being involved in various business, civic and religious affairs of the time but he was most noted for his position as a Jackson businessman and proprietor of the Carmichael Buggy Company, which opened in 1887 and soon occupied a large factory building a block west of the Jackson square. The company was highly prosperous and soon grew to become one of the largest buggy manufacturing outfits in the south, producing some 4000 buggies per year. This enterprise made John R. Carmichael one of the wealthiest citizens of Butts County as the 19th century was drawing to a close.
In 1886, just prior to the opening of his buggy plant, he and his wife, Rosa Ann Elizabeth Carmichael moved into Jackson from the southern part of the county. They purchased an older home just a few blocks west of their factory on small rise in what would become the most prestigious part of town for many years. As their business and family grew, the need for a larger house became apparent and Carmichael, being a man of means and a leading citizen of the community decided to build a house equal to the success he enjoyed. Apparently happy with the location they were living in, Carmichael had his home moved a few blocks east of its original location and in 1897, began planning the construction of his new mansion on the site of his old house.
The prestigious Atlanta architectural firm of Bruce and Morgan was already engaged on two local projects; the construction of a new Jackson Presbyterian church two blocks north of the square and the new County Courthouse, slated to be built on the square itself. Carmichael, a deacon of the church, was in charge of the plans for the new church and his older brother, James F. Carmichael was the Judge of the Ordinary Court so it is likely that their association with Bruce and Morgan led to John R. Carmichael’s selection of them as the architect to design the mansion.
In late 1897 and on into 1898, the sounds of construction was no doubt a common one as three of Jackson’s grandest structures began to rise, all within a few blocks of each other. According to a discussion I had many years ago with J.R. Carmichael, Jr., it is said that Mr. Morgan, the principal architect on all three projects, spent a great deal of time in Jackson seeing towards the construction of the Presbyterian Church, the Courthouse and the Carmichael mansion and that he would often ride on horseback between the three construction sites to check on the progress of each. No doubt the citizens of Jackson and those who travelled in from the rural parts of the county were impressed with these magnificent homages to God, Justice and Prosperity and it was well-known that Carmichael funds paid for one and helped fund the other two as well.
Finally, in 1898, all were complete and in July of that year, John R. Carmichael and his family moved into the $16,000.00 imposing and ornate Queen Anne mansion, situated in such a way that it could be seen from one end of Second Street to the other end. From its wide front porches, members of the family could see all the way to downtown Jackson, including the new Courthouse as well as the source of their prosperity, the Carmichael Buggy Factory. Visitors to the mansion were no doubt in awe at the size and elaborate details of the home, which was only emphasized at the time by the lack of mature trees around it as seen in the photograph above, taken when the house was completed.
Constructed mainly of heart of pine wood, the mansion rose above its basement for three levels, including attic space rooms with dormer windows that provided unimpeded views of downtown Jackson and beyond. Facing due east, the wide and gracious front porch wrapped around the front and southern sides of the house with a large round sitting area on the southeastern corner. During the days prior to air conditioning, there was no finer porch in Jackson for Carmichael family members and their many guests to sit and catch the occasional breezes that gave a brief respite from the hot Georgia summers.
Although constructed in the Victorian era, the mansion is truly characterized by the Queen Anne style of architecture. Elements of this style abound on the mansion, including the rounded corner tower with it’s “Witches Hat” roof, the asymmetrical façade, the dominant overhanging gable with balcony, a porch covering the entire front façade supported with classic Doric columns and a variety of textured woodwork (fish scale, dentils and sunburst patterns). Because Queen Anne is a lot more rare in the South than the more common Victorian and given that the Carmichael mansion incorporates all of these features and elements makes for a truly unique home, then and now.
Taken individually, the elements of the exterior of the home were the finest available at the time. Hand carved details such as those that adorn the porch cornice were abundant and very little space on the main features such as the upper gable and the corner tower room were untouched by decorative elements of some type. The steep roof, sheathed in its original slate, echoes the ornamental features found below with elaborate dormers, details on the gables and a variety of finials cast in iron running along the ridges and peaks of the roof.
Unlike the pure, straight and symmetrical lines of antebellum architecture, the Queen Anne mansion and in particular, this one, is an amalgamation of shapes, wings, jutting roof lines and ornamentation. Completely asymmetrical, the mansion still strikes a balance that can only be attributed to the considerable skill of her architect. At the time it was built, the house was considered to be colossal in scale and even by today’s standards, is a very large house.
The entryway is accessed by means of double doors, each measuring just over nine feet tall and three feet wide, constructed of solid oak. From the vestibule, one enters the main entry hall which is flanked by parlors on both sides, the smaller of the two on the left (south) and the larger on the right (north). The south parlor contained the family piano of the type known as a “square or box grand”, a style of piano that was very popular in 19th century but which was no longer produced after 1900. This room was considered to be less formal than the north parlor which was larger and designed mainly for use when company came. The north parlor still featured the original French Axminster rug that was laid when the house was built. The furniture in both parlors, as well as in the other rooms of the mansion was period furniture, either purchased for the house when new or brought over from the previous home.
From the formal parlor on the north side of the mansion, one made their way into the formal dining room, one of the most opulent and grandest rooms in the home. A large set of sliding “pocket doors” separated the north parlor from the dining room, which could be slid back into walls when the rooms needed to be used for entertaining, turning both rooms into one larger space.
The north wall of the dining room included two large windows, each with stain glass transoms flanking an elaborate fireplace of pink gloss tile, double oak columns and a molded plaster rendition of the Carmichael coat of arms. Prior to it being sold at an auction in 2010, the original dining room table, when fully extended, measured 10.5 feet long and featured claw foot legs. A large crystal chandelier most recently adorned the dining room but has since been removed. In addition to the formal downstairs rooms, two bedrooms and the kitchen are also on the main level of the house.
The two downstairs bedrooms are found on the south side of the house, accessed by means of a side hallway. It was in one of these rooms that the last four of the eleven children of John R. Carmichael were born, two sons followed by two daughters. The youngest son, born in 1901, was given his father’s name and thus became John R. Carmichael, Jr., known to the citizens of Butts County as J.R. Carmichael. The kitchen, located in the rear (west) wing of the house included a wooden cookstove that was purchased around 1915, as well as an electric call box used to summon servants to the various rooms of the house.
The second floor of the house follows virtually the same plan as the first floor and was accessed from the great hall below by means of a grand staircase. The staircase, constructed entirely of wood similar to that used throughout the house features a prominent lower landing that allows one to see the entirety of the great hall, as well as an upper landing before turning to go the rest of the way up. The bulk of the staircase travels from the front to the rear, going up from the lower landing to the upper landing, with shorter turns from the first floor to the first landing and from the second landing to the second floor.
The two east bedrooms on each side of the upper hallway mirror the south and north parlors below, with the north parlor wall being formed in the shape of a half-octagon, much like a bay window. This extra space makes both the north parlor and the bedroom over the parlor the largest rooms in the house. The bedroom over the south parlor benefits from the added tower or turret room that is a visible attribute and key feature of the exterior part of the house. This circular room opens directly off of the bedroom’s southeast corner and benefits from natural lighting coming from the sun for a good portion of the day. It has been used as the master bedroom by some of the families that have occupied the Carmichael House in more recent years. Additional upstairs bedrooms mirror the design of the two downstairs bedrooms as well as the dining room and kitchen, bringing the total number of bedrooms to eight.
In addition to all these bedrooms and formal rooms, the mansion features five hallways, three bathrooms and six individual porches. Part of the rear porch was later enclosed to create a sun room; other porches include upstairs side porches and an upstairs front porch directly over the front doors that is accessed through a small room used by Mrs. Carmichael as a sewing room. From this room, the small porch was reached by means of a window that raised completely up into the ceiling, allowing one to step out onto the front porch for a nice view down Second Street toward the square and the buggy factory. The view, shown here, is actually taken from the third floor attic above, looking east and small portions of the factory building as well as a glimpse of the courthouse clock tower can be seen through the trees on the right side of the street.
The parlors, dining rooms, halls and bedrooms in the mansion were characterized by 12 foot ceilings and solid wood doors measuring 7 feet tall and nearly two inches thick. An abundance of oak paneling, decorative wood crown moldings and other elaborate woodwork throughout the entire house made the Carmichael mansion a grand palace among the other elegant but less extravagant homes in the area. Features of the home not commonly found included full length windows with original oak and pine shutters and copper screening original to the house was there for much of its life. The mansion was also built for running water and electricity, neither of which were available when the house was constructed but which allowed it to take full advantage of both innovations when these amenities became available a few years later. Some of the chandeliers in the house speak of this in-between period, being designed to use both gas lighting and electric lighting. Heat was provided to all rooms by means of five ornate brick chimneys, each featuring a unique pattern.
Stain glass was liberally used in the construction of the house and the Carmichael mansion featured a total of eleven stain glass windows including an interesting one that wrapped around the curvature of this rotunda railing. All but two of the stain glass windows have since been removed from the mansion. The rotunda opening offers visitors arriving to the mansion a nice view up to the ceiling of the second floor and allows those on the upper level to observe what is going on below. I imagine some of the Carmichael children used to watch from this vantage point as guests arrived at the parties the Carmichael family were known for giving in the early turn of the century.
Toward the rear of the house between the dining room and the kitchen is the secondary staircase, used by servants and members of the family to access the second floor living quarters. Constructed of a much simpler design, this staircase continues from the second floor to the third floor, which comprises the attic spaces. The attic resides under the high, steep roof and features dormer windows and other windows to allow light into the space. Additional rooms on this level provided sleeping quarters for servants and play areas for the Carmichael children. When coupled with the full basement, accessed from the outside of the house, the Carmichael mansion featured four complete levels, making it by far the largest residence in Jackson at the time of its construction and today it is still one of the largest homes in Butts County.
Part II: The Life of the Carmichael Mansion
John Robert Carmichael and his wife, Rosa Ann Elizabeth Kinard Carmichael produced 11 children between 1885 and 1906, five daughters and six sons. In 1908, just a few months after his 51st birthday, John R. Carmichael died, leaving behind a wife, nine surviving children (a son Ralph and a daughter Jane had died in childhood), a buggy business facing a future of automobiles, a bank and his ten-year old mansion. Of the children who survived him, the oldest was 23 and the youngest was not far past her 1st birthday. Shown in this photograph, taken about 1910, are Mrs. J.R. Carmichael, Sr. and her nine surviving children, listed in order of birth: Bertha Beatrice, Ambrose Homer, Victor Hugh, Bert Kinard, Rosalie, John Edward, John Robert, Jr., Mary Frances and Lollie Caroline.
For a time, the family buggy business carried on but with the advent of the automobile age, the buggy trade waned in the years after John Carmichael’s death and within eight years, the Carmichael Buggy Company closed its doors for good after a 29 year run. Mrs. Carmichael raised her younger children while her older sons looked after family affairs. Daughter Rosalie Carmichael Joyner passed away in 1925 and son Bert Carmichael followed in 1938. Mrs. Carmichael continued to live in the mansion until her death in 1953 at the age of 87. Two years later, Lollie Carmichael McNeice passed away, followed by brother John Edward Carmichael the following year. In 1964, Ambrose Homer Carmichael died, then Hugh Carmichael in 1965, Bertha Carmichael Dempsey and Mary Frances Carmichael Barnwell, both in 1967.
From the 1930’s and until the early 1970’s, the Carmichael mansion went through a period of slow decline; at one point, it was divided up into apartments and at other times, it was vacant for long periods. This author’s earliest recollection of the mansion was as a child in the early 1970’s. The old mansion had been empty for a number of years and was in a sad state of disrepair by then. The exterior paint was virtually gone with its once-elegant facade now weathered and faded while weeds and tall grass encroached upon the house. The children in town thought of it as a haunted house and it certainly fit the description of what one looked like. This photograph, taken some time in the 1950’s shows that the condition of the mansion, even then, was on a downhill slide; by the 1970’s it looked much worse.
Fortunately, in 1972, J.R. Carmichael, Jr., the last surviving child of the builder and his wife, Norma Keyes Carmichael, decided to move back to Jackson after having lived away for a number of years and they undertook a monumental restoration of the mansion that brought it back to its pristine condition. The restoration was complete in time for bicentennial celebrations held in Jackson and the refurbished home was opened for public tour for the first time in decades. Several hundred citizens of Butts County, including one fascinated ten-year old got to see the beautiful home as it was meant to be seen, with all its rooms restored and the Carmichael House once again became the county’s best-loved landmark. J.R. Carmichael, Jr. had the home placed on the National Registry of Historic Places during the time of the restoration, further solidifying its place in the history of Jackson.
At Christmas each year, J.R. and “Miss Norma” decorated the mansion with festive wreaths, bows and an electric candle in every single visible window on all three levels of the house. There was no prettier home in the county than the Carmichael House at Christmastime and I even heard that it was disqualified from the annual Christmas decorating contest that used to be held each year because that house had a distinct advantage over the other homes in the county and the playing field was not level when it was able to compete. I was riding my bike by there one day when I saw Mr. Carmichael in his yard and stopped by. I told him who I was and who I was related to (that’s how people figured out where you belonged back then) and how much I admired his home. He invited me to come back after the holidays and he would give me a tour and I took him up on the offer.
Let me tell you, there were tours of the Carmichael House and then there was the J.R. and Norma Carmichael tour of the Carmichael House. I was the lucky beneficiary of the latter and having taken the former, could report that this one was far more satisfying. I was met at the door by Miss Norma and ushered into the north parlor where I was served refreshments before the tour began. During the public tour, certain sections of the house were not open to the public but under Mr. Carmichael, no corner of the mansion was left unvisited. He took me outside, walked me around the house and explained various details of the architecture and told me all kinds of inside information about the house. Then he started with the ground floor and over the next two hours, we worked our way through the entire house. I must admit I never expected to be shown the crawl space or the attic but that day I got to see both.
The attic was enormous and I imagined the Carmichael children enjoyed playing in such a spacious area when the weather outside was rainy or cold. Since then, the space has been completely finished, adding light, open rooms with some of the best views of Jackson imaginable. I was always very appreciative of the time Mr. Carmichael and Miss Norma spent showing me their beautiful home and for several years afterwards, I was always a welcome guest who dropped by to visit every now and then. Sadly, Miss Norma passed away a few years after that and Mr. Carmichael lived at home with live in help as long as he was able to. After he died, the house was again in need of help and it arrived in the form of John Herdina and Linda Sullivan who went about seeing towards the needs of the home.
Around 1994, they repainted the exterior of the house in the color scheme it is found to be in today. Instead of repainting it in the original white, they instead painted it in multiple hues of beige and brown with deep red accents in places that really brought out the unique architectural details of the mansion. When they had finished with the house it never had looked so fine and they soon opened it up as a bed and breakfast and ran that for several years.
Some time later, they moved and the house passed along to others and since then, more people have come and gone. As of this writing, the Carmichael House stands empty, divested of its original furnishings, most of its light fixtures and many of the stain glass windows, yet still very much possessing the stately elegance of the era in which it was built. Its fine woods and decorative moldings remain and even in the silent stillness that is found within its halls today, I can remember brighter times when the house was filled with people marveling at its grandeur and beauty.
The Carmichael House today is in need of care. While structurally sound and contained intact under an original slate roof that has stood the test of time, it is an old house and requires upkeep and attention to keep it beautiful. Old houses can quickly fall into disrepair without proper maintenance so I am hopeful that someone will discover the joys of being “owned” by a historic home that can give it the love and attention it needs to remain a viable home. Without both, the Carmichael House will no doubt just be a beautiful memory of a time when even small towns produced local tycoons and elegance equal to any in the country could be found in places you wouldn’t expect.
The Carmichael House will soon turn 115 years old and in its lifetime, has seen the century that bridged the old with the new, bringing all of the innovations and technological breakthroughs that came with it. It is a visible part of our past, something we can reach out and touch and connect with the people who came before us and who helped build our country.
It would be a tragedy to allow such a treasure to fade into oblivion.
My thanks to J.R. and Norma Keyes Carmichael for sharing many wonderful stories and memories, as well as their beautiful home with our community. i also am grateful for the input and assistance of Liz Carmichael Jones for helping me to fill in some gaps.