Rock house gathers no moss
Wade home in buckhead has long history of change
story by tara derock mahoney
photos by angelina bellebuono
The interior of Buckhead's Rock House has changed a lot in the past 40 years.
“When I first moved in here in 1967, it was dark, dark, dark,” said owner and long-time resident Gail Wade. “There was tin over the skylight, there was a garage that covered up one of the windows in the front room...the goal was to lighten it up.”
Lighten it up Wade and her husband, Dr. John Wade, have.
Today the granite structure is filled with sunshine. A bright back bedroom, a family room with floor to ceiling glass windows, a side sun porch, a bird-laden deck—all of these additions make the structure seem fresh and bright.
But the front of the house, serene and solid, remains much as it did when it was erected in 1896. In fact if its builder, John O'Flaherty, were to wander by tomorrow, he would certainly recognize the symmetrical Georgian structure, the single gable, and the singular rough-hewn granite blocks that still face his one-time home, which sits just yards from what is now the CSX railway, but was once one of the original train lines in the state of Georgia, running between Augusta and Terminus—later Atlanta. Local legend has it that the entrepreneurial O'Flaherty saw the potential of the sloping five acre site at the edge of downtown Buckhead and built the house originally as a travel stop and watering hole for railroad men—complete with “gambling in the basement,” says Wade. The presence of a stonecutter and stonemason in the town of Buckhead likely influenced his decision to build his house of granite, which was brought in on the railroad from quarries near Stone Mountain and rolled off the train and into what would become the Rock House's front yard. The house's life as a tavern was apparently fairly short-lived however, as O'Flaherty married a local girl named Emma McWhorter—a charter member of the Buckhead Baptist Church—and found his desire to operate a bar on the wane. After O'Flaherty's death in 1910, the house was sold at least six times before coming into Wade's possession in the late 1960s.
Today the lovingly refinished original tongue-and-groove curly-pine walls, the painted attic with its large, original skylight, and the cozy kitchen with a trapdoor to the basement all speak of a house that is well-loved by its owners. But it was not always so, said Wade.
The Rock House was frequently on the market during the 20th century, often operating as a rental property, and a good many natives of Buckhead resided within its 14-inch-thick walls at one time or another. Members of the Davis family—Gail's forebears—lived there during the years of WWII; part of the Wheat family owned the house for a while, and quite a few other young families and newlyweds rented from various property owners.
“In a small town like this, there are so few houses,” said Wade. “Many, many people have lived here.”
Gail herself was bequeathed the house by her aunt and uncle in the 1960s, but her grandfather had bought and sold the house a generation before that.
“In the 1920s, the Rock House was owned by the Wheat family,” said Wade, who conducted extensive research on the home prior to its being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. “The Wheats sold the house and 80 surrounding acres of cotton fields and peach orchards to a Mr. A.F. Slaton for $4,000,” according to record. Wade talked to locals who remembered Slaton selling sacks of peaches from his orchard to travelers on the train that passed through the front yard of the house. Slaton apparently lost everything to the boll weevil, and when he died in debt in 1927, the Rock House was sold on the courthouse steps to Wade's grandfather.
“That's how it originally came into my family,” said Wade.
Although the inside has undergone extensive renovations over the years, pieces of the one-time railroad watering hole remain. A large curly-pine clad mirror hangs in the front hall, the original bar-room glass that hung in the front room of the house. An narrow, unused stairway under the trapdoor in what is now the kitchen leads into the one-time cellar and kitchen of the house. Outside the house, large granite retaining walls that were built to shore up the earth around the house are still in evidence. Those retaining walls were a significant part of the landscaping of the house, a so-called late-19th-century “New South” aesthetic which was characterized by “deliberately informal...overall layout...the use of large trees, shrubbery, and ground cover” as well as structural elements such as the granite retaining walls. Today the high sunshine and deep shade of the homesite are still striking, and that, too, has apparently remained constant over the years.
“The greystone residence of Mr. John O'Flaherty is about completed,” says an item in the “Buckhead Budget” section of the Madisonian from September 2, 1898. “He is greatly beautifying the grounds and when he gets it to his idea of what a home should be, it will be the prettiest and most romantic home that we have ever seen.”
And with that, Gail and her husband John most heartily agree.