By Joe Earle
Lynda Martin directed the small group of tourists from the wide porch of the Goodwin House into its oldest portion, the original log cabin from which other parts of the house grew.
She pointed out additions: a plank-walled second room with a large fireplace, a kitchen, a back porch and, finally, the paneled back room she now uses as her office.
“Every generation adapts,” she said.
At the Goodwin House, they have adapted. Lynda Martin and her sisters represent the seventh generation of their family to own the house, which dates to the 1830s and which the Martins claim is the oldest home standing in DeKalb County. Since it was built, the Goodwin House has sheltered farmers, merchants, doctors. It housed an antique shop for a while and now holds offices. Martin’s family lived in the house when she was a child, occupying a renovated outbuilding she calls the “chicken coop” and her dad, Al Martin, calls the servants’ quarters.
The white, wood frame house sits in the heart of Brookhaven, although many who drive by the home at 3931 Peachtree Road may not realize it’s there. Loaded on a flatbed truck and moved back a few hundred yards from the corner of Peachtree and North Druid Hills roads a half century ago, the house hides behind tall pines and magnolias. From Peachtree Road, passers-by see only a small driveway between the U-Haul store and Subway sandwich shop. Its original site is occupied by a motel.
The Martins struggle with what will happen to the house that sits on an acre and a half of commercial property along Peachtree Road. They worry the family won’t be able to afford to keep it up in the future. But for now, they celebrate their family homeplace’s past, opening the house for public tours on the third Sunday of each month.
“It’s amazing,” Al Martin said. “Sometimes, I think of all the things that happened with this house. Fifty years doesn’t seem like any time at all.”
One recent Sunday, people dropped by in groups of two or three to join one of the tours and learn a bit of Brookhaven history. Al and Lynda Martin took turns leading the groups through the first floor of the house. After a couple of hours, about a dozen tourgoers had examined the building techniques used in the Goodwin House and heard stories of the house and of family members who had lived in it through the years.
The fireplace, for instance, offers a tale of its own. Large chunks of wood are missing from its mantelpiece. Family legend has it that Northern troops who occupied the house during the Civil War hacked off great chunks of wood when they needed kindling. But the family story goes on, Lynda Martin said, that one of the women at the house was pregnant during the occupation. A Yankee soldier, concerned for her welfare, brought a cow to the house so the woman would have milk for her new baby.
Other parts of the house brought to mind stories of other family members, such as Dr. Elizabeth Martin, one of the earliest women doctors in the area, who raised rabbits at the house to use in pregnancy tests as part of her practice.
Tom and Judy Jones, who have lived in Brookhaven since 1978, dropped by for one of the Martins’ personal tours on a recent Sunday. They had read about the tours and decided they should grab the chance to see inside the house while they could. “We’re native Atlantans,” Tom Jones said. “They’ve torn down too much of Atlanta already.”
The Martins, too, worry about their house’s future. It has been threatened before. Several generations back, A.J. Martin organized an investment club of family members to buy the house, which had been sold outside the family, in order to save it. They used it as a family gathering place, and then gradually A.J. Martin bought out his relatives and moved into the place.
Brookhaven has changed since then. Al Martin remembers that when he lived at the house as a young boy, Peachtree Road was two lanes of blacktop. A trolley ran alongside, he said.
Even now, sitting on the wide front porch of the house, it’s easy to feel like you’re in the country. Lynda Martin likes to watch hummingbirds feed at the window of her tree-shaded office. Then the reminders return: Trucks roar by on Peachtree, trains shake the house as they pass, airplanes appear overhead as they maneuver to land at DeKalb Peachtree Airport.
The Martins have put the property up for sale, saying they worry the family won’t be able to pay upkeep and taxes on the land into another generation. “We feel kind of like we’ve run out of options,” Lynda Martin said.
But the family wants to try to preserve the house if the property sells.
“We don’t have to sell right now,” Lynda Martin said, “so we can be a little …”
“… picky,” her father said, completing the thought. “The dream is that it will survive.
So they are adapting again as they plan the Goodwin House’s future. The Martins hope development of the land will allow preservation of the house or, if the structure must be removed, that some other site can be found for it. “We want to leave a good legacy for Brookhaven,” Lynda Martin said. Later, she said, “We’re trying to go out gracefully.”
One reason is to keep in touch with their family’s history. “It’s such a unique experience to stand on land that goes so far back in your family’s history,” Martin said.
But another reason Lynda Martin sees is to preserve a sense of what life once was like for many families.
“Most people come from families like this,” Martin said. “Most of what [we] save is big politicians’ land, but most people’s families were like this, people who went through the war, who struggled.
“I’ve had so many people say, ‘It reminds me of my grandmother’s house.’ It gives a sense of stability in a world that is not stable. Even though this porch has been rebuilt a couple of times, you can lean against these posts and feel the grandmothers.”