Margaret Mitchell, Peggy Marsh to her friends, dubbed her Midtown Atlanta apartment “The Dump.” Surprisingly, it is in this unprepossessing tiny apartment on the bottom floor of Margaret Mitchell House at Atlanta History Center Midtown that this petite, yet powerful woman wrote Gone With the Wind, a very large book with a large and enduring reach.
The house survives as one of the oldest structures on Peachtree Street. It was built in 1899 by Cornelius Sheehan. Peachtree Street at the turn of the century looked much different than it appears today, with the neighborhood’s skyline now dominated by high-rises and construction cranes. Then, it was a narrow, two-lane road with homes such as this lining it for many blocks running south into the downtown area.
In 1913, a subsequent owner, perhaps sensing that the area was commercializing, moved the house to the back side of the property and sold the front part. The house’s address and orientation changed from Peachtree Street to Crescent Avenue.
By 1919, the home had been converted into a 10-unit apartment building. Margaret Mitchell moved into Apartment No. 1 on July 4, 1925, following her wedding on that day to her second husband, John Robert Marsh.
Visitors today step into the foyer off Crescent Avenue and find a small card that says “Mr. and Mrs. John Marsh” attached to the Apartment No. 1 door. Mitchell initially put her own calling card on the door (“Miss Margaret Mitchell”) with her husband’s business card below that, which caused a scandal. Possessing a rebellious spirit when she was young, she felt inclined to get a rise out of friends and relatives. John, a Kentucky native, finally replaced the two cards with a single one, a replica of which guests see today.
If small for the couple, the apartment was accommodating. Her friends generally lived in more spacious quarters, and so Mitchell would downplay her own dwelling by calling it “The Dump.” The furniture that contemporary visitors encounter is not original, but these period pieces were selected based on eyewitness accounts and descriptions in Margaret’s letters. The famous leaded glass window that the author glanced out while typing her manuscript is, however, an original architectural feature.
Shortly after moving into the apartment in 1925, Mitchell quit her job as a reporter at the Atlanta Journal, primarily because of a re-aggravation of a foot injury she suffered as a child from horse riding accidents. While recuperating, she would plow through library books that Marsh would bring her. As the story goes, one day he came home from the library empty-handed, claiming that she had read all the library’s works of fiction, and suggested that she start writing something instead.
Marsh bought his wife a used 1923 Remington portable typewriter in 1926. The original typewriter is now on display at the Atlanta Public Library downtown, but the one displayed in the corner of the apartment living room is the model that the author used.
Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind backwards, starting with the last chapter, where Scarlett loses Rhett, and worked her way toward the beginning. She would put each chapter into a manila envelope and began making stacks of these around the apartment. Her husband was the only one who knew about her writing, and when she had guests in the apartment, she would drape a bath towel over her typewriter so as not to draw attention to it. She was never very confident about her work and was extremely tight-lipped about it around her friends. After a while, however, the presence of the envelopes gave it away that she was writing something, although they were not sure what.
It wasn’t until 1935, nine years after she began the novel and three years after she moved from The Dump, that Mitchell’s manuscript was brought to the attention of Harald Latham, a Macmillan Publishing Company editor who was visiting Atlanta scouting for talent. Mitchell met him at a tea at the Piedmont Driving Club, and after initial hesitation, she agreed to let him read the manuscript. He was impressed, and by late spring 1936 the first copies of Gone With the Wind were published. It was an unparalleled success, selling more than 1 million copies within six months.
Today, guests marvel that a worldwide sensation – a dramatization of the war experience that has been questioned and challenged more in recent years -- emerged from such a humble setting. The wee bedroom off the living room is dominated by a three-quarter bed (between a twin and double bed in width). It must have been a comfort challenge for the 6-foot-tall Marsh, who towered over his 4-foot-11 wife. The dining room table also takes up residence in the bedroom, as does a sewing machine similar to the one Mitchell used.
The kitchen also is tiny, but was rather modern for the time, with a gas stove and electric toaster. An icebox, original to the building, is stationed in the enclosed porch outside the kitchen. Mitchell, however, was not inclined to cook often.
People in Atlanta were aware that Gone With the Wind had been written here, yet the building stood abandoned and disintegrating from 1979 to 1994. In 1989, Mayor Andrew Young helped secure Margaret Mitchell House’s future by designating it a city landmark on the rolls of what is now the city’s Office of Urban Design - Historic Preservation Division.
When the decision was made to restore the property, the architectural history of the structure was taken into account, and the front of the house was restored as it was in 1899. The back of the building was restored as it was when Margaret Mitchell called it home.
Then, in September 1994, an arsonist set fire to Margaret Mitchell House. Afterwards, Daimler-Benz Corporation, the German auto manufacturer, gave $4.5 million to restore the property and purchase its surrounding city block. With a Mercedes-Benz plant near Birmingham, Alabama, Daimler-Benz anticipated using the facility for hospitality events during the 1996 Summer Olympics.
In May 1996, only 40 days before the Centennial Games’ Opening Ceremonies, the house again was victim of an arson attempt. This fire occurred at a point where the restoration was almost complete, and all but Margaret Mitchell’s apartment was damaged or destroyed.
After the 1996 fire, $2 million collected from insurance allowed the restoration to continue. The House finally was dedicated on May 16, 1997.
More than 80 years after Gone With the Wind’s release, Margaret Mitchell House’s popularity as a destination for residents and tourists endures. It is also the setting for more than 30 Author Programs, changing exhibitions and a widening array of Atlanta History Center-organized events yearly.
Gone With the Wind, and Margaret Mitchell herself, are cultural phenomena not without controversy, and, over the years, the themes, characters, and the life of the author have been the subject of study and scrutiny. Guests can explore this controversy through guided tours of Apartment No. 1.