The evolution of the city of Decatur can perhaps be best understood by studying the development of its city center, commercial areas, and its neighborhoods. Developed during different decades, with different characteristics, uses, and economic climates, the various city districts and neighborhoods, each with its own unique character, have coalesced into the vibrant and diverse modern-day Decatur.
Early 1800s: First European Settlers
The first European settlers began moving into the area that is now DeKalb County in the early 1820s. A majority of the early settlers were farmers or skilled tradesmen of English, Scottish, and Irish ancestry. Migrating from other parts of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, they settled mainly on medium-to-small farms, and the area in what is now DeKalb County was rural and sparsely populated. In 1822, the Georgia General Assembly designated a site for a new courthouse in the newly-established DeKalb County on the site of the current Old Courthouse on the Square. On December 10, 1823, the General Assembly incorporated the City of Decatur.
Mid-1800s: Small City
The arrival of the railroads in the 1830s and 1840s had little impact on Decatur, other than offering the convenience of moving goods and passengers. By 1845, Atlanta had been established as the regional transportation center, and the growth and development in the region moved westward to Atlanta. Atlanta’s growth soon far eclipsed that of the small city of Decatur. While Atlanta experienced explosive growth, development, and sprawl, as early as 1849, the City of Decatur promoted itself as a quiet, prosperous, small town that offered a peaceful, healthful, and beautiful place to live.
Mid- to Late-1800s: Moderate Growth
As with most cities, the commercial and residential development of Decatur grew outward from the city commercial center. During the mid- to late-1880s, in addition to providing legal and administrative services to the county government, the city also began to provide goods and services to the public, becoming the commercial center for DeKalb County. Small businesses, commercial, and retail enterprises began to be established in buildings mostly clustered around the Square. Unfortunately, none of these original historic structures remain.
Some of Decatur’s earliest residences date to the late 1880s-1890s, and were located on or near Sycamore Street. Before the advent of the railroads in the 1830s and 1840s, this street, formerly called Covington Road, was the stagecoach line from Augusta and was the main east-west thoroughfare in the area. Residential development naturally grew along this route, close to the city center. Many fine residences were built on Sycamore Street, Hillyer Place, Sycamore Place, Barry Street, Pate Street and North Candler Street, a few of which remain today.
The area just south of the railroad line, known as “Little Decatur,” did not see extensive residential development until the 1880s, though early influential citizens had farms and large homesteads on the land along what is now South McDonough Street before that time.
By the late 1880s, a prosperous residential neighborhood had developed south of the railroad near the intersection of College Avenue and South Candler Street. As was the residential pattern of the time, wealthy families built their homes near the railroads, which offered convenient travel to its residents. It was in this established wealthy neighborhood in 1889 that the Decatur Female Academy was founded. This early school grew into what is now Agnes Scott College, and the college had then, and continues to have, an important impact on residential development in this area. Remaining in this area today are the historic neighborhoods of McDonough-Adams-Kings Highway, Agnes Scott College, and South Candler.
Though the railroad lines had a minimal effect on Decatur’s early development, the trolleys and later, the automobile, had dramatic impacts on residential growth patterns. In 1841, the first trolley line was established between Decatur and Atlanta, and other local routes were formed. From that time until the early 1900s and the beginning of the Automobile Age, residential development occurred along and near these trolley lines. The trolleys offered a faster, cleaner and less expensive means of travel, and because there were numerous lines, they were more accessible to more residents. Winnona Park and West Clairemont are among the neighborhoods that were influenced by the trolley lines. The town of Oakhurst (incorporated in 1910) originally developed as a streetcar suburb of Atlanta, following the North Decatur trolley line, which was constructed in 1892.
1900s: Growth of the Suburbs and the Automobile Age
The invention of the automobile and its availability to middle classes changed the fabric of American life. Because of the ease and freedom of movement offered by the automobile, citizens could live wherever they chose, no longer tethered to city centers for jobs, schools, goods and services, and the idea of living in a “garden suburb” became a reality for many.
Many garden suburbs were developed in Decatur between 1910 and 1940. These neighborhoods offered residents larger lots with the houses set farther back from the street, as well as spaces for a garage and driveway. In these new suburbs, the focus of family activities changed from the front-porch society of the nineteenth-century to residences oriented toward private back yards, large enough for gardening, gathering, and play. No longer needing to follow the grid of a railroad or trolley line, roads in these new suburbs tended to follow the natural topography, with winding, hilly streets.
In the years between 1910 and 1940, evidence of the popularity of the garden suburb in Decatur can be seen in the neighborhoods of Lenox Place, Greenwood-Pattillo-Howard, West Clairemont, Oakhurst, and Adair Park. Other examples of these newer garden suburbs developed during this time include Great Lakes, Glennwood Estates, and College Heights.
Development continued from the 1940s into the 1960s in outlying residential neighborhoods. Many of these new residences were built in the popular ranch style. The ranch house, once overlooked as a common, indistinct house type, has recently been recognized as a classic American style that represents the age and culture of the 1950s and 1960s.
Timeline of Neighborhood Development
1880s-1960 Candler Street and Agnes Scott College
1890s- 2000 Central Business District
1910s-1920s Lenox Place
1910s-1930s McDonough-Adams-King (MAK)
1910s-1940s West Clairemont
1910s-1940s Oakhurst (incorporated in 1910, annexed by Decatur in 1914)
1910s-1940s Adair Park
1920s-1930s East Ponce de Leon Corridor
1920s-1940s Clairemont Avenue
1930s-1950s Medlock/North Decatur
1920s-1940s Great Lakes
1930s-1950s Glennwood Estates
1940s College Heights
1940s-1950s Westchester Hills
1940s-1950s West Decatur
1940s-1960s Southeast Decatur
1940s-1950s Chelsea Heights
1940s-1950s Decatur Heights
Leila Ross Wilburn, who attended Agnes Scott College, was one of only two women registered as an architect in Atlanta in 1920. Ms. Wilburn designed and built a home in the neighborhood where she lived with her widowed mother and younger siblings. She published several popular plan books that emphasized her status as a Southerner and a woman. Through these plan books, she influenced neighborhood design throughout the Southeast during the 1920s.
In 1907 John Mason and Poleman Weekes purchased property that was to become Decatur's first residential subdivision. The district known today as the M.A.K. neighborhood is named for its main streets, McDonough, Adams and Kings Highway, and encompasses ten city blocks of varying size. Ms. Wilburn was employed by Mason and Weekes to design many of the homes for the new subdivision.
The MAK neighborhood retains many of the Wilburn-designed homes and offers excellent examples of craftsman style homes that were popular during the first three decades of the 20th century.
Decatur was named in honor of Stephen Decatur, a popular early-American naval hero. Stephen Decatur was born in 1779 in Maryland and was raised in Philadelphia. At the age of 19 he joined the newly formed U.S. Navy, and rose rapidly in rank.
He led daring raids in the wars against the Barbary pirates along the northern coast of Africa, and returned home a hero in 1805. He remained in the Navy and commanded several ships during the troubles with Great Britain that led to the War of 1812. While commanding the USS United States, he defeated one of Great Britain's finest ships, the Macedonian.
Following the War of 1812 Stephen Decatur returned to the Mediterranean as commander of a squadron that defeated the Barbary pirates a second time. He returned to the U.S. again in triumph. Shortly thereafter in a speech in Norfolk, Virginia, he spoke his famous line: "Our country. In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be right; but our country right or wrong."
Commodore Stephen Decatur returned to Washington, D.C., and became a highly respected Navy commissioner. He was killed in a duel on March 22, 1820, and his death was mourned throughout the country.
Three years later, in 1823, the City of Decatur was named in his honor.
This information assembled by Walt Drake from The Story of Decatur, 1823-1899 by Caroline McKinney Clarke, and The History of DeKalb County, Georgia, 1822-1900 by Vivian Price. For more information or to schedule a program on Stephen Decatur, call the DeKalb History Center at 404-373-1088.
U.S. Cities and Counties Named for Stephen Decatur
Decatur County, Tennessee
Decatur County, Georgia
Decatur County, Indiana
Decatur County, Iowa
Decatur County, Kansas