Alonzo Herndon was born in 1858, during the last decade of slavery. After emancipation, he worked as a field hand and sharecropper, supplementing his meager income by selling peanuts, homemade molasses, and axle grease. He arrived in Atlanta in the early 1880s, taking on work as a barber and eventually owning several barbershops of his own. Herndon used the earnings from these shops to acquire Atlanta real estate, and by 1900, fewer than 40 years out of slavery and with only a year of formal education, he was the richest black man in Atlanta. In 1905, Herndon purchased a church burial association, which, with other small companies, became the nucleus of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, today the nation's second-largest black-owned insurance company.
In 1910, Herndon built this elegant 15-room house in the Beaux Arts-neoclassical style, complete with a stately colonnaded entrance. Herndon and his wife, Adrienne McNeil, a drama teacher at Atlanta University, were the primary architects of the house, and construction was accomplished almost completely by African-American artisans. Because their son Norris occupied the home until 1977, much of the original furniture remains, and there are family photographs throughout. Adrienne died about a week after the house was completed.
The house tour begins in a receiving room with a 10-minute introductory video called The Herndon Legacy. The tour then takes you through the reception hall; the music room, with rococo gilt-trimmed walls and Louis XV-style furnishings; the living room, with a frieze on its walls depicting the accomplishments of Herndon's life; the dining room, furnished in late Renaissance style with family china and Venetian glass displayed in a mahogany cabinet; the butler's pantry; and the sunny breakfast room. Upstairs, you'll see the bedroom used by Herndon's second wife, Jessie, with its Jacobean suite and Louis XV-style furnishings; Herndon's Empire-furnished bedroom, where a book from a Republican National Convention is displayed on a table, letting you know his political bent; the collection room (Norris collected ancient Greek and Roman vases and funerary objects); Norris's bedroom; a sitting room; and a guest bedroom.