A contender for Buckhead’s oldest house is about to change hands

A contender for Buckhead’s oldest house has been hiding in plain sight in Peachtree Hills without any historic designation or protection. And now it’s changing hands.

The lack of historic status has continued because the owners who rehabilitated it in recent years didn’t want the attention. But there’s been a change of heart now that they’re moving and selling in a market where teardowns for bigger, newer digs are common.

“It just cannot get torn down. It cannot get torn down,” said Nonnie Preuss of the farmhouse at 183 Lindbergh Drive, which she and husband Andreas bought 16 years ago. They believe it dates to the 1880s and belonged to a woman from the Plaster family, who once owned thousands of acres in the area and whose name is memorialized in Plaster Avenue a block to the west.

Listed at $1.275 million through the Heery Brothers at Sotheby’s International Realty, the house went under contract the week of Sept. 6. Nonnie Preuss said the prospective buyers’ intense inspection process encouraged her that they intend to keep the house intact, but time will tell.

Time is something the house has seen a lot of — in Buckhead terms. Based on expert research, local lore and Nonnie’s collegiate training in architectural history, the Preusses know the house dates to at least 1893, when tax records began, and believe it was built in the 1880s.

That would make it a rarity in Buckhead, maybe even unique. White settlers established the community in the 1830s after Native Americans were forced out of the area. But the oldest original houses on the traditional lists of such groups as the Buckhead Heritage Society date to the early 1900s. Some older buildings stand in Buckhead today: an 1830s house at 1450 West Wesley Road and a farmhouse (circa 1845) and enslaved people’s cabin (circa 1850) at the Atlanta History Center. But all of those were moved here from other parts of metro Atlanta in the 20th century.

New Orleans natives who met while working in television news, the Preusses were living in Garden Hills in 2004 when Andreas got stuck behind a mail truck on Lindbergh and noticed the house hiding in plain sight. It sits at the southeast corner of Lindbergh and Branch Avenue, atop a wooded rise and set well back from the street. He immediately recognized its historic character — and a “for sale by owner” sign out front. By 2005, the couple owned it.

While the house had been heavily modified over the years, Nonnie says, the evidence quickly proved their instincts about its history true. A lot was still intact, like horsehair plaster and hand-carved rosettes on doorframes. “Every floorboard is original,” she says. Even some of the drastic changes spoke to the age of the farmhouse; it had obviously lacked an indoor kitchen and bathroom until those were added in the 1920s and ’30s. While property records go back to 1893, “it’s definitely older in its bones than that,” Nonnie said.

The previous owners acquired the home in the 1980s and carved it up into individual rental spaces like a combo of rooming house and duplex. Nonnie said she saw right through all that later work: “I just see a house saying, ‘Make me one again. I don’t want to be cut up like this.'”

The Preusses embarked on a $400,000 renovation and rehabilitation. Historic bits like stair treads that could not remain in place were repurposed for such uses as shelving (and with such whimsical touches as a secret compartment). Old fixtures for gas or early electric lights were reconfigured to hold modern bulbs. The hand-carved rosettes were machine-duplicated for the other door frames. When some of the original plaster was removed from a brick wall in what is now a bathroom, the couple kept the rest in place as a dramatic cutaway view like something out of a history museum. “Everything that could be retained, we found a 21st century way to use it,” says Nonnie.

The work also included modern air-quality systems, as Nonnie runs a Pharr Road business called Wellness Within Your Walls, which certifies ways to remove toxins from homes. “This house has been my guinea pig,” she says. (For the real estate agents’ sales video of the house after all that work, click here.)

“I know this is a cliche: ‘If these walls could talk.’ Oh my God, my walls talked,” said Nonnie. Almost literally — as the old additions came down, they found newspapers, dating from the 1920s to the 1970s, that the workers had inserted as mementos. “When I peeled all of these abominations off… something had possessed the people… to put a newspaper of the day in the wall,” she said.

The Preusses decided to follow suit, inserting a “time capsule” in the wall of their new kitchen. “It has every single newspaper [found during the rehabilitation], plus the 2005 AJC and little trinkets that my … 4- and 7-year-olds at the time decided to drop in,” said Nonnie.

Despite all that history, the house has somehow avoided attention of preservations, from informal local histories to official designations like the National Register of Historic Places or City of Atlanta landmarking.

“I was shocked it had no historic preservation paperwork,” said Nonnie. Then again, she was happy to keep it that way. “I just didn’t want to be on people’s radar. I didn’t want to be a destination,” she said, fearing “strangers showing up at my door.”

Strangers showed up anyhow. Among them was Thornton Kennedy, a local history buff and columnist for the Northside Neighbor newspaper who had spotted the house. Nonnie says Kennedy provided a lot of expert historic information about the house, but the Preusses declined to cooperate with any published article for years. The info included the tale of a tall holly tree next to the front porch, which had been planted as a memorial by the family of a World War II service member who died in an airplane crash on his way back after the Allied victory in Europe. “I won’t touch this holly,” Nonnie says.

A neighbor working on an advanced degree in history offered the suggestion that the house is tied to the descendants of Benjamin Plaster, who got the thousands of acres of land in the 1830s as a grant from the state for his service in the War of 1812.

Then there were the strangers with the more recent personal history that any house accumulates. One was “this gentleman who was dying of cancer, and he just showed up at my door, and he didn’t live in Georgia anymore, and said, ‘I had to see this house before I die,'” recalls Nonnie. “We sat in the living room and cried.”

Now the Preusses’ own piece of that history is coming to an end. They’re empty-nesters looking to downsizing, as we say in modern lingo. They own a summer-camp business in the Nashville area, so that could be home. Or they might try the RV lifestyle, roaming the roads. “We are about to be cast to the wind,” says Nonnie.

But they want the Buckhead house to remain very much in place. That’s why they decided to start talking about its history. In June, Kennedy finally wrote his column. Amogn the readers was Laura Dobson, a Peachtree Hills preservationist who was involved in the successful effort to save part of a historic book bindery a few blocks away in a Peachtree Road condo project. “I sure would like to see that house protected in some way…,” said Dobson.

Nonnie said she hopes all the rehabilitation work will make a buyer say, “Holy cow! It’s a house built in the 1880s that is built up to 2020s code!””That’s why I just pray nobody tears it down,” she says.