“A Wonderful Time To Be Alive” – The History of The Knollwood Estate

Across from the Governor’s Mansion and just off West Paces Ferry Road in Tuxedo Park sits “Knollwood,” a home designed for the Kiser family by legendary architect Philip Shutze in 1929. Originally, this picturesque wooded knoll was the location of a summer house on the 73-acre estate of Robert F. Maddox, the 41st Mayor of Atlanta. William and Lucy Kiser, both from prominent Atlanta families, purchased the property from Maddox in 1911. Marion Kiser, William’s father, was a significant figure in business in Atlanta during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The summer house was consequently torn down to make way for the current home which was constructed in 1930 and still stands today in all its glory.  

The facade, once visible from West Paces Ferry Road prior to division of the land and development of a separate property there, was modeled after an 18th century estate called Chatham Manor in Stafford County, Virginia. A delightful limestone porte cochere is reminiscent of the works of English architect William Kent, and the iron railing leading to what is now considered the front door was inspired by the 1814 Duncan house in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The stairs inside the foyer were inspired by the Deaf and Dumb Asylum in Clapton, England, and also incorporated details from the Brush-Everhard House near Williamsburg. 

The Kiser family

Edyth Kiser Shadburn, daughter of Edith and Marion, granddaughter of William and Lucy, grew up in the house from her birth until she turned 20 years old. “It was a wonderful time to be alive,” she recalled wistfully. Still a key member of the Buckhead community and resident of the Peachtree Battle neighborhood since 1963, Edyth is the owner of the Charles Willis gift shop on East Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead Village. She recently permitted me to borrow some photographs from her childhood at Knollwood. 

“The house was a working farm,” she remembers, complete with pigs, cows, geese, and guinea hens. “There was so much more to it than just a house.” At the time, the property stretched far beyond its current footprint and included a smokehouse where the family smoked ham from the pigs they raised, and near Woodhaven Road sat a two story outbuilding with servants’ quarters upstairs and carriage and horse stalls below. Edyth recalls weekly games every Saturday at the badminton courts, while the boys would play football in the open fields. A tiered garden led to an Italianate teahouse with a round fish pool, fountain, and in-ground “hot beds” next to “cutting gardens” comprised of meticulously planted flower beds. The area where the pool is now was once a three-hole golf course frequented by her uncle, Lawson Kiser.

Growing up at the Knollwood house was a special time for Edyth and her siblings. Buckhead was a “small place” back then, with mostly local shops and even a blacksmith. She had a favorite tree on the property, and she spent many hours playing on the grounds there. Once, during a snowstorm, she took her grandmother’s silver tray and used it to sled down the hill. “It was great fun,” she said with a chuckle. After her grandfather passed away the family decided to put the house on the market and it was purchased by Dr. and Mrs. Bernard Preston Wolff for their family in 1952.

The Wolff Siblings on the front steps

The Wolff family, with their five children, had outgrown their home at 2741 Howell Mill Road. Bernard W. Wolff was 10 years old when they moved to the elegant and spacious Knollwood property. “Strangely, I initially felt as if we were guests in this huge, beautiful, empty house,” Bernard told me. “The house was large with spacious rooms with simple elegance of interior and yards, from a different era of servants for daily upkeep and services.” Bernard recalls the expansive attic was host to scattered copies of childrens’ adventure books from the 1900s, and his sister Susan Wolff Lindley remembers that they eventually found Philip Shutze’s original plans for the house there as well. 

Their mother, Douschka Wolff, used those plans to restore the interior right down to the paint colors on the walls and ordering duplicates of the original curtains. “Our parents hosted a cocktail party with a guest list of over 750, which was said to have been the largest ever held in Atlanta at the time. As a member – and later President – of Planters Garden Club, our mother hosted a flower show that took up the entire downstairs area, including the porches, and attracted exhibitors from all over the Southeast,” said Susan. 

Susan remembers a wagon road that led from the east side of the motor court by the porte cochere down the hill to a pecan orchard and the gardens. When the Wolff family purchased the house they also employed the yardman Ike Gibbs and housekeeper Mary Meadows who had worked for the Kisers and were familiar with the property. Bernard recalls accompanying Ike in an Army Jeep as the two removed privet and cleaned the grounds surrounding the property, Ike regaling young Bernard with stories from his time serving the Machine Gun Corps in Europe during WWI. 

For yet another generation of Buckhead families, Knollwood was a pleasant home for the Wolff family until their departure in 1959. At the western and eastern edge of the home were grand porches: the western porch, now part of the kitchen, was used for all meals during the warmer months, and the eastern porch, now the enclosed solarium, housed a pool table. Bernard recalls mischievous fun on and around the elegant staircase in the foyer, where their pet flying squirrel ‘Scamper’ enjoyed being launched from the highest balcony down to the chest of one of the children waiting on the main floor below. 

At the time, “downtown” Buckhead was an easy bike ride away from Knollwood. Traffic was light and roads were safe to navigate. The Wolff children often frequented Buckhead Theatre, Jim Sallie’s Record Shop, and Zesto’s. What is now the Governor’s mansion was the site of a Tudor style home owned by Robert Maddox, and Bernard’s gregarious sister Susan would often visit Mr. Maddox to tour the gardens and ride her horse in the large rolling lawn bordering West Paces Ferry, racing the cars that passed. “Our neighborhood was wonderful, with interactive neighbors throughout Woodhaven and Knollwood Roads,” Bernard said.

In the years since its construction, the home at 3351 Woodhaven has seen several families living within its walls and has hosted a number of the most prestigious gatherings and garden parties in the city. The Atlanta Symphony Associates chose the home for their 2012 Decorator’s Show House & Gardens enlisting a number of the city’s top designers to reimagine spaces within the magnificent home. Key rooms such as the kitchen were updated to incorporate modern needs without losing connection with the home’s historic past.

This historic home is rich with history and remains one of Buckhead’s most esteemed architectural delights. Stepping inside is much like stepping back in time, evident by the ornate details and remnants of times gone by, such as the incinerator flap still accessible in the basement. Thanks to the devotion of each subsequent owner of the property, this home has maintained its grandiose qualities even when updated tastefully to meet the needs of modern day life. With the home soon going up for sale once again, another family will soon write their next chapter in this Buckhead Estate.

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