By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published August 23, 2007
Civic, business and religious leader James J. Haverty focused his gifts and passions to help establish two Peachtree Road sanctuaries where Atlantans could experience divine inspiration and higher spiritual realities: the Cathedral of Christ the King and the High Museum of Art.
This self-taught businessman, who lived from 1858 to 1939, provided financial support and leadership to establish the city’s first art museum and to build the Cathedral, embracing the spiritual dimension of art as he lived an abundant life in Christ.
His great-grandson William Rawson Smith, a public information director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and former Chicago Sun-Times writer, knew the family lore about how his great-grandfather hosted open houses on Sunday afternoons where the public could come to his Italian-style home, Villa Clare, and experience his uniquely American realist and impressionist art collection of over 100 paintings. Smith remembered the biblical painting “Flight Into Egypt” over the family living room mantle, a painting by one of Haverty’s favorite artists, Henry Tanner, an African-American who created mystical biblical and other more ordinary scenes of life.
As life does happen sometimes, Smith was looking up another topic at the Atlanta History Center when he “stumbled across” writings, news clippings and speeches on J.J. Haverty, and upon perusing them was struck by his great-grandfather’s commitment to God and community and his view of art as relevant for rich and poor alike. He became convinced his great-grandfather’s life was a worthy subject for a book.
“It struck me this was an untold story, this was an epic figure in the history of Atlanta and nobody knew much about him. … He was on the front pages of newspapers for years in the ‘20s for various reasons from the start of the High Museum to the Grand Central Exhibition to the Stone Mountain Project,” the first failed project attempt to carve a Confederate memorial in the 1920s.
“He was an epic figure in our family and really in Atlanta because he brought the business community to support the arts and got the High Museum started really by putting together money behind the museum. He was a businessman and advocate for Atlanta, his hometown,” he said.
Smith submitted a book proposal to three publishers and received two positive responses. He chose Mercer University Press, which specializes in untold Southern stories. They published “Villa Clare: The Purposeful Life and Timeless Art Collection of J.J. Haverty” in 2006. It includes color photographs from his collection donated to the High, including one of him decorated as a Knight Commander of St. Gregory, a papal honor given for his lifelong service to the Catholic Church.
‘Beautiful Painting Is A Reflection Of … Divine Perfection’
Haverty was an altar boy at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception who grew up with few refinements as the son of an Irish immigrant railroad worker who later ran a saloon. He saw Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Civil War troops burn his childhood home to the ground and experienced the trenchant aches of life following the death from Bright’s Disease in 1918 of his wife, Clara, shortly after they built Villa Clare on Peachtree Street. After her death he developed a breathing problem and had several months of convalescence where he turned to his faith for strength and consolation and to collecting art as a spiritual anodyne. The father of 10 children, who wore a suit and tie even at family dinners, he continued to surround himself with beauty and culture, believing art’s beauty could inspire love of God.
“Life was really hard, and he thought you should make the most of the pleasures in life. One of the pleasures is beautiful art, and he wanted to spread the love and beauty of art. … His ideas were contagious, and a lot of people were excited about the arts,” Smith said.
He spoke in an interview in late May in the atrium of the High Museum, the site where once stood the Tudor house which Haverty persuaded Mrs. J.M. High to donate in 1926 to the Atlanta Art Association to create a museum. After Haverty died his family donated 25 of his paintings and three bronze sculptures to the nascent museum.
“One of his quotes from Michelangelo he told an audience is ‘beautiful painting is a religion in itself. The soul is elevated by the effort it has made to obtain perfection and communion with God. Beautiful painting is a reflection of that divine perfection, the shadow from the brush of God,’” Smith said.
Smith admires Haverty because he didn’t just dream, but he steadfastly worked, including as president of the Atlanta Art Association, to realize his vision for a permanent art museum that would “stimulate interest in things beautiful” and support future growth and prosperity in the city.
“Every city has its visionary leaders, and he was one of them,” said Smith. “He believed Atlanta was not the best city it could be without an art museum. And this was the age of museums. There was a race among all the cities of the United States to have a museum” following the massive Centennial Exhibition of Art in Philadelphia in 1876.
“Certainly Haverty lived for more than himself and lived not just for the Atlanta Catholic community but for all of mankind in a sense,” Smith said. “So I think he had a higher calling and realized his vision. What strikes me is how so many people have big ideas, and nothing comes out of it. This is a man who had big ideas and made it happen.”
Work Ethic Developed Early
Haverty developed that intense work ethic early on as he dropped out of high school to work as a clerk for Ryan’s department store, learning the trade. He became captivated with art upon attending the Philadelphia Expo where he was dazzled by the Roman-style marble busts, moody Rembrandt-style Dutch paintings and other art and the 56-ton steam engine. He returned to Atlanta and took a new job at M. Rich & Bros., later Rich’s, where he learned the importance of offering quality merchandise on favorable terms to the customer as making good business sense. By 1885 he scraped together $600 to open his own downtown showroom, Haverty Furniture Co., with his brother Michael. Family life became increasingly comfortable with chickens, cows and horses in the back yard, and by 1899 they moved into a two-story home with Grecian columns.
Haverty educated himself not only in business and American art but also in economics, theater, literature and other fine arts, and recognized how, as people met their basic survival needs, the love and beauty of art can uplift the spirit. All the while, he engrossed himself in his business, pioneering the concept of store credit. As Atlanta’s population swelled from about 90,000 in 1900 to over 150,000 in 1910 the store eventually opened branches of Haverty’s across the South, with Haverty gauging the potential for future stores in cities he scouted by their level of arts support. Today Haverty’s has over 100 showrooms in 17 states.
By 1924 Haverty organized Atlanta’s first Grand Central Exhibition of art in the Biltmore Hotel, which drew some 25,000 people. It was repeated the next year and drew over 50,000.
“His idea was not to ‘build it and they will come,’ but to get people excited about the arts, and he did that through the Grand Central exhibition,” Smith said.
The book also explores the complexities of his character as a loyal Southerner during Reconstruction and his role in promoting the Confederate memorial project at Stone Mountain, which flopped after the nation’s top sculptor was fired. While clearly white supremacists were involved in the project, Smith believes Haverty’s role was “altruistic” as a member of the Gate City Guard social organization that was formed after the war to promote healing with the North, and that his identification with the “Lost Cause” was natural as his own brother fought for the Confederacy.
But Smith proudly spoke of how the civic leader publicly espoused racial inclusiveness and his support of the African-American Tanner, a leading American artist, who moved to Paris in part to escape prejudice. He also collected Mary Cassatt in days when female artists were not readily recognized.
“He made speeches advocating for Henry Tanner’s art. It was pretty much unheard of for any white Southerner to collect a black painter’s work. He collected women’s work. He was, I think, ahead of his time in many ways,” Smith noted.
Catholic Families In Turn-Of-Century Atlanta
Smith’s book also explores Haverty’s leadership in the North Georgia church. He served as vice president of the Catholic Laymen’s Association, which created a periodical that evolved into the The Georgia Bulletin, educating the public on Catholicism in an era of fear generated by the Ku Klux Klan. He funded with five other families the installation in 1902 of stained glass windows in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
His efforts, alongside those of Jack Spalding, J. Carroll Payne and others in building the French Gothic Cathedral of Christ the King, were inspired by the call of Pope Pius XI, the first pontiff to use the radio to communicate, for the laity to enter into leadership, Smith said. In this last big project before he died, Haverty was involved in many aspects of the Cathedral’s design and construction, and he donated the Italian marble altar and many stained glass windows.
“He wanted the faith to be represented with a worthy shrine, with a beautiful parish,” Smith said.
Atlanta History Center special projects coordinator Dr. Catherine Lewis noted in a phone interview that it was unique at that time for Catholics to be among a Southern city’s elite, and J.J. Haverty was “probably not unfamiliar” with exclusion because of faith but rose above it. Businessmen in Atlanta, which by then had significant Jewish and Catholic populations, became more progressive than other Southern cities, she said. Haverty was part of that progressive vision for the recovering city, redefining what it could be with his promoting of the arts.
“He was very forward-looking, like Ivan Allen Sr.,” Lewis said. “In some ways he was a very pivotal figure. He represented both the old and new South.”
She noted the different facets of Haverty’s leadership in business as well as in culture and religion. “He seemed like someone who took his faith seriously and was that 19th century model of the ethical businessman—that you have a responsibility to give back.”
Lewis also noted the pithiness of Smith’s prose following two years of research.
“He did a tremendous amount of research and condensed a very complex story about the city and history of art in the region, of this single man, about the commercial and industrial history, into a very enjoyable read.”
Serendipitously, Lewis has been working on the Millennium Gate Project at Atlantic Station scheduled to open next spring honoring 20 pioneering Atlanta families, including the Havertys.
A Man Of Substance, A Man Of Results
In his research, Smith also interviewed his mother, Betty Haverty Smith, who remembered her grandfather as family-centered at the Sunday gatherings at his home after Mass, and his late uncle Rawson Haverty Sr., who remembered that at the company “he was there all the time, and people would be eager to be there first thing in the morning with their hat on. He made a huge impression in the business.”
Haverty family members are still steadfast High Museum supporters. Smith’s mother is an artist, and his mother-in-law is a quilter. He and wife, Amy Bonesteel, a writer, encourage the arts in their three children. They also worship at the Cathedral, where he feels his children gain a deeper appreciation of the beauty of the Mass.
Smith hopes that Haverty’s life of service will be of interest not only to art patrons but also to Catholics in ministry, business professionals and ordinary Atlantans.
“He was tenacious and soft-spoken in his style, and he was not self-serving or aggrandizing. He didn’t brag about himself. He just got the work done. He was very low key. I’ve always admired that approach, a man of substance and a man of results,” he reflected. “He understood the power of the media and used it to get things done, and he was a man of great results. He did it for a good reason. It wasn’t just for ego gratification. It was for a broader purpose and that’s what motivated him. … People like that deserve to be remembered and serve as examples.”
David Brenneman, the High’s director of collections and exhibitions, is glad to carry on Haverty’s vision and acknowledged his integral contribution to the museum’s establishment. He is proud that the museum has grown into the leader in the Southeast and serves not just Atlanta but this “very large and fast-growing region of the country.”
Over the next few years the High Museum is holding a series of special visiting exhibits of works from the Louvre in Paris. As the High plans for future growth, it has reflected on its past throughout its major expansion designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano.
“In many ways the High Museum would not have existed without J.J. Haverty. He was passionate about art and Atlanta,” Brenneman said. “The High really didn’t have a collection until the Haverty collection came to it. He played an absolutely instrumental role in establishing the High and in creating a permanent collection for the High.”
Brenneman also admires Haverty’s tenacity and concern for the common good.
“His example shows the power of one individual to make a difference because he was driven and community-minded.”
Information about “Villa Clare” and book signings is available through the Web site, www.villaclare.com. The book is also available at the gift shop at the High Museum, the Atlanta History Center and other Atlanta locations. William Rawson Smith, who speaks around metro Atlanta about the book, will be a participating author at the Decatur Book Festival, on Sunday, Sept. 2, at 5 p.m. at the Decatur Library.