It may be a classic Atlanta landmark surrounded by gardens and green lawns, but no one wanted to find themselves at H.M. Patterson & Son Spring Hill Mortuary in Midtown, ever.
I was last there a few months ago for a service for my uncle, Frank Bird. It is where my brother and I found ourselves the day my mother died, unsure of what to do and seeking guidance. I wore my first suit to Spring Hill when I was 10.
When we were kids, we dared one another to go upstairs. There was an urban myth that there were bedrooms up there, and the dead were laid out on the beds. There are indeed bedrooms, but they were from an era when employees slept where they worked. The corpse rumor is unsubstantiated.
Lost in the fog of grief and sadness is the beauty of the building and the grounds. And purposefully and skillfully hidden is the fact that when it opened, it was one of the most modern, cutting-edge facilities in the country.
In January, Spring Hill Mortuary closed for good. Portman Holdings, the company founded by visionary architect John Portman, purchased it, and was expected to build a 600,000-square-foot office building, a hotel and a residential structure on the nearly 4-acre site.
The 1928 English country manor is on the corner of Spring and 10th streets. The faded-white brick exterior and steep, gabled roof evoke centuries, not decades.
That was the goal of Philip Trammell Shutze. The great classical architect designed the building to look like it had been there since the beginning of time. Inside it felt like a home, with fireplaces, crown molding and black and white tiled floors in the hallways.
Spring Hill was the vision of Fredrick Patterson, the “Son” of H.M. Patterson & Son. The elder Patterson, Hyatt, founded the company in 1883. By 1927, when construction started, the old man had passed away, and it was Fredrick Patterson’s company.
He built the facility as a memorial to his father.
Patterson purchased a little more than three acres on one of the highest points in the city for $52,000 in 1927. The former rock quarry was convenient to both the Terminal and Brookwood train stations, and it was removed from the congested thoroughfares of downtown, with better parking.
Shutze’s firm, Hentz, Adler and Shutze, secured the commission. The result is a country manor masking a highly efficient industrial building. It was one of the first full-service funeral homes in the country. Spring Hill could handle everything from embalming to the flowers to the reception to the service — a one-stop-shop for the bereaved.
It had three entrances to avoid commingling the grief-stricken families with the business aspects of the mortuary. Patterson created separate components inside the building as well. There was the industrial part on the back of the building and in the basement. There were offices for employees, and the receiving rooms and the chapel for the families and friends of the deceased.
That is the genius of Patterson’s concept and Shutze’s execution. Spring Hill feels like an elegant Georgian home complete with professionally landscaped gardens on either side. The furnishings were Colonial Period antiques collected by the Patterson family.
When it opened in October 1928, the Atlanta Constitution touted it as the most modern mortuary in the South. Following an opening night event, neighbors and residents were invited to tour the building and grounds in the weekday mornings for two weeks.
The gardens on either side of the building were designed by Shutze as well. The south garden features rock from the site in the center of a driveway. The north garden is a classic sunken design with boxwood hedges and native plants.
When Shutze died in 1982, Portman told the Associated Press that Shutze was “the grand old man of architecture in Atlanta. He has always been considered the best of the traditionalists.”
That sentiment is shared by the Atlanta Preservation Center and the Urban Design Commission. Thanks to their work, the building and the gardens have been granted landmark status, and will be preserved in perpetuity.