Alonzo Herndon owned and operated several enterprises, but perhaps his most well known establishment was his lavish barbershop dubbed “The Crystal Palace”, located at 66 Peachtree St. in Atlanta, Georgia. Erected in 1902, Herndon’s shop, like many other Black owned barbershops, catered exclusively to wealthy white customers, including Atlanta’s leading businessmen, lawyers, and politicians. Because of this, Herndon was able to operate on Peachtree street in the center of the white commercial district, a location which ensured steady business.
Herndon’s shop was touted as the largest, most extravagant barbershop in the south. It was often considered an unofficial city attraction, drawing local Atlantans and tourists alike who wished to observe the shop’s opulence. Herndon once boasted that everything in his shop was the best procurable, and indeed it was. One visitor described her experience thusly:
“[We] entered through mahogany and plate-glass doors to a long, elegant parlor lined with French beveled mirrors and lit by crystal chandeliers and wall lamps. Ceiled in white pressed-tin and floored in white ceramic tile, the room accommodated twenty-five custom barber chairs that were outfitted with porcelain, brass, and nickel, and upholstered in dark green Spanish leather. Even the boot-black stands were of nickel and marble.”
The Crystal Palace had 25 barbering chairs, 20 baths complete with tubs and showers, and several resident manicurists to wholly satiate all of one’s grooming needs.
Though his customers were white, the Crystal Palace employed an all black staff, creating and sustaining jobs for those in his community in a time when lucrative employment opportunities for African Americans were scarce.
It was his success with the Crystal Palace, along with the relationships that he developed with his clientele, that allowed that allowed him to invest in and enrich the African American community of Atlanta. With profits from the shop Herndon was able to invest in real estate, constructing affordable apartment buildings for lower income African Americans in the Vine City area. Herndon’s earnings also allowed him to buy a failing mutual aid society which would later become Atlanta Life, the largest insurance company that catered exclusively to African Americans and second largest employer of African Americans in the country.
Upon his death, Alonzo Herndon left the Crystal Palace to his employees, who shared equal ownership until it’s closure in the 1930’s.
George A. Towns, a professor of literature and pedagogy at Atlanta University, was a fellow colleague of Adrienne Herndon and a close friend of Alonzo Herndon. In 1908, just a few months after the Herndons broke ground on their mansion, Towns began construction on his new home directly across the street. Like the Herndon Home, the site of George Towns’ home is significant. Both men bought their land from Atlanta University, who were anxious to doll property out to monied African Americans in an effort to create an affluent neighborhood for city’s “Talented Tenth” on campus.
George Towns was cultured, respected, and well educated, having attended both Atlanta University and Harvard University. He was well on his way to becoming an established academic and thus the perfect candidate to become next-door neighbors with the veritable Herndon Family.
But although the men were two of Atlanta’s wealthiest African Americans, the inequality between their incomes was staunchly reflected by the difference in their homes. Town’s home was a “four-square classic box, with brick exterior, neoclassical porch details, Victorian window treatments and eight rooms, four on the first floor living area and four bedrooms on the second floor, as well as a full basement.” The Herndon’s manse, meanwhile, “contained fifteen rooms on two floors, a full basement with a separate apartment, and a rooftop terracewhere Mrs. Herndon planned to stage plays”
But alas, the neighborhood would never become the exclusive and affluent enclave that AU had envisioned. Aside from Herndon and Towns, no other member of the city’s black elite would purchase a home in that area. One may assume that other prominent African Americans did not wish to be isolated so from their peers and the larger African American communities of Atlanta. Indeed, one columnist from the Atlanta Independent remarked in 1910 that “Mr. Towns knows less and sees less of Negroes’ conditions than many white men…He is so exclusive in his new environment that he does not know whether he is from Boston or Dougherty County…It is true that he is a professor at the University and does possibly good class work but he has no influence that is felt in any phase of our community life.”
Presumably out of either financial or spatial need, the university built a two story women’s dormitory adjacent to Towns’ home, thus officially giving up on their vision of a wealthy African American neighborhood on campus.
After Town’s death, the house was owned by his daughter Grace Towns Hamilton, who would become the first African American woman to be elected to the Georgia General Assembly. Since her death in 1992, the house has been abandoned with no attempt to restore it to its former glory. The marked disparity between the well preserved Herndon Home and the slowly decaying Towns Home is surely more evident now than ever before.
Towns’ home as it stands today
A view of the Herndon Home from the deteriorating porch
The women’s dorms built next to Towns’ home, now also abandoned.
Alonzo Herndon’s incredible life has been re-imagined as a children’s book! “The Story of Alonzo Herndon: Who Says a Slave Can’t Be a Millionaire?” makes the perfect educational gift for your kids this Christmas!