Foster-Thomason-Miller House 1883 498 South Main Street
PLEASE NOTE: This house is open for tour on Friday only.
Legare Hill Foster was the youngest son of one the most prominent citizens of Madison. Upon his father’s death, the 23-year old received a substantial inheritance and soon married in 1881. Foster’s new bride had just ended her studies at Georgia Female College. Ironically, they erected their new home directly over the foundation of her recent school’s main building, which had burned to the ground and closed the previous year. The elegant home of the president of the College still stands just to the north.
L. H. Foster spared no expense erecting what the Madisoniannewspaper called upon completion in December 1883, “perhaps the most elegant country home in middle Georgia.” The writer effused with descriptions of the “beautiful” veranda and the “elegantly decorated” frescoes by an Atlanta Company. The walnut woodwork and doors were built in a way that “careful workmanship only can secure.” The red room upstairs was described as “one of the prettiest rooms we ever saw … finished at great cost” and the others were “beautifully furnished” as well. “To sum up,” the reporter wrote, “it is beautifully planned, handsomely finished, and does great credit to the skill of contractor [Daniel] Towns.”
Locally designed and built, the Foster house reflects the influence of the international Aesthetic Movement. Perhaps Foster or contractor Towns had attended one of the “House Decoration” lectures by Oscar Wilde on his Georgia tour of 1882. Almost certainly they read the Englishman’s speeches printed in the Atlanta papers. The timing is right, and the details of the home strongly suggest such influence. Another probable influence on Foster and his builder were the designs in A. J. Downing’s The Architecture of Country Houses, first published in 1850. The Foster house exemplified these popular trends in many ways including the flowery ceiling stencils and the original lime green (citron) and deep red Italianate exterior. Reflecting his penchant for the most up-to-date style and accouterments regardless of cost, Foster installed his own gasification plant so that he could light the glorious rooms and exterior with the latest technology – now commemorated in the gas lamp at the street restored by the Morgan County Landmarks Society.
Unfortunately, as a newspaper article put it, Foster was “a stranger to parsimony.” After only a dozen years in the house, Foster defaulted on a loan and lost his masterpiece to R. U. Thomason. L. H. Foster was a victim, no doubt, of some combination of the deep national depression of the mid 1890s and his own missteps. The new owners squeezed in an upstairs bathroom and converted from gas to electric lighting in 1916. Over eight decades some niches were walled over and much of the fine detail become faded or covered; but the Thomasons made no major structural changes or additions. Thus, the basic structure stands today substantially as built
In 1978 the Miller family acquired the house from the Thomason family with the goal of returning the nearly century-old mansion to its original, but then somewhat hidden, splendor. “Well, first of all,” Marcie Miller recalled to a reporter after the restoration was complete, “discovering the original fresco work … was like finding King Tut’s Tomb. We had no idea it was there.” And so it went through several years of highly painstaking and very expensive work inside and out. The efforts culminated in1986 with a prestigious award from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. Once again the home was a showcase -- now hailed nationwide as a triumph of restoration. So accurate was the Miller restoration to the early 20thCentury period, that the producers of the 1994 TV mini-series “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” could film interior scenes in the Miller home with very few changes. The result was an Emmy for set design. (The film starred Diane Lane, Donald Sutherland, Cicely Tyson, and Anne Bancroft)
Unfortunately, in 2001 tragedy struck in the form of a kitchen fire that caused extensive smoke and water damage throughout the structure. For several years restoration plans floundered. Thus, a scant three decades after granting the house its preservation award, the Georgia Trust felt compelled to put the Foster-Thomason-Miller house on its “Places in Peril” list. But progress has been made. In 2018 the Madison-Morgan Conservancy acquired the house through its new Endangered Properties Revolving Fund. The Conservancy has stabilized the building, and it is now listed for sale to a preservation-minded buyer.
Armed with the Conservancy’s extensive research, docents will point out how the house illustrates the pinnacle of late 19thCentury design. Friday’s visitors will encounter a diamond in the rough waitng to be polished again.