by Larry Upthegrove
In 1881 a 22-year-old medical doctor, with several years of private practice experience under his belt, was hired by the Fulton County Grand Jury to be the Director of the Fulton County Poorhouse. Dr. Robert Lawson Hope received his medical degree locally from Georgia Eclectic Medical College located in the hamlet of Easton, Georgia-located then at the crossroads of Piedmont and Monroe Drive (now the present day site of Ansley Mall).
Dr. Hope’s attraction to the Fulton County Grand Jury was two-fold; in addition to his administrative skills and diligence, he could provide medical care for the inmates, something that had been sorely lacking in the past. In fact, almost everything had been lacking in the past. He was in for a shock when he first encountered the conditions of the facility, located on Peachtree Road at the northwest intersection of Piedmont. His own words best describe the event: “It was then located on the Peachtree Road and consisted of several two-room little shanties, about seven of them, I believe, in all. They were nothing but rude hovels, and the floors and walls were broken with large rents and fissures which exposed the inmates to the severity of storms, without sufficient cover or protection to guard against them.”
This same year, Dr. Hope married Della Plaster, a descendent of the prolific Benjamin Plaster family in the Rock Springs Community. Her great-grandfather had left some 1300 acres to his children, from Rock Springs-Morningside area to south Buckhead. Much of that land was still in the family at that time, and Dr. Hope and Della would eventually build their dream home on some of it.
There were about 45 residents of the Fulton County Poorhouse when Dr. Hope took over the reins, and they were in various stages of health. Some of them were able to work, if properly directed, and willing, but they had nothing to do. Dr. Hope begged and pleaded with the County for funds to repair and improve the buildings and for permission to use some of the 300 acres of County land for crops, to be tended by the able-bodied of the residents.
After three years, Dr. Hope had the health of the inmates in generally fine shape, and the houses were slowly improved, but still lacking in sheltering ability in extreme weather. The fields had been organized, and the residents were producing almost enough food to feed themselves, resulting in a dramatic budget reduction. This reduction piqued the Grand Jury’s interest in the activities and management of the facility.
After the Grand Jury made a group visit to the home, they asked Dr Hope to develop a plan of physical improvements, which was then implemented and construction began. The large central building looked like one of the grand resort hotels of the day.
The Fulton County Poorhouse was segregated. The director and his wife lived in the front of this building with the white residents living in the multi-roomed accommodations of the upstairs and rear. The African-American residents took over all the cabins which had been fully repaired.
Convict labor was used to make the cabins livable and build the new central building. A group of convicts built themselves a barracks. They made all the bricks and sawed all the lumber from the land adjacent to the new building. After the construction was finished, a contingency of convicts remained to help with the farming which eventually paid for all the upkeep on the facility, making it self-sustaining. The Fulton County Poorhouse became the model for such institutions all over the nation.
The population of the poorhouse had grown to over 150 inmates by 1886, with many of the residents being mentally challenged. They were referred to as “lunatics” or “imbeciles”, their care was directed by Dr. Hope.
When the State Legislature shifted the care for the “harmless insane” from Milledgeville to the parent counties, a new building was built for these people and other residents of the Fulton County Poorhouse that needed special care. Dr. Hope remained in overall charge of all, but he hired a woman named Mrs. Gallagher to devote all her time to the dozen or so who lived in this new building.
Dr. Hope had always been very frugal with his money and invested in cheap real estate at every opportunity, even buying some of his wife’s relatives’ land when they became cash poor and needed to liquidate. In fact, it is estimated that he accumulated wealth of about $750,000, and he lived full time in the Fulton County Poorhouse.
In 1898, Fulton County determined they badly needed a new school in the Buckhead area, in order to consolidate several one-room schoolhouses that were very much outdated.
Georgia decided to move the care of the mentally challenged back to the state institution at Milledgeville, so the Fulton County decided to remodel the now vacated building into a very modern and well-equipped school. They name it the R.L. Hope School. It opened with great fanfare in October 1898, and would be replaced in 27 years with a much larger, new, modern school with the same name, that faced Piedmont Road, about 400 ft. west of Peachtree, where it remained until the 1980’s.
Dr. Hope had become involved heavily with the school board, and he dedicated himself to that work as he did to all his responsibilities.
In 1909 he was forced into retirement from all, with severe heart-related problems. Three of his friends, all doctors, met to diagnose his problems, and he was told he needed to prepare for his life to end. He only had about six more months to live. With heavy heart he resigned from the Poorhouse and gave the bad news to his wife and children.
He built a new house on Rock Springs Rd., moved his family in there, and waited for his death. He, however, live 27 more years! In fact, Dr. Hope was honored to act as pallbearer for each of his doctor friends that had predicted his death years before.
By 1910, much of the valuable land surrounding the school and Poorhouses was sold by Fulton County. They bought 300 acres indirectly from Dr. Hope to construct two very fine Poorhouses on West Wieuca Rd., once again using convict labor to furnish lumber and brick. Fulton County later developed the entire acreage into Chastain Park with ball fields, golf course, and tennis courts. Today the buildings are still present in Chastain Park.
Doctor and Mrs. Hope had six children, some of which died very early in age. Dr. Hope spent the last years of his life in semi-retirement, taking care of his wife, who became afflicted with polio, and his real estate holdings. He became one of Oakland’s residents in 1938, and lies in restful contentment next to his beloved Della on the same hillside that the Confederate high command occupied during the Battle of Atlanta, almost 150 years ago.
by Larry Upthegrove