Miniature models of follies and temples are fairly common, but it is not often that you see one blown up to mansion dimensions. Vestavia, in Alabama, is just that: a Roman temple inflated into a family home with a dining room to seat 42.
George Battey Ward (1867-1940) was a businessman and one time Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama. In 1907 he visited Europe and brought home a cork model of the Temple of Vesta, the original of which was dedicated to the Roman goddess of the hearth, home and family. This provided the inspiration for the house that would form the centrepiece of his 20 acre estate and must have proved quite a challenge for his M.I.T trained architect William Leslie Welton. All of the rooms are within the four storey circular central drum of the ‘temple’ which was complete in 1925.
Ward was obsessed with ancient Rome and as well as the mansion there were miniature porticoed temples for his dogs and his staff were dressed in Roman garb and had Roman aliases – including Pompey and Marcellus the gardeners. At his frequent parties Ward too dressed in robes, and ‘vestal virgins’ danced around the gardens.
Following Ward’s death in 1940 the Vestavia estate declined as his heirs had no interest in the property. It was bought a few years later by an entrepreneur who operated it as a restaurant and visitor attraction.
After this venture failed Vestavia was purchased in 1958 as a place of worship by the Baptist Church. With a growing population in Vestavia Hills the congregation soon outgrew the building, and a few years later it was largely demolished and a new church built on the site.
Janette Ray Booksellers recently sold a rare album of photographs of Vestavia by Alfred C. Keily Jr and Oscar V. Hunt dating from around 1940 (including the two above). You can see what other treasures Janette has at FIRSTS: London’s Rare Book Fair, Battersea, 7-9 June 2019 or at the lovely shop in York. https://www.janetteray.co.uk
Thanks to Janette for alerting The Folly Flâneuse to this unique lost building. bhamwiki.com and an article in Vestavian Hills Magazine are acknowledged as the major sources for this post.