Proposing the demolition of a 150-year-old farmhouse once deemed historic by Sandy Springs preservationists would be the hot spot in many a redevelopment dispute. In the expansion plan by Holy Spirit Catholic Church and Preparatory School, however, it’s just another example of trust issues that are fueling neighborhood controversy.

Some residents say it’s another case of Holy Spirit breaking old agreements, going back on a pledge to former nature-loving owner Ben Sims – the founder of a prominent Atlanta History Center garden — to save the house and its surrounding woodland. To Holy Spirit, which says there never was such a permanent deal, it’s another chance to make a new agreement. In response to Reporter questions about the house, Holy Spirit offered a new bargain.

“Since there seems to be interest in preserving this cottage, the church would be more than happy to sell the cottage to someone for $1, on condition that they move it from the parish property within a specified period,” a Holy Spirit spokesperson said.

The 150-year-old “Sims House” at 844 Mount Paran Road as it appears on a Google Maps image.

Holy Spirit was scheduled to host a June 6 community meeting at Sandy Springs City Hall about its proposal to expand its Buckhead campus at Mount Paran Road and Northside Drive onto an adjacent Sandy Springs site. The proposal includes relocating the Lower School from elsewhere in Sandy Springs, as well as a parking deck and church-related buildings.

The old Sims property – about 13 acres of woods – is the expansion site and ground zero for the debate. The local Northside/Chastain/Mt. Paran Neighborhood Preservation Association wants the trees to stay and says a 2003 legal agreement with Holy Spirit blocks the expansion. Holy Spirit says that agreement is no longer valid for technical reasons due to the NPA’s failure to file state paperwork.

The dispute about the letter and spirit of agreements goes back to Sims himself, who sold the property to Holy Spirit. There’s no question that Holy Spirit once spoke strongly about preserving the house and woods, but there is no sign of a written agreement to that effect, and community and family memories differ regarding Sims’s expectations.

Randy Cherry, Sims’s stepson, only recalled a stipulation that the site remain undeveloped during Sims’s lifetime. Sims died in 2006 at the age of 99, according to newspaper obituaries.

“He just didn’t want anything to happen to the house while he was alive,” Cherry said.

A house’s history

The history of the house at 844 Mount Paran is detailed in old newspaper articles and in a Georgia Historic Resources survey conducted by the state in the mid-1990s and now on file at Heritage Sandy Springs.

Sims, who bought the property in 1945, estimated the house to date to 1868, partly based on old newspapers stuffed into its walls. Local lore said it was built by a family named Cates as a home for a tenant farmer, and that its location was chosen by fate when wagons loaded with construction lumber got stuck in the mud there. The house was remodeled in the 1920s by an attorney who named the nearby Highcourt Road.

Despite the alterations, the state survey in the 1990s said the house appeared to meet the criteria for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It appear the house never got any form of official historic designation. But it did get a modest, informal one – a sign dubbing it the Sims House, erected in the mid-1990s by the Historic Preservation Committee of the Sandy Springs Foundation, apparently the same nonprofit that went dormant and was recently revived to support the new City Springs civic center.

The Sims House’s history and condition are described in an excerpt of a Georgia Historic Resources survey conducted in 1995-1996 and now on file at Heritage Sandy Springs.

Cherry calls it a “cute house” and recalled it as old-fashioned. “It was not modernized whatsoever,” Cherry said. “[It had] mostly original fixtures. Squeaky wood floors and hardwood doors.”

Sims lived in the house until his marriage in 1987 to Cherry’s mother, Rebecca. The couple’s main home was Rebecca’s house on Buckhead’s West Paces Ferry Road. “She had a whole house surrounded by gardens… She wasn’t going to move into a little hut with Ben,” Cherry said.

Rebecca Cherry Sims was killed by a gardener in a notorious 1989 crime in which Ben Sims was severely injured.

In 1996, Sims sold the Mount Paran property to Holy Spirit under terms that essentially let him remain living there for the rest of his life. In 2003, he gave over all rights to the property and moved to Florida. The exact sales amount is unclear from available records, but Holy Spirit says it believes it paid Sims $1.9 million. It’s clear that both sides talked about the deal in terms of preservations, but there is no sign of a legal agreement requiring it.

In 1998, when Holy Spirit was still proposing its current Upper School campus in a controversy that led to the disputed 2003 legal agreement, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote about the Sims property and the house.

“I never wanted to sell,” the paper quoted Sims as saying. “I just didn’t want it to wind up with developers. They build outrageously ugly houses with 14 feet between them.”

The same story also quoted Monsignor Edward Dillon, who remains Holy Spirit’s pastor today.

“Our intent is to preserve the house,” Dillon was quoted as saying. “We want to maintain that area perpetually in its natural state, and maybe lay out some type of botanical meditation garden where people can go sit or think or pray.”

Those plans have changed. Holy Spirit says its expansion would requiring cutting down a majority of the woodland, and the house will go, too. At a previous community meeting in April, Dillon referred to Sims as a “tree-hugger” and suggested that Holy Spirit lived up to its promise by not selling the land for a housing subdivision.

A Holy Spirit spokesperson said the house was maintained for many years, but about three years ago became unsafe for occupancy, especially due to floor problems. Holy Spirit estimates it would cost $600,000 to bring the house up to code.

John Beach, president of the Buckhead Heritage Society, said his father was a friend of Sims. Beach recalled Sims as more interested in the fate of the woodland than that of the house.

“He was a serious gardener, and loved his overgrown woods on Mount Paran. The old cottage was not much more than a shack,” Beach said.

“Ben was very disillusioned by the church’s treatment of the woods he sold them, felt like they went back on their word about development to him, or at least that was my perception,” Beach said. But regarding the house, he added, “I wasn’t aware of any preservation talk, [and] don’t know that Ben thought it would be preserved.”

Besides the $1 house sale offer, Holy Spirit said it is “rescuing” some plants in the woodland as well. The Georgia Native Plant Society as well as church volunteers and staff members are already moving various plants from the potential expansion site to other parts of the property or off-site locations, a spokesperson said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.