Hotchkiss: Downtown building’s namesake lost to history — until now

FILE/STAFF Who’s Marion? The namesake of Augusta’s Marion Building might not who you think it is.

This actually started out as just another business story.

 

But it ends up telling a much different story – about a millionaire’s touching, lasting tribute to a brother whom history mostly forgot.

Recently while writing about downtown development, I got sidetracked by a question that popped in my head about the Marion Building, the century-old building on Broad Street known as “Augusta’s first skyscraper.”

Who’s Marion?

It took a bit of digging, but there it was in a 1962 Augusta Chronicle article, just mentioned in passing: The Marion Building was named in 1921 by Jacob Phinizy, for his brother Marion.

The building had burned in Augusta’s Great Fire of 1916 and sat derelict for five years until Jacob bought it to renovate it. He even formed a corporation to attract investors, calling it the Marion-Daniel Corp.

Sure enough, one of Jacob’s many brothers was Marion Daniel Phinizy. But that prompted another question.

Who’s Marion Daniel Phinizy?

Answering that proved much more difficult – and fascinating.

The Phinizys lived out one of America’s most lucrative immigrant success stories. Ferdinand Phinizy emigrated from Italy in the 1700s, and he and his descendants did a superb job of accumulating wealth. His grandson, also named Ferdinand, made a killing in the cotton business, and was considered in his time to be possibly the richest man in Georgia.

Ferdinand II had seven sons. Two died in their 20s. Four other brothers pursued other careers in cotton, insurance and the law, while accumulating stock in – and taking leadership roles in – the Georgia Railroad. There are plenty of historical records about all of them.

But not Marion.

I found barely anything to prove he even existed. I did find his family tree, his gravestone and a very short obituary. He was born in Augusta, never married, died at age 68, and spent the last 50 years of his life living in Athens.

That’s it.

Amid so many rich, successful relatives, what happened to Marion?

Digging deeper, I came across old Georgia Railroad stockholders’ reports, which listed everyone who owned shares. Marion owned shares like all the other Phinizys, but with a conspicuous difference. For purposes of ownership, his older brother Jacob was listed as Marion’s “trustee.”

But why?

I soon found the answer, in a 1930s legal dispute concerning Marion’s assets after he died. It made it all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court.

A law book describing the case included this phrase: “During his lifetime and for many years prior to his death, Jacob Phinizy had acted as the sole trustee of Marion Daniel Phinizy (his brother), a person non compos mentis …”

That’s the Latin legal term describing someone who is not of sound mind.

Did the owner of Augusta’s first skyscraper name it for his mentally disabled brother?

Apparently so.

Bowdre Phinizy Mays Jr. confirmed that for me. I had a nice conversation with him the other day. At age 90, the Augusta native probably knows everything worth knowing about the fascinating Phinizys.

As a child, Mr. Mays remembers his father telling stories about the relative known as “Uncle Manny.”

Mr. Mays even wrote about him in a self-published book titled Is Living Well Still the Best Revenge? It’s a compilation of “vignettes of old Georgia,” including a lot of juicy stuff about Augusta.

He wrote that Marion Daniel Phinizy was “known as a grown-up as Uncle Manny. Always had a supply of beaten biscuits in his pockets; looked after by his older brother Jacob as it seems Uncle Manny didn’t deal from a full deck!”

Marion’s absence from nearly all historical records gives a glimpse into how special-needs people were treated more than a century ago. They were not placed in the spotlight. When the former Central State Hospital in Milledgeville opened its doors in 1842, it was simply termed the “Lunatic Asylum.”

Marion’s precise disability just might be permanently lost in the fog of history. Regardless, often families in those days decided the best path for compassionate care was to keep a mentally challenged relative safely at home with loving kin and round-the-clock supervision, especially if you could afford it. And the wealthy Phinizys definitely could have afforded it.

That led me to one last news article, in an Athens paper in 1892.

It went like this: Ferdinand Phinizy, Marion’s father, owned a slave named Julia. After she purchased her freedom in 1862, she remained with the family as a servant. When she died in 1892, the terms of her will stipulated that her savings must be left to Marion, “to whom she was greatly attached.”

My theory – and Mr. Mays agreed it was plausible – is that Julia was Marion’s caregiver, likely since birth.

Marion’s brothers wielded considerable power and influence in Georgia. Billups was a banker and an insurance company president. Leonard was a successful lawyer. Stewart ran Augusta’s textile mill. Jacob, a financier, even served a term as Augusta’s mayor.

But the name that has outlived them all – literally carved in stone – remains on one of Augusta’s best-known buildings to this day.

 

Reach Joe Hotchkiss at (706) 823-3543 or joe.hotchkiss@augustachronicle.com.

 

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