Author's house is link to history

The Frank Yerby House, the bright yellow model of its dilapidated twin that once stood at Eighth and Hall streets, has reached completion after four years of construction and renovation on the Paine College campus.

When the original structure that was home to the Augusta-born author was donated by Allan Collier and moved to Laney-Walker Boulevard, structural problems rendered most of the asbestos-ridden house beyond repair.

But with the salvaged staircase and bricks, a replica with bits of the original house went up as a link to its heritage.

"We want the spirit of it," Paine College President George Bradley said in a recent interview at the house.

The house will be dedicated with a ceremony at 3 p.m. today.

It will be used for alumni events, meetings, lectures and events, a permanent place of entertainment and scholarship and a symbol of the future of the college.

"Let the world know this is a foundation of greatness," Dr. Bradley said.

Augusta historian James Carter said Mr. Yerby, a Paine College graduate, would probably be proud of the gesture the college has made in rebuilding the home, but disappointed that the original had fallen into disrepair.

"You don't rebuild Mount Vernon and Monticello," he said.

Dr. Bradley said the open house serves as a reintroduction to Mr. Yerby, who died in 1991.

Roscoe Williams, the executive assistant to the president, spoke during a Historic Augusta event about Mr. Yerby.

The afternoon included a full screening of the movie The Foxes of Harrow , which was based on a best-selling novel by Mr. Yerby, and discussion, Dr. Williams says. The room was packed for that event.

"People will always be interested in him because he was a peculiar writer," Dr. Williams said.

Mr. Yerby gained the title "king of the costume novel" for his unique style of writing and elements of his storytelling.

"He masked his novels," Dr. Williams said. Mr. Yerby's inner message was unobtrusive.

Covers of Mr. Yerby's books are displayed throughout the house.

For Dr. Bradley, the home is a symbol of the college's strength.

"Frank Yerby represents excellence," he said, and by association, so will the house.

Mr. Yerby's words live on at Paine. As a student, he wrote the words to the Paine College Hymn, which is still sung by students during every chapel assembly.

"It becomes etched in their souls and their hearts, what it means," Dr. Williams said.

Reach Sarah Day Owen at (706) 823-3223 or sarah.owen@augustachronicle.com.

DEDICATION OF THE FRANK YERBY HOUSE

WHEN: 3 p.m. today

WHERE: Gilbert-Lambuth Memorial Chapel on the Paine College campus; The Frank Yerby House is at 1718 Laney-Walker Blvd.

ACTIVITIES: A tour of the house, a screening of scenes from The Foxes of Harrow, remarks from Paine College President George Bradley and biographical background from historian James Carter.

THE ESSENTIAL FRANK YERBY

- Augusta-born and reared author Frank Yerby was best known for his 1946 novel, The Foxes of Harrow, which made him the first black author to write a best-selling novel. The book was later turned into a movie starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O'Hara.

- 55 million copies of his 33 published works were sold.

- Mr. Yerby distinguished himself academically at an early age, making high grades in all subjects. "He was just a brainy guy," said historian James Carter.

- Mr. Yerby graduated from Paine College in 1937 with a bachelor's degree in English and went on to receive his master's degree from Fisk University. He later became an English professor.

- Though primarily a novelist, Mr. Yerby first gained literary notice with his short story Health Card, which tackled race issues and won the O. Henry Memorial Award in 1944. The story might have been based on an incident on Broad Street that Dr. Carter said embittered Mr. Yerby toward the South and the country. As Dr. Carter recounts it, Mr. Yerby was walking with his sister toward their home on Eighth Street when he was accosted by a white policeman. "His sister was a very fair lady who could pass for white," Dr. Carter said, noting it was taboo for a black man to walk with a white woman in the Jim Crow South. "If the law beats you up -- who are you going to turn to?"

- Mr. Yerby expatriated in the early 1950s in protest over racial politics, practices and hierarchy of the country, the South in particular. He spent his final years in Spain.

- Rumors of an unpublished manuscript have swirled. Though Paine officials and Dr. Carter had heard of it, the location or content of the manuscript remains a mystery.

ABOUT THE HOUSE

- The Frank Yerby House is a conglomeration of old and new.

- Two smaller rooms downstairs were made into a larger room for entertaining, bathrooms were added on, and a partition was added to an upstairs room.

- Contributions from the old house include some of the original flooring, the fluted staircase and the inclusion of an "Annie room," a small sitting area traditionally used for supervised courting.

- Bricks that were once the foundation and chimney of the original house were used for construction of the handicap access ramps and for a homey back porch, the only outer changes in architecture to accommodate its present purpose.

- The project hit a road bump when the fire code wouldn't allow the staircase to be open, so a wall was added around it.

- Roscoe Williams, the executive assistant to the president at Paine College, chose the decor. When selecting the furniture, Dr. Williams debated buying antiques -- it wouldn't make sense to put new-looking furniture in an old house after all, but he found they were either discontinuous in design or plain "old and crusty." Instead, he bought new furniture that was "timeless."

- Another new, but old in tradition, feature is the roof, modeled after the old tin roof.

- The renovation project cost more than $30,000, said Natasha Carter, the assistant director of public relations.