J. Lee Barnes (1871–1949)

Sixth Ward Alderman: 1915, 1916, 1917

Born in Morgan County, Alabama in 1871, J. Lee Barnes was the son of John W. and Margaret (Morris) Barnes. His first name is unknown: The 1880 U.S. federal census called him “General L. Barnes,” but a later ship manifest called him “Jack Lee Barnes.” He used the first initial “J” throughout his life.

J. Lee Barnes. The Constitution, Apr. 15, 1900.

Lee’s mother died in 1879, and the 1880 census found him living with his father, stepmother, and siblings in Somerville, Alabama. Later described as a “barefooted boy plowing corn in the valleys of Alabama,” Lee was left an orphan after his father’s death within one month of the 1880 census’s enumeration. He left the farm and worked “at a small restaurant near the L. & N. depot at Decatur,” Alabama, where he met and married Mollie Couch in March 1893.

Lee “became obsessed with the spirit of adventure in a business way, and went to the city of Atlanta” in 1897 with his wife, young son, and “about $200.00.” He managed the Hotel Washington and the Hotel Jackson until 1898 when he became associated with the Hotel Majestic as the manager of its cafe. “Seeing a fine future for the ‘Majestic,'” he leased the entire hotel in April 1900. Called “a new building and a magnificent one,” the Hotel Majestic had been built on what was supposedly “the highest parcel of land in downtown Atlanta,” across from the Governor’s Mansion and the Leyden House. The 1900 U.S. federal census found Lee living in the Majestic with his young family. Only two years after leasing that hotel, Lee leased the Hotel Ballard next door and sold his lease on the Hotel Majestic to Ralph Van Landingham.

The Hotel Majestic and the Hotel Ballard on this 1899 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map (191 Peachtree Tower now occupies the lot.)

By March 1903, Lee added another hotel to his portfolio: the nearby Hotel Aragon. Owned by George Washington Collier, the Aragon

was built with large fireplaces in the rooms, and a set of magnificent stairways leading up from the main lobby.

Upon the front of the building [was] a large block carved with the name “Arragon.” The two Rs were placed on the block because of the fact that at the time the name block was set into the wall the owners did not know which of the two houses of Aragon had the correct spelling. Later developments proved that the single R was correct for the Spanish house, but then it was too late to change it except at great cost, so the block was allowed to remain as it was.

The Constitution noted that under Lee’s management, the Aragon provided “the advantage of every modern convenience, [and] the most polite attention . . . from the waiters and the clerks.” He leased the Hotel Majestic once again in 1907 and hired his brother-in-law, Jesse Couch, to manage the hotel. The 1910 U.S. federal census found Lee and his family living at the Hotel Majestic again.

Having accumulated some wealth, Lee purchased a “country place . . . . consist[ing] of twenty-eight acres and a fine residence” from Mrs. Ulof O. Robertson in 1909 for $17,000. Neighboring the large estate of E. Rivers near Roxboro Springs (now near Brookhaven’s Lenox Park), Lee named his estate Barnesia and kept Jersey cows, Barred Plymouth Rock chickens, African geese, Muscovy ducks, Berkshire pigs, and other stock at the farm to supply his hotels.

Barnesia. The Georgian, June 6, 1915.

Lee was an early member of Atlanta Rotary and active in Atlanta Masonic circles. He served as president of the Georgia Hotel Association and was a member of the Atlanta Convention Bureau. Evidently stemming from his own orphanhood, he was a patron of the Atlanta Boys’ Club and the Home for the Friendless (now Hillside). The Constitution noted that he was “especially kind to the poor and friendless in [Atlanta]. It is nothing unusual for him to take his carriages, busses [sic] and wagons to the orphanages in Atlanta and spend half a day riding them through the parks.” His hometown paper called him “the only man of our acquaintance who takes off his hat at the telephone when talking to a lady.”

“Men of Affairs in Atlanta: J. Lee Barnes.” The Constitution, Sept. 27, 1908.

Lee served as Alderman for the Sixth Ward in 1915, 1916, and 1917. He ran and lost the race for Fulton County Commissioner in 1916. He sold his lease on the Hotel Majestic in April 1920 and after a farewell banquet “said to be the most elaborate banquet ever given in the United States,” he moved to Saint Petersburg, Florida where he purchased and ran the Huntington Hotel with his son. The Hotel Majestic was converted into offices and was demolished in 1927.

Lee’s wife, Mollie, filed for divorce in April 1924, alleging “extreme cruelty, ungovernable temper, quarrelling [sic], [and] nagging until impossible for her to live with him.” The case was settled out of court and the divorce never finalized. Both the 1930 and 1940 U.S. federal censuses located Lee and Mollie living at the Huntington Hotel as husband and wife.

Lee’s involvement in local civic organizations like Rotary continued in Florida. The Huntington Hotel was a success and hosted several famous guests, including Bobby Jones in 1924.

Lee died at the Huntington Hotel in January 1949 and Mollie died there in 1959. Both were members of Atlanta’s First Methodist Church and are buried in Saint Petersburg’s Memorial Park Cemetery. They were the parents of one son: Paul Barnett Barnes (1895–1965), a World War I & II veteran and a hotelier.

Select Bibliography

Atlanta Constitution. “A New Lessee for the Majestic.” April 15, 1900.

———. “Regular Boarders.” February 2, 1902.

———. “The Majestic Lease is Sold.” August 20, 1902.

———. “New Manager for Aragon.” March 13, 1903.

———. “Aragon Hotel Ably Managed.” May 22, 1904.

———. “Barnes Leases Majestic Hotel.” October 24, 1907.

———. “Men of Affairs in Atlanta.” September 27, 1908.

———. “Majestic Hotel Lease.” April 4, 1920.

———. “Barnes Divorce Case Is Settled; Proceedings End.” April 20, 1924.

———. “Stores to Replace Majestic Hotel.” June 8, 1927.

———. “Passing of Aragon Recalls Visit of Grover Cleveland.” September 29, 1929.

Atlanta Georgian. “J. Lee Barnes Buys Fine Suburban Home.” July 15, 1909.

———. “Barnesia Farm.” June 10, 1911.

———. “Brookhaven Heights.” June 6, 1915.

Cooper, Walter G. Official History of Fulton County. Atlanta, GA: Walter W. Brown Pub. Co., 1934.

Decatur (AL) Daily. “Local News.” September 28, 1900.

———. “Morgan County Boys Who Have Made Their Mark.” December 12, 1921.

Saint Petersburg (FL) Daily Times. “Opening of Hotel Huntington Monday Announced By Owners.” December 5, 1920.

———. “Bobby Jones Coming Today.” April 11, 1924.

———. “J. Lee Barnes Dies at 77; Was Prominent Hotel Man.” January 13, 1949.

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