Inside the derelict mansion built for the heir to Coca-Cola

Murder, magic and mystery surrounds this historic estate

<p>Emory University / Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain] ; Keizers / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED]</p>

Emory University / Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain] ; Keizers / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED]

Once the scene of lavish society parties, an exotic pet collection and even a murder, this boarded-up Georgian Revival mansion lies crumbling and abandoned on Emory University’s Briarcliff Campus in Georgia.

Built in the 1920s for eccentric Coca-Cola heir Asa ‘Buddy’ Griggs Candler Jr, it's a historic treasure trove with a fascinating story to tell – one that now includes a bright new future.

Read on as we take a look around and find out what fate has in store for this intriguing building...

All dollar values in US dollars.

Iconic family brand

<p>Emory University / Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]</p>

Emory University / Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Candler Jr, whose father founded the iconic brand Coca-Cola in 1893, is said to have been a “very colourful character”, with all sorts of curious hobbies, from performing magic tricks to collecting exotic animals.

Candler Jr turned to real estate after he sold his shares in the company in 1919, and went on to build the regal Briarcliff Mansion, which even housed its own zoo.

40 acres of fairyland

<p>Samantha Carlson / Flickr [CC BY 2.0 DEED]</p>

Samantha Carlson / Flickr [CC BY 2.0 DEED]

The press was given a tour of the new mansion upon completion in 1922, dubbing it "40 acres of fairyland". Outside, an ornate greenhouse still stands among the once elegantly landscaped gardens where Candler Jr hosted pool parties and dinners.

Over the years, he updated the property several times, adding a golf course, a laundry and the aforementioned zoo, which eventually became a public pool, complete with a Coca-Cola stand.

A private zoo

<p>Emory University / YouTube</p>

Emory University / YouTube

Designed and built by the esteemed Atlantan architect firm Frazier and Bodin, the now forlorn and empty estate was once alive with the roar of Candler Jr’s exotic pets. These included lions, birds, a Bengal tiger, a black leopard, four elephants – purportedly named Coca, Cola, Refreshing, and Delicious – and a baboon.

Scandalously, the baboon escaped in 1935 and bit a woman, stealing her purse and devouring $60. The woman sued Candler Jr, winning damages of $10,000, which would be around $224,600 (£179k) today.

Noise complaints at Briarcliff

<p>Samantha Carlson / Flickr [CC BY 2.0 DEED]</p>

Samantha Carlson / Flickr [CC BY 2.0 DEED]

Candler Jr was eventually forced to close his private menagerie of exotic creatures after neighbours complained about the noise and smell. He donated all his animals to Grant Park Zoo in the 1930s – which later became Zoo Atlanta – along with funds to make sure they were properly looked after.

Animals aside, the ornate greenhouses, pictured here, were once overflowing with all manner of exotic plants and flowers.

House of dreams

<p>Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]</p>

Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Despite its current state of decay, Briarcliff was a magnet for the glitterati of the day during the 1920s and 1930s. Candler Jr and his wife Helen, a leading socialite, hosted fashionable parties and their home was decorated with sumptuous furnishings and pricey paintings.

The main Tudor-style hall, or music room as it was known, boasted a soaring three-storey vaulted ceiling, wood-panelled walls and a huge limestone fireplace.

Music room fit for a king

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

In its heyday, the mansion encompassed over 40 rooms, two swimming pools and a ballroom, a far cry from the dusty, decrepit property that stands today.

Candler Jr is said to have made a number of extensions to the home over the years, including the addition of the 1,700-square-foot music room, with its cathedral-sized organ. It was later renamed DeOvies Hall and is the best-preserved room of the house.

Former grandeur

<p>Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Only the console of the organ remains in this photograph, which was taken in 1953 and published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on behalf of the Georgia State University Library.

The rest of the instrument, said to be the eighth largest Aeolian pipe organ ever built for a private residence, was gifted – or, according to some sources, sold – to Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia the year before this image was taken in 1952. Renovated in 2008, it is now known as the Goodwin-Candler-Panoz organ.

Carved fireplace

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

The room isn't short of stand-out architectural features. The elaborately carved nine-foot-high stone fireplace is surrounded by an enormous hearth measuring six feet wide by five feet tall. Even today, its grandeur is still evident.

The walls of the music room are clad in thick, richly carved oak panels, while three large bay windows flood the room with light. These details are all noted on Briarcliff's National Register of Historic Places registration form, submitted in 1988.

The library also boasts walls of exquisite hand-carved wood panelling.

Dining at Briarcliff

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

It's hard to marry the property’s glorious past with the empty and neglected rooms that remain today. The mansion included this former dining room, capable of hosting 75 people, as well as a solarium containing large oil murals and multiple bedrooms to accommodate Candler Jr's guests.

Over the years, there's been a slew of proposals to transform the property. Among them were plans to turn the mansion into a 54-room boutique hotel. However, that pipe dream ultimately came to nothing.

Magic paraphernalia

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the most splendid updates to Briarcliff was the gold-leaf detailed ballroom on the top floor of the house, where Candler Jr amassed a world-class collection of magic paraphernalia, which was another of his passions. He hosted 'magic soirées', where guests could perform for one another.

Famous magicians who attended the home's events included Howard Thurston and Dante the Magician, and Candler Jr was also rumoured to be friends with Houdini.

Hanging out with Houdini

<p>Zuma Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Zuma Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Although Candler Jr claimed he was a close friend of the legendary magician Houdini, known for his miraculous escape acts, there is sadly no record of him visiting Briarcliff.

Candler Jr claimed the Hungarian had taught him a couple of tricks and it is possible that they met, given that Houdini had his headquarters in the New York City Candler Building, which was managed by Candler Jr himself.

Murder at the mansion

<p>Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

However, Candler Jr's passion for magic put him centre stage in a murder mystery in January 1931. Candler Jr's butler and personal magic assistant José Cruz shot his girlfriend and took his own life in Briarcliff's grounds, reportedly using one of his employer's guns.

Although Candler Jr was not involved in the incident, he had trouble fighting off the ensuing negative attention and ended up distancing himself from his hobby, which was tainted for him by the double tragedy.

Candler's decline

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

More trouble followed. By the late 30s, Candler Jr's fortunes had started to decline. Bad investments, extravagant hobbies including yachting and airplanes, as well as ambitious plans to transform Westview Cemetery, left him bankrupt.

Candler Jr was forced to sell Briarcliff to the General Services Administration in 1948. An alcoholic for much of his life, it seemed rather apt that Briarcliff was repurposed as an alcohol addiction treatment centre.

Sadly, alcoholism ran in the family and John, the eldest of his three sons and four daughters with his first wife Helen, died in 1947 from an experimental treatment intended to cure alcoholism.

Death of Asa Candler Jr

<p>Keizers / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED]</p>

Keizers / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED]

Later that year, after the forced sale of his beloved mansion, Candler Jr moved into the top floor of the Briarcliff Hotel with his second wife Florence, his former secretary, who he married following Helen's death in 1927. He had previously owned the real estate firm that built the hotel in 1924 and remained here until his death from liver cancer in 1953.

But Briarcliff lived on...

Psychiatric hospital

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

It was Briarcliff’s next incarnation as a 141-bed psychiatric hospital from 1965 to 1997, however, that has most contributed to its notoriety these days as a house of horrors.

A chilling message written in graffiti on an indoor fountain in the former solarium reads: “It ran with blood". A prank by local youngsters, no doubt, but not entirely surprising given the folklore that surrounds the institution.

An underground network

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

According to reports, a semi-circular arrangement of cottages was connected to the hospital via underground tunnels for the transportation of patients from the wards to the hospital. This was to reportedly limit patients' time outside and prevent any potential escapes.

This picture shows one of the home's small kitchens, which is in a dire state of repair having succumbed to damp and mould over the years.

Briarcliif's nurse

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

This image appears to still show vestiges of the property's former medical life. It's possible that this room was one of many wards in the complex.

Several years ago Charlie Paine, head of the preservation effort behind the mansion, told The Southerner that he had met an elderly woman wandering around the eerie property who said she had been a nurse at the hospital.

“I remember looking at her hands as she was talking and seeing blood where she had scratched and picked at her skin. Whatever happened had obviously taken some toll on her,” he says.

Haunted house

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

If local legends are to be believed, Briarcliff is a hive of paranormal activity. After dark, ghosts are said to wander the endless hallways and haunt the many deserted rooms of the former family home and asylum.

These days, the rooms have been stripped bare and the walls marked by the numerous trespassers who've visited over the years.

Warding off intruders

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

Police crime tape cordons off one room, warding off would-be intruders and those brave enough to explore its chilling corridors. Boarded up since the 1990s, the mansion now presents a safety risk after decades of neglect.

The property is in dire need of repair, with a leaking roof, extensive water damage and a severe mould problem throughout.

Changing of hands

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

The abandoned mansion was purchased by Emory University in 1998, but while Briarcliff was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, no renovation attempts have been made in the years since.

This space looks to have been once used as a classroom, its chalky blackboard a lingering relic, perhaps from its days as a psychiatric hospital.

Supernatural backdrop

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

Dimly lit photographs of Briarcliff's decaying interiors capture the stark beauty and desolation of the once-grand mansion. Peeling paint, tattered curtains and the glow of twilight through dusty windows only contribute to the property’s overall eerie atmosphere.

Its decaying state has made the house a popular backdrop for supernatural film projects over the years, such as Stranger Things and The Vampire Diaries.

Stranger Things

<p>Counse / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0 DEED]</p>

Counse / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0 DEED]

Elsewhere on the Briarcliff estate lies the former Georgia Mental Health Institute. The Brutalist building was featured in the early seasons of Netflix’s Stranger Things, standing in for the exterior of Hawkins National Laboratory, where Eleven, played by actor Millie Bobby Brown, is held against her will for experimentation.

Future renovation plans

<p>Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Media Drum World / Alamy Stock Photo

Various plans have been raised over the years to bring the abandoned mansion back to life. As mentioned, one developer intended to restore the home and transform it into a boutique hotel, a project that was deemed too costly. There were also plans to transform the property into an events centre, but that idea also fell through.

Previous reports from 2015 suggested that it could cost at least $14 million (£11.1m) simply to make the property habitable again, a number that's no doubt increased since the house has further deteriorated.

Luckily, it seems there’s someone out there willing to take on the challenge...

A new era

<p>treybunn2 / Flickr [CC BY 2.0 DEED]</p>

treybunn2 / Flickr [CC BY 2.0 DEED]

Emory University has reportedly leased 32 acres of the 42-acre Briarcliff Campus site to Galerie Living, an Atlanta-based senior living company, according to The Emory Wheel.

In November 2022, plans were approved to totally redevelop the historic site, turning it into a gated senior living community to be named Corso Druid Hills. It will consist of almost 500 hundred residences, including studios, independent and assisted living complexes and care homes.

While Emory retains 10 acres and the Library Service Center, Building A – a former mental health hospital and Stranger Things filming location – will be pulled down to make way for the new homes, as well as retail, dining and recreational facilities.

Restoration and renovation

<p>Emory University / YouTube</p>

Emory University / YouTube

While the Briarcliff Mansion won't house senior citizens, Galerie Living will restore the remarkable building as part of its agreement with Emory.

The restoration is set to be "extensive", according to one Emory official. “Once it is restored, we are hopeful that there will be opportunity for campus and community use.”

"At least part of the mystique and appeal [of the mansion] is that some of it is still very grand and exquisite, but lots of it is in disrepair,” Stephen Corder, Galerie Living's Director of Marketing, told The Emory Wheel.

"Once we renovate and refurbish it, it’ll become a destination location where we envision weddings, receptions, community events and corporate events.”

So despite its many ups and downs, it looks as if the grand old home will have a happy ending after all.