William Butler Johnston was no typical nineteenth-century Southerner. He obtained his substantial wealth through investments in banking, railroads, and public utilities rather than from the agrarian cotton economy. In 1851, he married Anne Clark Tracy and the two embarked on an extended honeymoon in Europe. During their trip, the Johnstons visited hundreds of museums, historic sites, and art studios. They collected fine porcelains, sculptures, and paintings as mementos of their Grand Tour. The Johnstons were inspired by the Italian architecture they observed and upon their return to America constructed a monumental Italian Renaissance Revival mansion in Macon.
Completed in 1859 and called the “Palace of the South,” the residence was decorated and furnished in accordance with wealth and good taste. It became a beloved home for the Johnstons, their daughters, and their extended family. After William and Anne’s daughter, Mary Ellen, was married in 1888 to William H. Felton, the Feltons became the primary owners of the house. They remodeled and redecorated parts of the house, updated the plumbing and added electricity.
After the deaths of Judge and Mrs. Felton in 1926, the Felton heirs sold the house to Parks Lee Hay, founder of the Banker’s Health & Life Insurance Company. The Hays substantially redecorated the house to reflect the changing character of twentieth-century living, and the house at 934 Georgia Avenue continued to be recognized as a local landmark for gracious living during the Hay ownership.
After Mrs. Hay’s death in 1962, her heirs established the P.L. Hay Foundation and operated the house as a private house museum. In 1977, ownership of the house was formally transferred to the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. The house has been operated by the Trust since that time and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.