Born in 1885 in Macon, Georgia, Leila and her parents and three siblings moved to Decatur, a suburb of Atlanta, when Leila was 10 years old. An additional daughter was added to the family after the move to Atlanta. At 17, Leila enrolled at the two-year Agnes Scott College. She had a natural artistic ability and was soon attracted to architectural drawing. Leila began taking private lessons in architectural drafting and building design, and created many house plans while still a student at Agnes Scott. After graduation from Agnes Scott, Leila toured the United States taking photos and making sketches of homes she admired. Returning to Atlanta, she secured a job as a trainee at the prestigious firm of Benjamin R. Padgett and Son. At the time, Leila was one of only two women in Georgia known to work in the field of architecture. The Padgett group was a well-known firm that specialized in designing and building custom homes and commercial buildings, and it is likely that the Padgett firm actually built the Reed House for Smyrna investors B.F. Walker and B.F. Reed. By 1908, Leila had prospered to the point that she left Padgett to open her own company, and she quickly gained notoriety in the Atlanta area for her unique Craftsman designs.
To reach a wider audience, Leila produced a series of pattern books from which a customer could choose a design and then purchase the plans from her for a modest fee. She often said, “A good builder, buys good plans” and her plans were meticulous. A set of these books are available to view at The Agnes Scott McCain Library, and one such plan (#127) is the Reed House plan. The cost of the plan in 1909 was $30.00, and included a list of building materials and suggestions for exterior paint colors. The current exterior colors used on the Reed House are those selected by Ms. Wilburn in 1909.
Leila continued to work in the field for over 50 years, designing homes, apartments, hospitals, and commercial buildings. She was widely accepted as Georgia’s first registered female architect, was named one of Georgia’s Most Influential Women, and she was named by the state as a ‘Georgia Woman of Achievement’. She was also acclaimed as one of the nation’s pioneering women architects, and was welcomed into the ‘mostly-male’ Society of Registered Architects, an honor which is reflective of her many accomplishments.
Leila is quoted as saying, “I feel that being a woman, I know the little things that should go into a home that make living in it a pleasure for the entire family. A home must be well balanced and harmonious in detail and appearance. It should be attractive inside and out. After all, it is an expression of the owners”.
A number of her homes are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, since they are considered some of the finest examples of Craftsman designs and 20th century architecture in America. Her homes can be found throughout the south east, with some of the more notable Georgia ones being in Decatur, Ansley Park, Druid Hills, Candler Park, East Lake, Marietta, Acworth and The Reed House in Smyrna. Each year, the city of Decatur awards the Leila Ross Wilburn Award to an individual or group that has excelled in historic preservation.
Leila Ross Wilburn died in 1967 in Decatur, Georgia at the age of 82 and she is buried in the family plot near her home. A collection of her building designs, sketches, photographs, and letters can be found at the McCain Library on the campus of Agnes Scott.
If you get a chance to visit Smyrna’s Reed House, you should not pass it up. Rescued and refurbished by the city in 2015, the home sits on 3.6 acres, and has approximately 4,900 square feet of living space sitting on an all-granite foundation. The original design is still intact with 12 rooms, including 3 bathrooms, 4 bedrooms, large kitchen with a true butler’s pantry. It also has a slate roof, enormous front porch (50’ x 15’), distinctive drive-under carriage gate, leaded glass windows, oak paneled walls, narrow oak flooring, many built-in cabinets and book shelves, formal dining room, a music room with carved oak columns, multiple fireplaces, and so much more. As you might imagine, in 1910 this was the largest home in Smyrna, and it has been the residence some of Smyrna’s most notable citizens. Future newsletters will have articles about the residents of the Reed House.
Thank you for taking the time to read and learn about amazing women in Smyrna’s history, and happy Women’s History Month from the Smyrna Historical Society!