Auburn leaders and historians are concerned for the Cullars home, a symbol of the community’s town-and-gown legacy that could be razed 60 days after the lease ends Oct. 4.
“It’s just so important to the history of Auburn,” Auburn Historic Preservation Commission member Donna Bohanan said. “The house and family represent the close relationship between the community and university that made Auburn special. It would be a real tragedy to see it go, and Auburn has lost so much historic property.”
The Cullars home, located on 369 S. College St. next to the Auburn University president’s home, was purchased by Orange Development, LLC. in August 2017 from a group of investors, including former managing partner Ab Conner of Courtyard Properties, LLC.
“When they came to sell it, I didn’t have control over how we sold it,” Conner said. “I had to go along with it even though I was the managing partner of it. The money got pretty large. It was hard for people to turn it down. Plus, I’m 75 years old, and I’m not going to be able to do it forever.”
Orange Development will send Conner a notice on Oct. 4, ensuring the former managing partner has 60 days to move the Cullars home to another location before it is demolished, he said.
Delos Hughes, historian of the Cullars family and co-writer of the book "Lost Auburn," shared a draft of his research on Joseph Alpha Cullars and the family's early contributions to Auburn University, beginning in 1884.
“The Cullars legacy is remembered today largely by the houses that J. A. Cullars built,” Hughes said. “But his status as a builder was early established by his institutional work. He must have earned an enviable reputation as a workman on Samford Hall, for that apparently led to his contract to remodel Langdon Hall and to make some repairs, improvements and changes on the residence building of the Agricultural Experiment Station.”
Cullars family history
Established in the late 1800s and continuing experiments today, the Cullars Rotation, adjacent to the Jules Collins Smith Museum, attests to the family legacy as well, according to Auburn University crops, soil and environmental services professor emeritus Charles Mitchell.
The Cullars Rotation is the South's oldest continuous soil fertility experiment, according to the university's website.
“We discovered the experiment goes back into the late 1800s,” Mitchell said. “The land was owned by John Alvis, and J. A. Cullars married one of his daughters. He was farming the land at the time when the university was using it as a research site. It was on that tall, sandy hill where the Cullars Rotation is today.”
In the 1880s, biologist and professor John Atkinson conducted experiments on the rotation to eradicate the crop-killing organism cotton rust known for its red tint on the leaves, Mitchell explained.
“In the process, Atkinson never discovered an organism, but when a material called kainite was on the soil, he found it prevented the problem,” Mitchell said. “Kainite contains potassium, leading to the discovery that potassium was an essential mineral for cotton and other crops. This started the fertilizer industry in Alabama because up until that time, nothing was added to the fields.”
Mitchell emphasized Atkinson’s discovery among the countless experiments conducted on the crop rotation as valuable contributions made possible by Alvis and Cullars.
Once the property under the Cullars home was purchased, the only alternative to preserve the historic domicile is to physically move the dwelling to another location, Bohanan said.
“The Auburn Historic Preservation Commission did a little bit of brainstorming to whom we might reach out to see if there was interest and means to preserve the home,” she said. “Many people would like to see the Cullars home remain there, but that property has been purchased. It has to be moved somewhere if it is preserved.”
Conners said moving the home will be a difficult task, and he hopes an experienced organization, such as the city or university, will consider moving the structure.
“It’s got five chimneys that go to the ground, and they go through the interior of the house,” Conners said. “You would have to remove those before trying to move. That would not be an easy thing to do. It’s a tall house too. The roof itself without the chimneys is very tall for a one-story house.”
Auburn Mayor Ron Anders expressed concern for preserving the Cullars home as well, and said the city is discussing solutions to save the structure.
“From where I sit, the city is doing what it can to attempt to facilitate the preservation of this house,” Anders said. “The city doesn’t hold all the cards, but there is certainly a role the city could play in assisting the preservation of this house. The city is actively participating in those discussions.”
Bohanan said many historic homes have been lost, and the Cullars home has a special history, defining the character of the Auburn community.
“It’s these kinds in Auburn that are not only reminders and touchstones of the past, but they also distinguish the community to make it different from every other exit on Interstate 85,” Bohanan said. “They give it the character, and we really want to see the Cullars house preserved. It’s an important piece of Auburn’s past that needs to be saved.”