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Lost Auburn: The House Detectives want your help

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Posted: Thursday, December 31, 2009 12:00 am

"We were concerned as Auburn natives about all the historic buildings that were being torn down," Pearson said. "I think the big development movement is when a lot of the old buildings started to be torn down. The town expanded, and so did the university."

Since early 2008, the group has been compiling a book, "Lost Auburn," which will show old landmarks in Auburn that are no longer there. The book is a collection of pictures of destroyed structures, some of them dating back as far as the 1840s.

"When coming into Auburn on Highway 29, you used to pass fields, pastures and farms," Draughon said. "Now, you pass these urban sprawls and every kind of fast food joint--it's not attractive. You go through all this junky stuff that looks like every other congested city in the U.S."

The group's goal is to preserve what they can of what has been lost.

"There are lots of people who are interested in Auburn as they remembered it," Hughes said, "so this is a way to do it. The book is not going to be highly technical or academic, but it will include the very old things as well as things that have been recently lost."

The group said Auburn's historic landmarks began to disappear in the 1970s, with the onslaught of urban growth.

Pearson noted that one area that had been particularly stripped was South Gay Street, where a number of spacious old homes once stood under the spreading limbs of shade trees. Cliff Hare, from whom Jordan-Hare Stadium got half of its name, lived in an antebellum home on the street, near what is now a Taco Bell.

The book will also feature homes on Mell Street and Thach Avenue, where prominent faculty members once resided.

Draughon said the most significant loss was the Drake-Samford House, a pre-Civil War home graced by four columns, located at the corner of North Drake and East Gay, across the street from the Ogletree-Wright-Ivey Home, which is considered a "place in peril."

Former Alabama Gov. William James Samford resided and was married to Caroline Elizabeth Drake in the home, which was known for its architectural details. Draughon said the house's most famous and well-known feature was a spiral mahogany staircase, which was moved to Cusseta before the home was demolished.

"We don't really cheer when a house is moved, but I guess it's better than nothing." Draughon said.

Over its history, Auburn has suffered two severe tornadoes and three serious fires, as well as occupation by the federal army during the Civil War, and Pearson admitted that Mother Nature had played her part in the destruction of some of the historic landmarks.

Those incidents will be discussed in the book, but Draughon said "the bulldozer has done more than anything else."

All three house detectives say they believe Auburn has failed to provide adequate protection for historical landmarks. They said the Alabama Historic Commission had a terrible time trying to get a historic district established in the city.

Draughon said that in the 1950s, there were not many city regulations restricting the demolition of landmarks.

"It was private property, and you could do whatever," he said.

Pearson said that she does not think Auburn is really preservation-minded and that the increased enrollment at the university has led to the creation of "barracks" for students, surrounded by parking lots with no landscaping. That has taken away from Auburn's small-town ambiance. The desire to make money has trumped the effort to preserve Auburn's historic buildings, she said.

"I think one thing the book does is encourage tourism in the sense that it preserves historic Auburn," she said. "Some people think it (preservation) devalues their property, but I don't think it does. It makes Auburn look nicer and captures what the town is all about. Who wants to have a town that looks like every other area of urban sprawl?"

The group has list of still-missing pictures, including Miss Molly Hollifield's house on North Gay and Miss Lettie Ross' home on South Gay. They also hope to find a photo of the small rental houses on Ross Street once known as "Hess' Messes."

Draughon said they are often dismissed as being antiquarians, but so many people have left town only to come back and ask themselves, "Where am I?"

The book is scheduled to be released in November 2010.

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