A historic home's journey and Georgia's traumatic past
As the Antebellum home of a Confederate hero is saved from obscurity, a deep ambivalence in the Old South is reawakened, too.
ATHENS, GA. — Pious and persnickety, T.R.R. Cobb - the Confederate general and slavery apologist - lived his life to the strictest of codes. But his house may have been his one attempt at whimsy: Like so many old mansions of Athens, it was a playful, even gaudy, amalgam of Federal and Greek Revival styles: two octagonal wings strapped together by a colonnade.
By the time the house was moved in 1985 to make room for a church parking lot, it had fallen, like Cobb's ideas, into disrepair. "It was a rotten house," says Athens artist June Ball, who shared one room with a flock of pigeons for a short stretch.
Even some of Cobb's relatives say the house - tucked into a remote corner of Stone Mountain for 19 years - isn't worth a nickel. But as it returns piece by piece to Athens this month, preservationists say it's not just a victory for the city's inventory of Antebellum homes, but a chance for Athenians to confront the founders of their own "city on the hill."
"It shouldn't be a celebration of slavery, but an opportunity to interpret slavery and the conditions under which it flourished," says Hans Neuhauser, director of the Georgia Land Trust Service Center and neighbor to the project. "The fact is, it's a subject that Southerners are still reluctant to talk about."
In many ways, Cobb typifies the struggle between modern Athens and its legacy. Historians call him a great legal mind, founder of the University of Georgia's law school and a girls' finishing school. He was the first to systematize 19th century laws in a form that was ultimately copied nationwide. In the process, he became the intellectual force of the South's secession - and a chief author of the Confederate Constitution. He was among a group of Athenians - including Confederate States of America (CSA) Vice President Alexander Stephens and Sen. Robert Toombs - who helped codify Old South values. He died defending those traditions at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
"He lived his life like a law code," says Emory Thomas, a retired University of Georgia historian. "He was constantly aware of rules, regulations, and taboos."
Though Cobb's Code was swept aside, Athens still exports ideas. The first US congresswoman, Jeanette Rankin, came from here, as did Eugene Odom, father of ecology. In later years, the band REM and William Jackson's offbeat "tree that owns itself" became celebrities. Some credit the city's 40 Watt Club with the rise of new wave music.
"I could stand on my porch and see the drummer from REM and the author of a book on the Civil War working outside," says Mr. Thomas.
But even in a city defined by ideas, the house's return is controversial. The Watson-Brown Foundation - which has contributed money to the League of the South, an organization some call a hate group - is coming up with most of the $3 million in funds. Three trustees of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation resigned over the matter. Neighbors felt slighted by secrecy, and many say the money could be better spent on education and low-income housing.
But to preservationists, the house is central to a 30-year effort to save the Antebellum homes of Athens. Development pressures have brought the wrecking ball to several historic homes, including the Greek Revival Michael Brothers mansions. The Cobb House's journey has helped harden a preservation movement, placing Athens alongside cities like Savannah in saving not just the look, but the history of one of America's most romantic and sinister eras. Today, mansions have been "recycled" as law firms and fraternities; Mr. Neuhauser works in a renovated jail.
"The Cobb House's return is a defining moment for the city," says Amy Kissane, executive director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation. "We want it to open a dialogue about our past - while also preserving what physically remains"
For some, the process has helped humanize Cobb. "You sit in these meeting and listen to his relatives talk about him as if he died yesterday," says Ms. Kissane. "This historical figure is brought to life."
The house won't look quite the same as it did when it left. Architects will use its "bones" to reconstruct it the way it looked in 1860, along with a museum and period furniture. "When people think of the Old South, everybody defers to Margaret Mitchell's imagination," says Neuhauser. "It actually looked a lot different."