By Ann Cipperly
Surrounded by his family, William James Samford was sworn in as governor of Alabama at his Opelika home on Ninth Street in November 1900. Built in the Steamboat Gothic style in 1890, the home stands as a reminder of the governor’s service. While the house looks externally much as it did at the turn of the century, it has been restored with contemporary amenities, creating a casual, elegant home for Leigh and Barry Whatley and their four children.
William was the third of 13 children. In 1847, his parents moved from Meriwether, Ga. to Oakbowery where his father founded the Oakbowery Institute, serving as the first president and becoming nationally known for his writing. In the troublesome years before 1861 he authored the “Warwick Papers” under a pen name for “The New York Times.”
In the late 1840s, the family moved near Auburn. In early childhood, William was injured by an accidental explosion from a keg of gun powder and nearly died.
When the War Between the States was declared, William enlisted at the age of 17 and was among the first at the front. He was captured in 1863 at the Battle of Baker’s Creek at Johnson’s Lake in Lake Erie.
While in prison, he studied with another prisoner, Professor Slaton, whom Samford had known earlier at the East Alabama Male College in Auburn.
After the war, William returned to Auburn and married Carrie Drake, daughter of Dr. John Hodges Drake, descendant of Richard Drake, brother of Sir Frances Drake.
The wedding was held Oct. 1, 1865, at the Drake home and was remembered as the largest wedding after the war.
The couple lived with the Drakes while William studied law and farmed cotton.
Dr. Drake bought the couple a house on the south side of Opelika where it was fashionable to live before the turn of the century.
The Samfords had seven children. Their sixth child was Elizabeth Carrie. For a while, the family moved to a pre-Civil War community outside Opelika on a farm, but William found it inconvenient to travel back and forth to Opelika to practice law.
Samford built the large frame house on the corner of Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue in the Steamboat Gothic style, which was popular during Victorian times. It was a nostalgic style, evoking images of Mark Twain and the Mississippi steamboat era.
The house was constructed with two tiers of decorative railing and other Victoria features. To continue the steamboat style in the interior the original stairway was accented with a captain’s wheel.
Samford and his wife celebrated their 25th anniversary around the time they moved into the house.
He had ventured into politics, serving as a member of the State Constitutional Convention in 1875, one term in the U.S. House of Representatives and State Representatives, as well as state senator.
An overwhelming majority elected him governor in 1900. Weeks before the inauguration he became seriously ill. He was sworn in as governor at his home on Nov. 29.
During that year, the house caught fire in an upstairs bedroom. A picture of a water hose going into the house appeared in the newspaper.
Becoming weakened from a heart condition, the governor died in June 1901. His wife continued to live in the house. She loved to play the piano, as did her daughter “Miss Carrie,” who moved back into the house after her husband passed away. She lived there until her death in 1984 at 105 years of age.
After her passing, Yetta Samford contacted Randy Brown, who had restored houses in Opelika, with his wife Anita. Randy thought of restoring the house to sell, but as he became more involved in the project, he decided he wanted to live in the house with his family.
The Browns completely restored the house and remodeled the back. Five bedrooms were removed from the back, and a pool, guest house and garage were added. The old kitchen was updated with a breakfast room overlooking the pool.
High ceilings were lowered in the kitchen, breakfast room and den.
A new front door with beveled glass and sidelights was installed, and the foyer floor was replaced with marble.
The staircase was completely redone. “It was just too steep,” says Randy, “and it just wouldn’t work.” He made the steps much wider and changed the direction of the steps in the foyer.
To give the staircase an aged look, he used heart pine railing from an older house in Columbus, Ga.
The biggest problem in the restoration was the front porch, which had been changed over the years. “I didn’t know how to restore the porch,” says Randy, “until I saw a picture of how the house looked originally.”
Upstairs, it took three bedrooms to create a master suite. One bedroom was converted into a spacious bath, while another was turned into a closet.
When Randy started planning the restoration project, he wanted to be sure there were no issues associated with older homes. “I wanted to make sure it would not be cold, that there would be plenty of closets, a big kitchen and spacious baths.”
Randy accomplished those goals and created a home with the elegance of yesterday and with warmth and updated conveniences for his family.
When the Browns sold the house in 2001 to Leigh and Barry Whatley, they were impressed with the remodeled features.
Leigh enjoys decorating and changed the color palette to suit her style and furnishings. Light fixtures were updated for a fresher look.
The Whatleys redid the kitchen with marble countertops and new cabinets. The sink in the massive island was moved to the front of the window and replaced with a deep farmhouse version and shiny, brassy fixtures. A pot filler was added over the six burner gas stove.
The breakfast room seats six and overlooks the covered porch and pool.
The guest room off from the back porch was turned into a large playroom with comfortable furnishings for their four children. A small kitchen was added for convenience and has a popcorn machine.
A game room between the living room and dining room also provides additional space for the children with a pool table and game table. Framed duck stamp photos, deer and wildcat mounts further enhance the theme. Leigh replaced the light figures with chandeliers accented with antlers.
The Whatleys prefer a casual style and enjoy entertaining. The living room reflects a relaxed style, while the dining room is spacious for family meals and entertaining.
A large built-in hutch with glass doors in the dining room is original to the house. Glassware and serving pieces are displayed and easily accessible.
The spacious 5,500-square-foot house has eight fireplaces. The house is decorated throughout with antique and vintage furnishings.
Walls in the deep foyer are painted Gibraltar Gray. Photography of their children by Barbara Harbin in handsome gold-toned frames highlights one wall.“There is always a project,” says Leigh. “It is fun to see an old house evolve and be equipped for a family in 2016. We have been able to make some updates, but not take away from the historical parts of the house. We have a lot of good memories here.”
A baby grand piano is situated in the foyer by the front door. While voices of another family echo through the halls, the sound of the piano drifts throughout the rooms just as when Mrs. William Samford and Miss Carrie played for their families.