Last week, our latest National Register of Historic Places nomination property--the James A. Fulmer House in Fountain Inn, SC--sailed through its South Carolina Board of Review hearing and is now under consideration for formal listing by the National Park Service. We expect to hear news about this by sometime in late fall.
Our blog entry today, though, is not so much about the James A. Fulmer House in particular but rather the Atlanta-based plan book architect Leila Ross Wilburn and her intriguing connection to the design of this fascinating house.
Leila Ross Wilburn (1885-1967) was born in Macon, Georgia, and studied at Agnes Scott Institute from 1902 to 1904. Thereafter, she took private instruction in architectural drawing, then moved on to a drafting apprenticeship from 1906 to 1908 with B. R. Padgett and Son. In 1909 she opened her own firm in Atlanta, becoming one of the first female plan book architects of the 20th century and only the second registered female architect in the state of Georgia. Five years later, she published her first plan book, Southern Homes and Bungalows. Another nine plan books would follow during the next forty years, and her designs soon became immensely popular with middle-class families seeking to build fine homes at a modest price. In her book Small Low-Cost Homes for the South, which was probably published circa 1930 and cost only a dollar, fifty-two such plans were featured. Consumers who liked her plan #1583, for example, could then write to her and purchase complete plans and specifications for twenty dollars, additional sets at five dollars apiece, and a lumber and mill list for another five dollars. Such prices were typical.
Wilburn was aware that stock plans like the ones she peddled would not be suitable for every buyer, even if the buyer generally liked a particular design. With that in mind, she offered two suggestions to plan buyers: “If you have a good contractor, [any] changes may be marked on the blueprint and you can use the stock plan. However, if the changes wanted are extensive, complicated, or you want something entirely different, it will be necessary to have new plans drawn.” Wilburn estimated that the cost of a new set of plans was usually about four times the cost of a stock set of plans, a substantial difference that would have rendered the purchase of special plans unworkable for many buyers.
So, how is Wilburn connected to the James A. Fulmer House? While family tradition holds that James A. Fulmer, Jr., drafted the house plans for the James A. Fulmer House while he was still in high school (with assistance from one of his teachers), there is substantial evidence that the design for the home was in fact strongly influenced by a mail-order architectural design crafted by Leila Ross Wilburn. Indeed, when they were planning to build what would be their third house in Fountain Inn, Dr. James A. Fulmer and his wife, Emmie Belle Stewart Fulmer, secured and retained copies of Wilburn’s house plan #1561, which was marked with a handwritten notation by Mrs. Fulmer calling the blueprints “unused.” A close comparison of the Wilburn and Fulmer floor plans, however, reveals that the Fulmer House is in many respects a reverse plan of Wilburn house plan #1561, modified to address the specific needs, desires, and aesthetics of the Fulmer family. Various interior design details are also clearly lifted from the Wilburn plans and employed in the Fulmer House.
In spite of these vast similarities, though, it would be somewhat exaggerated to describe the Fulmer House as a complete Wilburn design, and it appears that the Fulmers did indeed follow Wilburn’s recommendations regarding altering her plans to suit their own tastes. While Wilburn intended plan #1561 to be Craftsman in style, for example, with prominent stone features along the front porch, the chimneys, and the front portion of both sides, a brick foundation, weatherboard on the remainder of the exterior, open-tailed rafters, and prominent bracket features, the Fulmers opted instead for a High Tudor Revival, all-brick exterior with decorative brick patterns throughout, arched porch openings, and closed soffits. On its surface, such a change from the Wilburn plans seems strange, but family tradition holds that Emmie Belle Stewart Fulmer hoped to emulate an exterior design similar to the one of a house she had seen located at 1311 Augusta Street in Greenville, South Carolina; indeed, the present Fulmer House owner remembers his grandmother pointing out the Greenville house on several occasions as the inspiration for the exterior style of the Fulmer House. In short, the Fulmer House appears to be a variation on Wilburn plan #1561 dressed up to resemble the house at 1311 Augusta Street in Greenville.
The James A. Fulmer House may be the first property individually nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in South Carolina whose design can be directly attributed, at least in part, to the architectural plans of Leila Ross Wilburn. That said, there is precedent for the individual listing of Wilburn-designed and Wilburn-influenced properties to the National Register, most notably in the Kidd House in Lavonia, Georgia, a 1919 Craftsman-inspired bungalow. Wilburn-designed and Wilburn-influenced properties also frequently appear in National Register residential historic districts throughout the Carolinas and Georgia. For example, two Wilburn-inspired houses—the Kienel House and the Louden House—that were the result of combining two separate Wilburn stock plans are also listed in the National Register as contributing properties in the Collins Avenue Historic District in Acworth, Cobb County, Georgia. Similarly, the William B. King House in Conway, South Carolina, is a Wilburn-designed residence that is listed as a contributing property for the Conway Residential Historic District. Carolina Historical Consulting, LLC, remains on the hunt for Wilburn-designed or Wilburn-influenced properties that are eligible for the National Register and not yet listed, and we'd love to hear from you if you have one.
As part of our research on the James A. Fulmer House, Carolina Historical Consulting, LLC, located and purchased a copy of Wilburn's Small Low-Cost Homes for the South (ca. 1930). While this plan book appears to be held in the special collections of only four repositories throughout the United States, unlike many of Wilburn's other plan books, it has never been digitized for public viewing. With this in mind, we offer it here for viewing by the public. We are also donating our copy this week to the McCain Library at Agnes Scott College, which maintains digital copies of many of Wilburn's other works and has shared them with the MAK Historic District; you can take a look at some of the other Wilburn plan books here.