It’s like the death of a friend, really… saying good-bye to an old house that’s been around for 124-years. It’s especially painful when the house is such a good one. The Cullom House burned to the ground last night. Built in 1891, it has suffered its share of hardships. This was its second fire. The first, in the early 1970s, took the original roof. But with new owners, a detailed restoration promised to return the home to its former glory. Shelley McPhatter and her fiancé, David White, seemed the perfect pair to bring back the beauty of 427 North Main Street.
The restoration seemed particularly important because the Cullom House has always held a place of honor in Wake Forest history. Its most notable resident, Willis R. Cullom, arrived in 1886 to attend college and later joined the faculty as a religion professor. He began teaching regular bible classes on campus, making this one of the first colleges in the nation to offer a course in Old and New Testament. After purchasing what was then known as the Edwards House in 1903, Dr. Cullom raised his family there. His daughters Nancy and Sarah were both born at home, and Nancy later inherited the property.
As the town’s first female postmaster, Nancy Cullom Harris was a talented wife, mother, and career woman. She brought up her sons, Larry and Ricky, in the Cullom House. She also was a gifted writer who gave The Wake Weekly its name, briefly edited the paper, and ran a successful 1950s era personal shopping business. The auditorium at the Wake Forest Historical Museum is named in her memory, as is the Brewer-Harris Garden. Dedicated in October 2014, the garden was made possible by a generous gift from Larry Harris, who has embraced the Wake Forest Historic District and devoted his time, energy, and resources to preserving the beautiful, happy neighborhood of his childhood.
And that’s the final piece of the puzzle, really. That dedication perfectly sums up why this home has always been treasured–even during its more difficult days. It seemed to symbolize the very best Wake Forest has to offer. It stood for the strength of Professor Cullom proclaiming in a sermon, “I am a Baptist therefore I love everyone,” and the courage he showed while battling college administrators to allow dancing on campus. It even had a hint of the whimsy and humor he shared when giving a newspaper interview from the confines of his room. As an elderly invalid who read only with a magnifying glass but still had a merry laugh, he told the reporter, “I’ve heard the wind blow around this old Wake Forest campus many times.” Professor W.R. Cullom died on October 20, 1963 after giving this town a great, grand time.
It’s almost as if the house has somehow let us know these things. That’s the amazing thing about old houses. We connect with them. Today people are driving or walking past. For so many who love this tree-lined street, it’s a very difficult loss. Some are mourning from far away, phoning the museum to see if it’s true. We’ve received a call from Murray Greason, son of the college’s famed 1950s era basketball coach and a childhood friend of Larry’s. We’ve spoken with Gini Tharrington, a granddaughter of Professor Cullom’s who grew up a few blocks away and spent her 1940s childhood producing a terrifically darling newspaper about neighborhood events.
This fire is the sort of story the Woodland News would have been so very sad to publish.
After some discussion, it fell to Gini Tharrington (second from left) to contact Larry Harris in California and tell him the news. They’re cousins, and were together at last fall’s dedication of the Brewer-Harris Garden. During that visit, Larry met with the new owners of the Cullom House. He provided them with original photographs. Thrilled with the restoration, he was looking forward to seeing the job finished. Gini says he was stunned.
In a larger sense, it seems that the home was not finished with us at all. It still had time left. The transformation was well underway and it would have been spectacular.
Spectacular is not a word anyone would have hoped to use when describing the flames that leapt skyward as the house burned to the ground Wednesday night.
So it’s with great sadness we say good-bye to the W.R. Cullom House. The life stories of the people who lived here are part of the fabric of Wake Forest. Their words, writings, and photographs are preserved in the museum’s archival collection.
We hope one day to see another home built here. But it will not be the same. Along with the rest of Wake Forest, we’ve watched the W.R. Cullom House being loved, left, and loved again.
Like all good history, this is a story we’ll always remember.