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Donnell House

Peter R. Thomas Jr., Auburn University
The Donnell House in Athens, Limestone County, functions as a historic house museum and event space. The two-story structure was constructed by Presbyterian minister Robert Donnell (1784-1855), who came to north Alabama in the 1820s as a missionary from North Carolina by way of Tennessee. The house was used by the Athens public school system for many years as a residence for principals, and it remains on the campus of Athens Middle School.
Robert Donnell House
Donnell was associated with the Cumberland Presbytery and was heavily involved with the religious revivals that swept through Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama in the 1820s. He helped to establish the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Athens and also was instrumental in the founding of Cumberland University in Tennessee. The house was completed sometime between 1849 and 1851 and was situated on property known as Pleasant Hill, which some historians claim consisted of 200-plus acres. Following Donnell's death in 1855 (he is buried in Athens City Cemetery), the house was passed down to his son James Webb Smith Donnell, whose family lived in the home through the Civil War. During the war, the property reportedly was used by the Union Army to quarter soldiers under Col. John Basil Turchin, whose troops plundered Athens in May 1862.
Donnell House Log Cabin
In 1869, the Donnell family lost the home to bankruptcy and was forced to relocate, moving to the extensive Druid Grove Plantation at Greenbrier, just to the southeast of Athens. It was built by the relatives of Robert's first wife, Ann Eliza Smith Donnell, from Virginia. On that property was a dog-trot cabin that dated to the 1830s. This cabin was donated to the Donnell House Board by the owners of Druid Grove Plantation and relocated to the Donnell House grounds. The plantation house, however, burned in the 1930s. A historical marker is located at the Jones-Donnell Cemetery in Greenbrier, Limestone County.
Also in 1869, Judge Joshua P. Coman established the Athens Male College in the house. Ten years later, the boys' school was purchased by the city and merged with the Athens public school system. It would remain part of the city's public school campus until 1889, when it was deeded to the North Alabama Experiment Station and Agricultural School. The house was documented by the Historic American Building Survey in 1935 and was obtained by the city again in 1936 and used as an educational facility. The house served as the residence of the public school's principals until 1970, when the late Julian Newman Sr. retired after serving as principal for 25 years. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 1973, but the Athens school board intended to demolish the home despite its history and condition. In the late 1970s, however, efforts to save and restore the home were implemented and led by local historians Christine W. Edwards and Faye A. Axford and supported by the Limestone Historical Society. In 1994, the house was incorporated under the Donnell House Board, which now holds a 99-year lease on the property from the Athens Board of Education.
Construction on the home began in 1840 and this phase ended sometime between 1849 and 1851. It initially was T-shaped, consisting of a two-story portico across the front section with a central wing. Rooms were eventually added on both sides of the house making it rectangular. The present location of the kitchen, office, and restroom was originally a porch where food was brought into the dining room and also was the location where Donnell held prayer service twice a day. The roof is gabled and there are two exterior chimneys at either side of the home. A third chimney is located in the rear of the central wing. The four square columns at the front of the house form a portico and support a pediment. The main entrance is framed with a transom window over the door, a sidelight on either side, and a rectangular architrave, or main beam. Above the main entrance is a doorway with access to a small balcony fronted by a wooden balustrade.
Donnell House Interior
The interior of the home originally consisted of one room on either side of a central reception hall, but later additions changed the layout. The current entrance hall consists of a classical double-run staircase at the front and a similar staircase at the rear. The bannister rail on the front staircase is curved and there are two carved balusters per tread. Rooms are furnished with antique furniture, rugs, and art. Several parlors, living quarters, the dining room, and the entrance hall are all open to visitors. A museum room contains sheet music, a partially bound bible, and books about Robert Donnell. These items were discovered by Axford within a monument that was erected above Donnell's grave in 1855. The 1970s renovation of the property uncovered an obituary of Donnell, one of his personal bibles, and items that illustrate the everyday life of people who lived in the house during the nineteenth-century and that are now on display. There are also photographs of Donnell's son and his son's wife, Maria Louisa Jones Donnell, which date to before the Civil War. One of the more recent items on display is a desk that was used by Julian Newman.
The Donnell House is located at 601 South Clinton Street. It hosts events throughout the year, such as a Christmas tree presentation during the holiday season. Because it is located on the campus of the Athens Middle School, students have conducted school projects, including interpretive videos that are centered around this history of the house. The house is also available for hosting events such as weddings, receptions, dinners, birthday parties, reunions, and luncheons. Guided tours are available for visitors, but parties must make an appointment to tour the home. There is a gift store on site that sells reproduction boot scrapers made by local metal worker and artist Travis Flemming. The Lure and Love of Limestone County, written by Christine Edwards, Faye Axford, and architectural historian Robert Gamble, is also for sale in the gift shop.
Published:  September 10, 2018   |   Last updated:  September 10, 2018