Southern People

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey isn’t the first nationally acclaimed wordsmith to make her home in Decatur, Ga. Between 1892 and 1916, Charles W. Hubner (1835-1929), the “Poet Laureate of the South,” lived  at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Gordon Street in the city’s southwest quadrant. After a couple of decades in Atlanta, Hubner had a home built in the fashionable East End subdivision, one of the Atlanta Suburban Land Company’s residential ventures in unincorporated DeKalb County along the streetcar line linking Decatur and Atlanta.

Charles W. Hubner. Southern World, April 1, 1884.
Charles W. Hubner. Southern World, April 1, 1884.

The Baltimore, Md., native served as a Confederate telegraph officer in the Civil War. After the war, Hubner worked for Western Union before going to work as an Atlanta Constitution editor. He had served in Atlanta during the pivotal 1864 battle for the city and he returned there to live in 1870.

Hubner and his first wife, Ida, moved to a home on what is now Piedmont Avenue in downtown Atlanta. After Ida died in 1876, Hubner bonded with his late wife’s friend and their neighbor, Mary Frances Whitney. She quickly filled a void by caring for Hubner’s children. The Whitneys lived around the corner from Hubner and the two households merged as the widower grew closer to Mary Frank, as Mary Frances Whitney was known. The couple married in 1877.

Hubner was friends with Joel Hurt, who developed Atlanta’s first streetcar suburb, Inman Park. Between 1878 and 1880, the Hubners bought several lots on Foster Street (later Edgewood Avenue) near property owned by Mary Frank’s parents, Joshua and Elizabeth Whitney. In 1886, Hubner was one of the Atlanta and Edgewood Street Railroad Company’s owners listed in the legislative charter creating the company.

Mary Frank Hubner bought two unimproved East End lots in May 1892. Later that year, in December, she secured a $1,500 loan from the Equitable Building Association to build the wood two-story house at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Gordon Street; it was completed by the summer of 1893. The 1893 Atlanta city directory showed Hubner living in East End and on June 16, 1893, Hubner briefly became the residential subdivision’s first U.S. Postmaster.

Hubner home, April 2012.
Hubner home, April 2012.

The Hubners lived in a diffusely developed suburb. Their neighbors in the 1890s were a mixture of homeowners like themselves and renters. Real estate speculators, carpenters, book keepers, well diggers, and a physician lived in some of East End’s earliest homes in the 1890s. At two stories, the Hubner home was one of the largest and most expensive homes in East End. Although no photographs appear to have survived that show East End streetscapes around the turn of the twentieth century, the few remaining homes built after the Hubner house all are smaller, one-story cottages. Sanborn Map Company fire insurance maps published in the first half of the twentieth century confirm this observation.

Sanborn Map Co. fire insurance map. Hubner home lot outlined.
Sanborn Map Co. fire insurance map. Hubner home lot outlined.

East End and neighboring Poplar Springs were desirable middle class suburbs. The trolley made for an easy commute into Atlanta and the East Lake Country Club was a popular social hub for adults and their children. Hubner family narratives document life in East End at the time. Mary Hubner Walker, Charles and Mary Frank’s granddaughter wrote this account in her 1976 book, Charles W. Hubner, Poet Laureate of the South:

Rose completed her studies at Miss Hanna’s School for Young Ladies (Smillie Seminary), and developed into a highly intelligent young woman, a gifted reader,  and a poet in her own right. She was intensely loyal to her parents and brothers. Rose was a popular member of the young set which gathered for parties, dancing, boating and picnicing [sic.] at East Lake Country Club. She and her friends considered a buggy ride with their current beau to be an exciting evening. Such a trip took them all the way to Decatur, where they rode around the square and headed back home.

Hubner was working as an editor for Franklin Publishing when he moved to East End. “They published several magazines and papers which I edited, among them I recall ‘The Cultivator’ and the ‘Architect’,” he wrote in a memoir on file at the Atlanta History Center.

Hubner spoke widely throughout the South on poetry, poets, and his experiences in the Civil War. He was friends with Joel Chandler Harris and Sidney Lanier and was known for his warm personality. In the 1880s he was considered a candidate to become the official narrator for Atlanta’s Cyclorama painting and when the monumental artwork moved to its permanent home in the city’s Grant Park in 1892 Hubner delivered the opening address. In 1895 he became a librarian.

In 1909, while Hubner lived in the East End home, the University of Virginia awarded him the Poe Memorial medal. Hubner delivered a poem at the Poe centenary celebration and the poet frequently spoke about witnessing Poe’s Baltimore funeral as a child.

Despite his age, Charles continued working at Atlanta’s Carnegie Library into his eighties. The Hubners lived in East End until 1916: “The long trip by street car from Poplar Springs was tiring him too much,” wrote Mary Hubner Walker of the decision to move to Atlanta. In May 1916, Mary transferred title to the house and lots to Charles yet the family retained ownership of the property until 1919. That year Charles executed an agreement to sell the property to carpenter Luther J. Nolan. The deal required Nolan to pay $25 down and $,1500 at 7% interest payable monthly.

Nolan defaulted on the loan in 1921 and DeKalb County seized the property in 1922 after Hubner sued. Hubner was awarded $1,99.44 plus $213.75 costs. Nolan was the highest bidder at the sheriff’s auction — $500.00 — and he reacquired title to the property. Nolan then sold it for $3,000 to James B. Swaringen for $3,000 and the house has remained in the Swaringen family since October 1922.

Charles W. Hubner. 1925  Atlanta Constitution photo.
Charles W. Hubner. 1925 Atlanta Constitution photo.

Mary Frank Hubner died in 1927. Charles wrote a brief poem in his unpublished autobiography:

She came to me a happy, soulful wife,
For fifty golden years she shared my love,
God called her home to her eternal life,
A glorious angel now she lives above.

The Poetry Society of the South in 1928 named Hubner “Poet Laureate for Southern States.” Hubner was 93 years old: “On the physical side, Mr. Charles William Hubner is a chunky little man, with a ruddy face, gray hair and a mystical brown eye,” wrote the Atlanta Journal in its article on the honor. Hubner died from pneumonia the following year and was buried in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery. In 1940, the Atlanta City Council named Hubner’s poem, Atlanta, the city’s official poem.

Decatur annexed Hubner’s East End home along with hundreds of other former Atlanta Suburban Land Company tracts in 1916. Though Hubner’s memory remained alive in neighboring Atlanta, he was quickly forgotten in neighboring Decatur. None of the city’s published histories mention the poet and a 2009 historic preservation survey incorrectly noted that Hubner’s time-worn Victorian home was anonymously built in the 1880s. It is the oldest surviving home in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood and, according to DeKalb County land records, only three families have ever owned it.

View Hubner House in a larger map

Credits: All images digitized from the originals by the author. The photo of Hubner's former home was taken by the author in 2012.

David Rotenstein

David Rotenstein is a Maryland historian. He writes about architectural and industrial history and has worked in historic preservation and public history since 1984. He is completing a book on gentrification and housing history in Decatur, Georgia. In a past life he also wrote about music and popular culture for newspapers and magazines.