Restoring Whispering Oaks

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Century-old Opelika landmark undergoing renovations

By Morgan Bryce
Staff Reporter

The Whispering Oaks house on Geneva Street is getting a face lift. In its history, the house has served as both a residence and, most recently, a restaurant, but has sat vacant since the restaurant closed nearly two years ago.

However, the house is making a comeback, thanks to owners Carlton and Mary Clifton. The bulk of the interior of the house needs no renovation, but the exterior will require extensive work.
“The main problem with the house is around the top of the building, the internal drains. We’ve had those fixed three times but they weren’t fixed properly,” Carlton said. “The water still drains back through them, ruining the wood and ceilings up there in the upper part of the house. But this time, we’re doing it the right way, so it shouldn’t happen again.”

Renamed “Whispering Oaks” by the Cliftons, the house is still commonly referred to by locals as the Trawick-Tatum House, and was constructed in 1917.

The house belonged to the Trawick family until 1959, and in 1961, Dr. O.H. Tatum purchased the house.

A house fire in 1963 forced the Tatums to move, and after a two-year renovation, they returned. The Tatums lived there another 16 years, and sold the house in 1979.
Over the next few years, plans of turning the house into an office space failed, and eventually, the house was used as a bed and breakfast called “Under the Oaks.”
In spring 1990, the Cliftons purchased the home, and opened up the Whispering Oaks restaurant in September.

According to the Cliftons, the plan was to open up a bar-and-grill type restaurant, but those plans changed when they examined their potential customer base.

“Our plans for having a bar changed when we saw that a lot of our customers were church people, and we strictly went with a restaurant, and ran a bed and breakfast for a little while too,” Carlton said.

The Cliftons would eventually expand to having Whispering Oaks restaurants in two other locations, in Auburn and Tuskegee. According to Carlton, the 2008 recession forced him and Mary to consolidate the business to the one location in Opelika.

The original plan, according to Carlton, was to run the business for 20 years, then retire. However, in 2012, they were faced with a dilemma.

“Mary’s health wasn’t good at the time, and I didn’t want to run the business by myself. But because our customers really had nowhere else to go and eat, we decided to just continue on,” Carlton said. “We went another couple of years, and then we told them, we have to close.” They closed their doors for good in December 2014.

The length of time until the completion of renovations is uncertain, as well as the future use of the house. They have discussed using the house as a large foster care home, or future residence, but Mary said seeing the improvements to the house is special.

“We love this house, and fixing it up right is something we’ve been wanting to do for a while,” Mary said.

The renovations to the house have not gone unnoticed by the community, as both the younger and older generations have expressed their appreciation to the Cliftons.

“I think the house is a great part of the community because it displays the history of the town. It’s amazing to think about all the people who have been in and around it,” said William Cahill, an Opelika resident and Auburn University senior. “The renovation means that future generations can continue to enjoy the beauty of the house as well as the history that comes with it.”
Former Whispering Oaks patron and admirer of the house Cheri Corser said she had wonderful memories of both the house and former restaurant.

“We had my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary at Whispering Oaks, and the food was down home, Southern cooking. The food was as good as my grandmother’s cooking, and the house was a beautiful place to have a restaurant. I’m very glad to hear it’s being restored,” Corser said.

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