Salvaged Craftwork Mother Lode
Garlan and Heather Gudger have grown their Cullman storefront into one of the top five suppliers of architectural antiques in the country.
ABOVE At their shop with their dog, Chance, Garlan and Heather Gudger have built Southern Accents from a garage-based weekend hobby of Gudger’s dad into one of the top five sources in the country for architectural antiques.
Southern Accents Architectural Antiques in historic downtown Cullman is a treasure trove of vintage doors, windows, columns, wrought ironwork and other salvaged architectural elements, attracting restoration specialists, building contractors, architects, interior designers and artisans, as well as admiring members of the general public.
Whether you’re looking for a particular piece of vintage or reproduction hardware or just dreaming of claw foot tubs and superbly crafted wood mantles, Southern Accents has become a must-see for Alabamians and visitors interested in architectural antiques.
The thriving Southern Accents enterprise features a downtown showroom, restoration shop and storage rooms, totaling about 23,000 square feet, estimates Garlan Gudger Jr., co-owner of the business with his wife, Heather. Southern Accents’ 30,000-square-foot reclaimed wood warehouse, formerly a basketball gymnasium, is located about a mile away.
“We supply not only building professionals but also artists and artisans who want to work with vintage materials,” Garlan Gudger says.
The Southern Accents workshop both restores salvaged architectural antiques and produces rustic frames and other novelty items from its stock of reclaimed wood. “We have a talented shop team, and I have great respect for the fine work they do,” Grudger says.
The enterprise’s architectural antiques are frequently used for both restoration of historic buildings and brand new custom construction. They also are often repurposed for salvage art or intriguing one-of-a-kind décor items, not only by designers for high-end homes but also by creative do-it-yourselfers.
“We love seeing the creativity of our clients,” Grudger says.
The Gudgers’ ongoing interest in handmade craftsmanship motivated them to help organize a series of Southern Makers artisan shows. “It’s amazing the level of skill by artisans across Alabama,” Gudger says. “We wanted to create an outlet to showcase their work and have been thrilled to see a number of our makers go on to greater success.”
The couple has taken the small part-time business started by Gudger’s father in 1969 to new levels of success during the past 18 years, and they have a vision of going even farther in the future.
“Interest in what we offer has always been strong, but with the advent of Pinterest on the internet and ‘American Pickers’ on the History Channel, the popularity of architectural antiques is stronger than ever before,” Gudger says.
Southern Accents, which has been acquiring architectural antiques from Mike Wolfe of “American Pickers” for several years, was part of the show in January, and Wolfe can be spied on some past “American Pickers” episodes sporting an iconic Southern Accents T-shirt.
“Mike and I have become friendly over the years. So when a mansion was being torn down in his hometown — Bettendorf, Iowa — he asked us to do the salvage work, because he knew we are experts in the industry and would do it right,” Gudger says.
“We never want to take anything of architectural significance out of a house unless it’s the only way of saving historical pieces.”
Southern Accents had a great experience working with “American Pickers,” Gudger says. He was particularly impressed with how pleasant Wolfe was to work with and how he approached the Southern Accent team. “When he came down to visit our shop, he treated everyone like they were special. He really is as nice in person as he is on the show,” Gudger says.
And Gudger expects that exposure on “American Pickers” will propel Southern Accents to even wider recognition and increased business, both with its target audience as well as the public in general. “We’ve worked hard to build our reputation over the years and have come a long way from the family garage,” Gudger says.
ABOVE Doorknobs, mantelpieces, doors, light fixtures and drawer pulls are among the zillions of pieces housed in the Cullman shop. Many of them are restored by skilled craftsmen in the firm’s nearby workshop.
The firm’s roots date back to 1969, when Garlan Gudger Sr. was the full-time dean of students at nearby Wallace State Community College. The elder Gudger developed the paying hobby of rescuing, restoring and selling beautifully made architectural elements from old homes being torn down in the area.
“Folks knew he sold out of his garage and were always coming to our house on Saturday mornings. Finally, several years later, when I was about three years old on my mother’s hip, she told my dad he needed to find a better place for doing business,” the younger Gudger says.
So the senior Gudger established a small storefront in the Vinemont area north of Cullman, where he worked on the weekend and had one employee. By the early 1980s, the business had grown so much that the senior Gudger moved to the current showroom location on Second Avenue in Cullman.
“I had a wonderful time growing up in the store, playing with my Super Man among the doors, mantles and windows,” says the younger Gudger, who also accompanied his father on his searches for salvage items or selling them at markets in Nashville and other cities.
After graduating from Auburn with a degree in building science in 1998, the younger Gudger came back to Cullman and took over the family business in February 1999. His father kept a helpful hand in the family business and was always there to offer advice, Gudger says.
“Early on I considered moving Southern Accents to Nashville, with the goal of becoming one of the best architectural stores in the nation,” he says. Instead he opted to stay in family friendly Cullman, 50 miles north of Birmingham, where it was less expensive to operate the business but still accessible to customers from the Southeast and beyond.
Southern Accents acquired several properties adjacent to the original downtown Cullman showroom over the years, as demand increased. “During the past 18 years we have become one of the top five providers of architectural antiques in the country. My dad is really proud of how far we have come,” Gudger says.
The Gudgers’ sons, Garlan III, nicknamed “Tripp,” and Pierce, have grown up with the business, playing and working at the shop, Gudger says. “Tripp is more focused on sports at this point but his younger brother is showing great ability in art and interest in the shop. I think one or both of them may end up taking over Southern Accents, but that’s a long ways off.”
For fun, the Gudger family spends their off time together picking through antique shops and salvage sites, whether on a day trip or during their vacations. “Our store has become our lifestyle. It may sound crazy but we sincerely enjoy it,” Gudger says.
Kathy Hagood and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood and he in Birmingham.