The Subrosa at Newbern, AL (Memorial to Samuel Mockbee)

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Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee was an architect and a co-founder of Auburn University’s Rural Studio located at Newbern, AL.  He created a program dedicated to building houses, community centers and other structures for the poverty-stricken communities in Hale County, Alabama, while introducing his students to the social responsibilities of their chosen profession.

Samuel Mockbee was diagnosed with leukemia in 1998 and died December 30, 2001 from complications of the disease.  During the last two years of his life, Samuel Mockbee dedicated substantial time to designing a project called Subrosa. This would be a concrete structure that’s buried in the ground.  It would have a long entrance tunnel that opens into a circular room which has a round opening in the ceiling and a “turtle” pond in the center of the floor that contains make-believe turtles. There would be a bench located in a recessed section along the wall and above this bench would be another opening in the ceiling that contains a canopy of roses. Embedded in the wall at each end of the bench there would be a metal tube that extends around the wall of the room.  Individuals would sit on opposite ends of the bench under the roses and pass secrets back and forth by whispering into the metal tubes.

Subrosa would be a meditation space. The term “subrosa” is derived from the ancient Romans who would hang roses from the ceiling to enforce confidentiality among those present. If anyone from the gathering divulged information from a “subrosa” meeting, the others had the right to kill that person and his family. In Mockbee’s mythology, the turtles in the pond are the guardians of the secrets of Subrosa. If someone betrays those secrets, the “turtles” will come after them.

After his death, Sambo’s drawings of Subrosa were interpreted by his daughter Carol, who constructed the structure during her time as a Rural Studio student.

The Subrosa is located on the grounds of the Auburn Rural Studio beside the Bodark Amphitheatre at Newburn, AL (GPS coordinates N32.59794,W87.53442).


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