PLACES IN PERIL: ALABAMA’S ENDANGERED HISTORIC LANDMARKS FOR 2005
Gregory, Melanie Betz
THIS ANNUAL COLLABORATION BETWEEN THE ALABAMA HISTORICAL COMMISSION AND THE ALABAMA PRESERVATION ALLIANCE AGAIN BRINGS THE STATE’S THREATENED LANDMARKS TO THE FOREFRONT.
FROM ARCHITECTURAL LANDMARKS to forgotten landmarks, historic gas stations to historic districts, Alabama’s rich heritage can be found in both public places and tucked-away comers of the state. Sadly, far too many of these resources may be lost to future generations. Since 1994 the Alabama Historical Commission (AHC) and the Alabama Preservation Alliance (APA) have sponsored “Places in Peril,” a program identifying Alabama’s threatened landmarks.
The twelve historic sites selected this year illustrate the many reasons our landmarks need preservationists to come to their aid. One of the major threats, a lack of awareness of a place’s historical significance, threatens historic gas stations statewide. These buildings are rapidly vanishing and generally ignored because they are such a common pan of the landscape; most people do not realize that these buildings can tell us about our past. A building’s deteriorated condition can also obscure its importance. The Neuman-Wright house in Greenville, the Plattenburg house in Selma, the Varner house in Tuskegee, the Puckett house in Hareclle, the Martin house in Eufaula, and Barton Academy in Mobile have all suffered from both neglect and a shortage of funds eo restore them. Inappropriate development frequently threatens many historic resources-especially those located in or around urban areas. The Davis farm complex in Oxford, the Ware House and Barn in Clay, the Rosedale Park Historic District in Homewood, and the Christian Valley Baptist Church in Coatopa are all sites endangered by encroaching new development. Some buildings, like portions of the Old Pratt Gin Factory in Prattville and historic gas stations statewide, become imperiled because they are considered obsolete.
OLD PRATT GIN FACTORY
In 1833 New Englander Daniel Pratt set up a gin shop on the banks of Autauga Creek, and from this small beginning grew one of the South’s first major industrial endeavors. Two of the operation’s early buildings-the 1849 Sash Door and Blind Factors and the 1854 Gin Factory with its 1896 addition-are among Alabama’s nineteenth-century treasures. Unfortunately, these buildings are not suitable for modern methods of gin making, and Continental Eagle Corporation, the successor to Pratt’s company, currently uses them for storage. The company is sympathetic but does not have the funds to invest in the buildings. Local preservationists are raising money to stabilize them. Without these funds and volunteers, the structures may deteriorate beyond repair.
Neglect and lack of funds threaten Barton Academy, one of Alabama’s finest early Greek Revival buildings and one of the nation’s oldest remaining public school buildings. Designed in 1836 by nationally prominent New York architects James Gallicr, Charles Dakin, and James Dakin, Barton Academy won national acclaim for its architectural excellence. In spite of its overwhelming significance, there is little public sentiment for the building.
Lacking routine maintenance, the building deteriorates further, and the cost of repairing it increases. The Mobile Board of Education, which uses the building as its central office, thinks it cannot address the maintenance issues without provoking public outrage over thecost. The board wants to relocate its offices, leaving Barton Academy without a firm plan for reuse. Local advocates suggest it could be an arts magnet school-a good use for Alabama’s first public school building.
Its parlor once had two grand pianos; its dining room could seat twenty. Its last occupant was William Varner, a judge. But now the Varner House in Tuskegee is vacant and boarded up, and no one seems to have a use for it. Built in 1853, the one-story Greek Revival house is one of the finest antebellum places in town. Located between Tuskegee University and the Main Street Historic District (and also within eye-shot of “Grey Columns,” the president’s house), the Varner House provides a visual link between those two historic districts. It is a building worth saving.
CHRISTIAN VALLEY BAPTIST CHURCH
The passion for Greek architecture that swept Alabama in the mid-nineteenth century expressed itself in a full range of building types. Occasionally it erupted in bold and high-style buildings, but more often it appeared in simplified forms. Here, in the Christian Valley Baptist Church, simplicity and plainness prevail, giving die circa 1870 structure the feel of the ideal rural Alabama church.
Although the building is structurally sound and in good condition, its growing congregation is thinking of expanding the current facilities. Most recently, the church has proposed demolition of the old building in order to construct a new one nearby. Local preservationists are actively protesting this decision, but the future is uncertain. A promising solution may be to move the structure to a new location where it can begin a new life.
UPDATE: At pros rime, a new location has been found for the Christian Valley Baptist Chunk.
Few places in East Alabama have as long and dense a history as the Davis Farm. Situated on what has been a prime location for more than twelve thousand years, the farm-with its 1850s plantation house, outbuildings, and multiple archaeological sites-may be elbowed out by a new contestant for this long-coveted land. Since the Ice Age in 10,000 BCE, the natural spring’s never-ending flow of water attracted the area’s inhabitants. By the 1500s, a major town centering around a thirty-foot-high temple mound occupied the site. In the 1800s Colonel Thomas J. Caver carved out his eighteen-hundred-acre plantation here. The 1850 plantation house is the most prominent feature of the farmstead. The house boasts sophisticated, high-ceilinged interiors with fine woodwork, tall-paneled doors, and handsome mantelpieces that mix Federal and Greek Revival details.
Within sight of a major interstate interchange, the farm and its main house would make a very distinctive welcome center for Galhoun and the adjacent counties. A local group, Friends of the Davis Farm, champions this idea. Otherwise it may be replaced with yet another dreary repetition of commercial developments.
WAREHOUSE AND BARN
Preservationists in Jefferson County’s Clay community have a great idea. The 1905 Jayford Ware House and Barn would make a terrific centerpiece for a proposed city recreational park. Volunteers could help refurbish the farmhouse and use it to celebrate the historical and environmental uniqueness of this rapidly developing area. Pam Traylor of the Clay Historical Committee is spearheading the movement. According to Traylor, “The farmstead is one of the few historic places left in Clay. It would make a great hands-on living history museum with indoor-outdoor activities, educational programming, and a community archives library.” Current city plans are to demolish the house, barn, and outbuildings and build a soccer field on their location. Since the site has just over a hundred acres, there is room for both. With the preservationists’ solution, everyone can win. “This is a legacy we can pass on to the future,” says Traylor.
Named Rosedale Park-possibly because of a tum-of-che-century nursery-this early Birmingham neighborhood nourished several generations of African American homeowners. One of the first developments marketed to African Americans in Shades Valley, the community reached its height in the early twentieth century with hundreds of bungalows, shotgun houses, and gable-front cottages gracing the area’s tree-lined streets. A streetcar line, a school, churches, and stores, along with a high percentage of owner-occupied homes, lent vitality and stability to this community.
Now less than thirty percent of die original 110-acre development remains in residential use, and many of the houses have fallen on hard rimes. The widening of a major traffic artery, coupled with frequent spot rezonings, have encouraged continuing commercial encroachments. An active neighborhood group helped get the district listed in the National Register of Historic Places. They have requested a moratorium on rezoning and are eager to see their neighborhood improve.
Only ninety-three years after its completion, the Plattenburg House was grand enough to be recorded by the 1935 Historic American Building Survey. Built in 1842, the rare raised cottage with Greek Revival and Italianate details served as the center of Wesley Plattenburg’s plantation. It is one of the few structures shown on the map of the Battle of Selma. The city grew up around the house, which is all that remains of Plattenburg’s twenty-two-hundred-acre plantation.
The cottage’s charms have attracted many fans and helpers. The Alabama Historical Commission, local preservation groups, and volunteers have given time and money to stabilize it. With a loving owner, it could once again be as beguiling as any showplace in Selma.
Although currently in need of restoration, Greenville’s 1840s Neuman-Wright-Dees House is a fine dwelling with a two-story porch and balcony displaying a wheatsheaf balustrade and a double-door entrance leading into a central hall and spacious rooms. James and Mary Ann Hall were early owners, but the house is more commonly known for its later occupants, Charles and Rosa Neuman (1870), and James and Katie Wright (1888). Today, the Neuman-Wright-Dees House is one of Greenville’s oldest surviving antebellum homes. If it is restored and a new use for it is found, the house can again return to its former grandeur.
The impact of volunteer labor cannot be underestimated. When the house was slated for demolition, preservation advocates sounded the alarm by recruiting volunteers to help stabilize the house. Concerned citizens agreed to work without pay after learning they were immune from liability lawsuits under the state Volunteer Service Act of 1991. A structural engineering firm, Weatherford and Associates of Montgomery, also donated time and expertise for a detailed inspection and assessment in June 2003. These emergency repairs stayed the demolition order, but only temporarily. Now the current owners want to sell the property to someone interested in completing the restoration.
Saving a neglected structure always takes love, determination, and money. And when any of those runs out, the building is in danger of being lost. Such is the fate of this 1879 home. Captain John O. Martin was one of only a few Alabamians who chose to build a home in the Second Empire style. The distinctive appearance of this style, which many people associate with haunted houses, makes the Martin House a favorite with local adults and children alike.
Recently, more dian forty volunteers pitched in to dean and stabilize this beloved local landmark. Unfortunately, the Eufaula Heritage Association simply does not have die money to move forward. A local realtor has waived the cost to list it, but it needs a loving owner soon if the building is to become a home again and not a ghost.
UPDATE: A new owner has purchased the Martin House.
HISTORIC GAS STATIONS
Everybody has seen them-the simple old gas stations that once dispensed full service with a smile-now standing empty. Some have found new uses, like the old Sinclair station that presently serves as a restaurant in Montgomery. Many, however, were abandoned as the local community disappeared or the traffic moved to a newer highway. And there they remain, overlooked, but still important to our state’s history.
A recent AAA Traveler article on old gas stations notes, “Architecture doesn’t always have to be grand to say something about the past. Sometimes it reflects a technological change that revolutionized the way people lived.” Probably no other twentieth-century invention more recently transformed our environment and lifestyles than the automobile, and gas stations are tangible reminders of this history of change. Many historic gas stations can be made useful again, while retaining their nostalgic appearance. The key to their preservation is raising awareness of the way gas station designs evolved-and what these changes can tell us about the automotive age.
Much of a community’s history is written in its buildings, and Hartselle’s 1896 Puckett House is no exception. The house tells many stories-most of them about the city’s heyday as a thriving market town on the L&N Railroad. One of the oldest structures in town, it was home to Robert Warren Puckett, a leading merchant, and his wife Emma Josephine. In 1935 the house hosted their daughter Ruth’s wedding to famed author and civil rights advocate William Bradford Huie. Huie later immortalized the scene in his 1940 novel Mud on the Stars, which Hollywood eventually portrayed in the movie Wild River. Now deteriorated and vandalized, the Puckett house appears to have lost its standing as a valued community storybook.
UPDATE: The current owners had been searching for the person who would return the house to its former prominence, but it was demolished just before publication of this article.
ELANIE BETZ GREGORY joined the staff of the Alabama Historical Commission in the fall of 1989. A native of Illinois, she holds a B.A. in art history from Western Illinois University and a M.A. in architectural history and historic preservation from the University of Virginia. Ms. Gregory is currently working with the Endangered Properties program.
Ellen Mertins currently serves as Director of Outreach for the Alabama Historical Commission. She joined the staff in 1970. She has a B.A. in history from Tulane University.
For further information about the Places in Peril program or contributing to the Endangered Property Trust Fund, please contact the Alabama Historical Commission, (334) 242-3184, www. preserveala.org, or the Alabama Preservation Alliance, (334) 834-2727, email@example.com.
Copyright University of Alabama Press Fall 2005
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