Vintage Crimson

Adventures in Restoring Antebellum Houses in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Month: March, 2013

Key to the Past


 The key to understanding the past to realize that William Faulkner was right when he wrote: “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

     In 1861, Marmaduke William’s granddaughter, Laura Owen, married James T. Murfee in the front parlor of 815 17th Avenue. He was a professor at the nearby university and she was heiress to the plantation surrounding the home. The massive sliding doors that separated the double parlors would have been open and guests would have spilled out into the grand entrance hall as the happy couple exchanged their vows.  Slaves would have gathered in the quarters to celebrate with their own party, perhaps including gifts of meat and whiskey.  It would have been a festive occasion, although celebrated under the shadow of war. 

     I’m standing here in the front parlor, in front of the fireplace where they were married all those years ago, wondering if they could foresee that the war would sweep away the world they knew. And, pondering how much that world is still present in the hearts of southerners.  We carry the germ of nostalgia for a place and time none of us has ever experienced.  Little girls in Alabama still imagine themselves as hoop-skirted belles and little boys as heroes in gray.

     The newly-wed Professor Murfee was a soldier of the Confederacy and so were his young students.  In addition to teaching them mathematics, he also commanded them in the university’s cadet corps.  As the bloody years of war dragged on and older students left to join Lee’s army and fight for the south, Professor Murfee stayed behind to command a corps of brave boys, mostly 15-16 years old.

     In 1865, Union forces reached Tuscaloosa and Professor Murfee rallied his troops on the front lawn of his home.  I can still make out a slight depression that marks the spot a massive oak once stood around which they gathered. They marched off to meet a more-experienced, better-equiped army of Federal troops.  Two of those boys never saw another sunrise on the campus they loved.

     I can’t help but wonder what they felt on that long ago day.  Did they know the war was all but lost?  Did they still hope they could salvage the only way of life they knew?  Were they afraid?  Did Laura shed a tear as they marched away?  They are all long gone, but the house is still here.  The house saw it all unfold, and keeps its secrets.





Time on the Cross


These hand-forged nails were used during the original construction of the house almost two centuries ago.  I found them while cleaning up and have been carrying them around in my pocket to remind me of what life was like for the people who built 815 17th Avenue.

The house was built in 1838 using slave labor.  The men and women who built it the property of Mr. Marmaduke Williams.  He gave the house to his daughter, Agnes, as a wedding gift.

One of those anonymous slaves was the blacksmith who forged these two nails and hundreds (thousands?) like them.  Other slaves would have been busy making bricks, planing timbers and carving trim work.  The work of many hands went into building this grand old home.

What was life like for the slaves whose labor created such beauty?  I really can’t imagine a life without the freedom to live my dreams or without the security of knowing my family can’t be separated at the whim of a capricious master.  We know so little about the lives of those African-American men and women.  Even their names are lost to history.  Yet, the work of their hands endures.

I hope they enjoyed working in the spring sunshine, as I am doing now, to create beauty.  I hope they were proud of their work.  They built something strong and beautiful, and I wish they could know it has endured to carry forward their voices from the past into the future

I promise to do my very best to preserve their legacy.  And, to never forget what they suffered during their ‘time on the cross’.

Binding Our Futures Together

Buying a house is akin to getting married.

There is a solemn gathering with a presiding official and everyone wearing nice clothes.  There is a lot of arcane ceremony and formal language.  Papers are signed, payment is rendered.  Everyone shakes hands and congratulates the new owner.

I was very nervous before the closing.  I didn’t sleep much the night before.  It’s such a big step.  All the inspections were good, but how much can you really know about what lies behind walls or under floors?  What if this is all a mistake?  I couldn’t eat breakfast and had too much coffee.  Nevertheless, I found the resolve to sign my name to a check while managing to smile. A ring full of keys was my reward.

Afterwards, it was just us, the house and I, enjoying the spring sunshine.  Ready for the challenges ahead.


Discovering a Treasure

My son found the old house first.  

To be rather large, it seems to have often gone unremarked.  I have met so many people there who exclaim; “I can’t believe I have gone down this street a million times and never noticed this house.”  I like to think the house was waiting for the right person, because my son noticed while walking home from class one night last fall.  He paused long enough to send me a quick photo and this text: “It must be ours!”  Maybe he was intoxicated by the moonlight and magnolias (surely nothing else).  He is such a romantic.  But, then agin, so am I.Image


Do you believe in love at first sight? The first time I saw the old house, something it it called to me. It wasn’t exactly saying “make me pretty again.” Maybe at a certain age houses are like women of a certain age, we have outgrown being ‘pretty’ in favor of being gorgeous, experienced, powerful […]

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