Vintage Crimson

Adventures in Restoring Antebellum Houses in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Month: April, 2013

The Home Place

“More than any other part of America, the South stands apart.  Thousands of Northerners and foreigners have migrated to it…but Southerners they will not become.  For this is still a place where you must have either been born or have ‘people’ there to feel it is your native ground.  Natives…are conscious of…loyalty that transcends the usual ties of national patriotism and state pride.  It is a loyalty to a place where habits are strong and memories are long.  If those memories could speak, they would tell stories of a region powerfully shaped by its history and determined to pass it on to future generations.”

Tim Jacobson, Heritage of the South

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Southerners understand the deep connections families make to the places they call home.  Most of us have a ‘Home Place’, a house, neighborhood or town where we feel that special sense of belonging.

Many families have lived in 815 17th Avenue, but one family that shared that special connection to the house was the Murfees.  Laura Owen was born in an upstairs bedroom on June 30, 1841 and married James T. Murfee in the front parlor on July 11, 1861.  They endured a war, separation, and reconstruction in the house.  Laura bore eight children, five sons and three daughters, and buried four of them in infancy.

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They saw such extraordinary changes in their lifetimes.  The rise and fall of the Cotton Kingdom, and the coming of a new century.   In July of 1911 their family gathered at 815 17th Avenue to celebrate James. T. and Laura’s fiftieth anniversary.  They look so proud at the center of a group of children and grandchildren.

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James T. Murfee passed away in 1912.  Laura moved to Marion, Alabama to live with her daughter Mary, and sold the old ‘Home Place’ in Tuscaloosa.  Laura died on June 9, 1920, just a few days short of her eightieth birthday.

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“Back in the Good ‘Ol Days”

We have all heard the stories from our parents, grandparents, older aunts and uncles.  You know the ones I mean.  The stories that all begin with, “back in the good ‘ol days” and end with a reference to how inexpensive (and well-made) something was.  It seems that in the “good ‘ol days” almost everything was less than $1.00 and made to last a lifetime.

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I found this newspaper stuffed up one of the chimneys in my antebellum Tuscaloosa house.  I’m not sure if the person who put it there was trying to start a fire or stop a draft.  It is an old copy of The Tuscaloosa News.  The date isn’t legible, but the prices definitely put the publication “back in the good ‘ol days.”  After all, when was the last time you paid $1.98 for a dress?

Some of the products listed are no longer stocked in your local store.  ‘Jimmie-Alls’ were a type of overalls designed for little boys to wear as play clothes.  They could be made in a variety of colors and had wider straps than traditional overalls.  ‘Jimmie-Alls’ could also have either long or short pants.  ‘Wash Suits’ were little boys sailor-suits made from washable fabric.

IMG_0574 It all inspires a feeling of nostalgia, even in those of us too young to have experienced the “good ‘ol days” firsthand.

Haint Blue

I am painting the porch ceilings of 815 17th Avenue a color know in the south as ‘haint’ blue.

‘Haint’ blue originated in the antebellum south.  The color first adorned not the mansions of masters, but the simple shacks of African slaves.  The slaves believed that this special blue would keep evil spirits, or ‘haints’, at bay.   ‘Haints’ were considered by the slaves to be spirits trapped between the worlds of the living and the dead.  These were not quiet, floaty, sorrowful ghosts; ‘haints’ were considered to angry and vengeful.  They were thought to wreck havoc among the living.

However, ‘haints’ were considered to have one key weakness, they cannot cross water.  Apparently, the watery blue-green color of ‘haint’ blue on your porch ceiling has the same effect as surrounding your house with a moat.  It affords easy protection against malevolent spirits.

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But, there is also another southern folk legend attached to ‘haint’ blue, one that was passed down to me by my own great-grandmother.  She taught me that the blue on porch ceilings served a more down-to-earth purpose than spiritual protection.  Apparently, applying sky-blue to your porch ceiling tricks swallows, wasps, and other pests into building their nests elsewhere.

Whichever story you may choose to believe, ‘haint’ blue is a lovely color and a great southern tradition.

Good Hair Day

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Southern women have style  and we love to show it off.  I just got back from the beauty shop (center of small town life in the south) with a new ‘do.  I feel sooo good.  We all know that feeling, a new haircut, a great outfit, or a new pair of heels can just put that extra swing in your step.

Southern homes must share this trait.  I think of the old house as a mature lady who still has her good bones and her attitude, but suffered a run of bad luck.  She was desperately in need of cosmetic help.

In 1988, The Tuscaloosa News printed an article entitled “Designer Strives for Right Color for Historic Homes.”   In the article, Lee Rahe, a Professor in the Interior Design Department at the University of Alabama, is photographed on the second floor balcony at 815 17th Avenue.  He is demonstrating how it is painted the wrong historic color.  It’s like being pictured as a Glamour Magazine “Don’t.”  The paint color on my house is , according to Professor Rahe, neither “authentic nor appropriate.”  How embarrassing…

Fortunately 2013 is giving the house a brighter face.  She is now being painted a color recommended as the best antebellum white by Southern Living Magazine.  The sun is shining and the first wisteria blossoms are scenting the air in Tuscaloosa.  I believe the old house is feeling good in her new ‘do.  We have a way to go, but she will soon be ready to strut.

I am thinking about calling The Tuscaloosa News to demand a follow-up.

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Good Bones

Demolition in a house is like an x-ray.  It gives one a rare chance to glimpse inside and see the ‘bones’ of a house.  Over the past week, I have come to appreciate the ‘bones’ of my house.  They are old bones, but they are strong.

When 815 17th Avenue was built, Alabama was not quite twenty years old.  Our state was just beginning the journey that would take it from raw frontier to cotton kingdom.  Settlers who were described as having “Alabama Fever” poured in to lay claim to the rich farmland that would yield the wealth of the antebellum south.  They brought with them the African-American slaves whose labor would carve that wealth out of virgin wilderness.

Those slaves built 815 17th Avenue, starting with the ‘bones’ I see laid out before me.  The beams, joists, and other heavy timbers were shaped from trees felled here on the plantation that once spread out from this house.  Most of them are still sound almost two centuries later.

My carpenters seemed to feel a kinship with those who had passed before them at this house, and determined to match the quality of craftsmanship shown by their predecessors.  They were so proud to invite me to watch them work.  They are an odd pair, one tall and lean and the other short and stout, but they work together with the easy harmony of men accustomed to each other by long practice.  I settled in a lawn chair as they assembled tools and materials.  First, they put four 2″x8″ planks together to match the dimensions of an original rim joist that had to be removed.  They worked as quietly and precisely as surgeons, bracing the corner of the house, removing the damaged piece, and setting the replacement joist into place. I watched them with admiration.  My talents definitely do not lie in woodworking!  In the end, they walked over to me and we all stepped back to contemplate their work.  They were tired and sweaty, but wore expressions of satisfaction. The ‘bones’ of my house are all strong once again.  They should endure another century – or two.ImageImageImageImage

Spring Tonic

     In many parts of the old south, taking a ‘spring tonic’ was as much a part of the changing season as the flowering dogwoods.  It was the common belief that most folks could do with a good ‘spring cleaning’ after a sedentary winter eating canned vegetables and smoked meats.  Each family member would have their dose to shed the sluggishness of winter. 

     I feel the need for an old-fashioned spring tonic.  Something that would bring me out of the late winter doldrums.  We have finished demolition at 815 17th Avenue, and everything is a mess.  There are holes in ceilings, walls, and floors.  There is sawdust everywhere and the front lawn is scarred and rutted.  It is a little difficult to stay focused on the big changes right around the corner.  By next week, the progress we are making will start to show, but just now things seem a bit gloomy.

     I found this “Sabana Tonic” bottle during the demolition.  It was made by the Jackson Brewery in New Orleans and is stamped 1928.  It was made during prohibition when the brewery was only allowed to produce ‘medicinal’ beer.  In 1934, the product was renamed “Sabana Beer”  and it was produced until 1974.  It is the same product,with different politics.  Little wonder it worked to ‘strengthen the nerves.’  What a wonderful spring tonic.  Maybe a spring glass of wine will do the same for me…Image

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