Vintage Crimson

Adventures in Restoring Antebellum Houses in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Month: July, 2014

“Tuscaloosa Wrecking Company”

After twenty years as the Jemison School, the Drish House was leased to local mechanic Charles Turner.  Mr. Turner used the once proud mansion to house his auto parts and wrecking business.  The once carefully maintained grounds and rooms filed with auto parts, wrecked cars, and just plain junk.  What a decline from the glory days!

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It is ironic that this era of decline produced the most famous image of the house, one that has literally been seen by millions.  Walker Evans photographed his iconic image, “Tuscaloosa Wrecking Company” while working for the Farm Security Administration in 1936.  Evans was touring the South as an “information specialist” and his writing and photography illuminated the plight of a land gripped poverty and hopelessness.   Evans collection of southern photographs, including “Tuscaloosa Wrecking Company” was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1938 to great acclaim.  “Tuscaloosa Wrecking Company” now resides in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Both MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are located in New York City.

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Walker Evans once said he wanted his work  to be “literate, authoritative (and) transcendent.”  His goals were fulfilled in “Tuscaloosa Wrecking Company.”

 

 

“Death Lights in the Tower”

 

 

 

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This morning, several friends notified me that our local news service “Al.com” had photos of the Drish House featured in a story about  13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey by Kathryn Tucker Windham.  This beloved book is being reissued today in a new hardcover edition.  The Drish House is the subject of the second story in the collection, “Death Lights in the Tower”, although, to be fair, the story refers to not one but three ghosts said to inhabit the old house.  13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey was first published in 1969, and I read it while still in elementary school.  Little did I know that one day I would own one of the houses featured in the book!

Here is a link to the Al.com photo gallery:

http://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2014/07/take_a_photo_tour_of_real_site.html

Kathryn Tucker Windham was a delightful story teller who preserved Alabama’s folktales for generations of children (including my own) to enjoy.  Whether you are a believer in ghosts or a skeptic like me, these stories are worth reading over and over again. I will certainly be dragging out my tattered copy of 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey  to re-read “Death Lights in the Tower” today.

“School Bells”

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After investing so much time and effort in restoration of the Drish House,  Judge and Mrs. Cochrane sold it in 1904 to Rev. James George Snedecor, Superintendent of the Stillman Institute, Tuscaloosa’s historically African-American college. As seen in the photo above, the house was beautifully kept at this point in its history.  However, a dramatic change was on the horizon.  The Snedecors were to own the house only three short years before selling it to the city of Tuscaloosa for use as a public school.  The city fathers appropriated $8,000.00 to purchase the house.

The turn of the century saw a large population increase in Tuscaloosa.  In 1890, the census records 4,215 citizens of the city, but that number had grown to 8,407 by 1910.  The population had doubled in twenty years, and there was a great demand for a new school.  The Drish House seemed a good choice.  The house had spacious rooms and a large yard for children’s play.  Thus, the Drish House was transformed into the Jemison School for the next twenty years.

The two decades of use as a school were incredibly hard on the house, and the city government showed little interest in its preservation.   The marble mantels were discarded, the plaster uncared for and the floors worn by the pounding of children’s feet.  The great gasoliers were taken down and replaced with Edison lighting.  The magnificent spiral staircase that led to the tower room was pulled down, and the delicate double ellipse stairs in the cross hall were replaced with a more utilitarian flight of stairs.  Woodwork and decorative elements on the exterior of the house fell into disrepair and the elaborate cast iron gallery porches were removed and sold as scrap. As safety measures for the children, the third floor tower balconies were removed and the front and back galleries were stripped away.  The ornamental garden that Sarah Drish had lovingly installed and cared for was overrun by children until nothing but packed earth remained.  The road leading to the house was widened to accommodate school traffic, sacrificing the stately avenue of elm trees that had once led to the house.

All in all, the Drish House was a tattered shadow of its former glory by the time the school relocated in 1925.  The city still owned the property and prepared to lease it to its next occupant.  Unfortunately, things were to go from bad to worse.

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