Vintage Crimson

Adventures in Restoring Antebellum Houses in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Category: Drish House

“Very Fashionable”

The Drish House has hosted many elegant parties in its long history. Ladies in fashionable attire are nothing new. In this tradition, I would like to share a beautiful fashion shoot featuring lovely models in the Drish House. Thank you to Robert Sutton and my friends at Tuscaloosa Magazine.

http://issuu.com/tuscaloosanews/docs/tuscmag_fall2014_cropped/81?e=13664462

“An Energetic, Ambitious Woman, With … Ordinary Opportunities”

Another famed American photographer who visited the Drish House was Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864-1952).  Frances, or “Fannie”, was a one of the earliest American female photographers and photojournalists.  She was also something of a  ‘character’.

 

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Fannie Johnson was the only surviving child of wealthy and well-connected parents and an independent, strong-willed woman.  She studied art at the Academie Julian in Paris and was given her first camera by George Eastman, the inventor of Eastman Kodak cameras.  She received early training in photography and dark-room techniques from Thomas Smillie, director of photography at the Smithsonian Institution.  Still in her twenties, Fannie opened a studio in Washington DC and made many famous portraits, including those of Alice Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington. The self-portraits above and below show that she was also not afraid to turn the camera lens on herself.  As her fame and reputation grew, she received more and more important commissions.  Eventually becoming the official White House photographer for the Harrison, Cleveland, Mckinley, T.R. Roosevelt and Taft administrations.

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In 1897, Fannie published a article in Ladies Home Journal entitled “What a Woman Can Do With a Camera.”  Apparently, this woman could do quite a lot.  She urged women to consider careers in photography. “To an energetic, ambitious woman with even ordinary opportunities, success is always possible,” she wrote, adding that “hard, intelligent and conscientious work seldom fails to develop small beginnings into large results.”  Now there is a advice we all need to take!

In the 1920s, Fannie became increasingly interested in photographing architecture, motivated by a desire to document buildings or gardens which were falling into disrepair or threatened by development.  In 1933, she was given a grant by the Carnegie Corporation to document the early architecture of Virginia, and she was to receive five more Carnegie grants to document the architecture of the American South. Collectively these photographs (more than 7,100 images) are referred to as the “Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South.”  They are housed at the LIbrary of Congress.

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As part of the Carnegie Survey, Fannie visited Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1939 to photograph the Drish House. Her images are stark and majestic.

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Fannie Johnson was named an honorary member of the American institute of Architects for her work to photographing historic buildings.  She moved to New Orleans in 1945, having acquired a love for the South, and she continued working there until her death in 1952.

“Once in a Lifetime”

If you are around my age, chances are that “Once in a Lifetime”, the Talking Heads existentialist classic from the album “Remain in Light”, was one of the defining songs of your youth.  Now that I am (sigh) middle aged, I think of it less in terms of sacrificed ideals, and more in terms of sheer reality.  We all ask ourselves David Byrne’s question, “How did I get here?”   Or, in my case, how did I come to possess this beautiful old house?  Here’s the story.

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Southside Baptist Church flourished in the Drish House for many years, even adding two additions (seen in the above photograph) to accommodate their congregation.  However, as more of their membership moved away from the downtown area, church attendance began to decline.  Without funds to maintain the entire church property, the congregation retreated into the large addition and sealed the off the Drish House, using it for storage.

In 1990, the church sought estimates to tear down the house. However, the $30,000 in estimated demolition costs was well above their budget.  Unable at last to maintain any part of the property, the church leased it to the Heritage Commission of Tuscaloosa County.

The Heritage Commission continued using the Drish House as storage for architectural elements salvaged from other houses, including some items believed to have been made by Drish slaves. They boarded the windows and doors, and for seventeen years the house was closed, enormous and silent. At last, the Heritage Commission lost its funding, and the house was once again in danger of demolition.

In 2007, city inspectors found the property to be in complete disrepair and threatened to condemn it.  The Drish House had been invaded by bats, birds and other pests.   The floors were covered in refuse and some areas had rotted through.  The drop tile ceiling had collapsed in several rooms.  The electricity and plumbing no longer worked.  The Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society (TCPS) stepped in just in time to save the house from demolition.

The house had to be cleaned and stabilized. Where once ladies in silk gowns and gentlemen in fine coats had walked its halls, workers in Haz-Mat suits were found cleaning toxic debris.  The roof was repaired, the house resealed and the floors patched. The awkward additions were torn down, and the house stood alone again in the middle of its circular lot.

In 2008 the house was host to a special event for the University of Alabama.  Over 100 faculty and students had a chance to tour the the house which had been inaccessible for so many years.  In another instance, over 300 attendees turned out for “An Evening With Dr. Drish”, a fundraiser hosted by the TCPS.

In 2013, I entered the picture.  The TCPS was seeking a new owner for the Drish House, and I was approached by its Executive Director.  We entered negotiations and in May 2014 I became to new owner of a piece of Alabama’s history.

“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house…

And you may ask yourself

Well..How did I get here”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Southside Baptist Church

 

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During the Great Depression, there was a revival in American spirituality.  Many churches were expanding as their memberships grew.  Originally a ministry of First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, Southside Baptist Church was organized in 1921 as an independent congregation with 73 founding members.   In 1940, the church purchased the Drish House from the City of Tuscaloosa for $4,000.00.  Services began there in 1942.  The two year interim was spent altering the house to fit the needs of its new owners.  The Drish House was transformed once again.

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The Baptist church did not allow ornamentation, so the elaborate plasterwork was ripped away.  The walls separating the cross hall from the double parlors were removed so that the newly enlarged space could be used as a sanctuary.  The wide heart pine floors were replaced with narrow oak planking.  The dining room was converted into a church kitchen, with an original door cut in half to become a ‘Dutch’ door to allow for serving food.  In the kitchen, the wood floors were covered in linoleum and a door was fitted into the former dining room window.

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The interior of the upper story was completely gutted and rearranged into a dozen small Sunday School rooms around the perimeter of the floor.  The ceilings were dropped with the installation of acoustic tile and fluorescent lighting was installed.

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The few remaining shutters were removed from the exterior of the house, along with the bulk of the brackets and trim.  Even the columns were re-plastered to remove their delicate fluting. Only the top of the tower was left untouched. The six-over-six windows were removed and replaced with large paned two-over-two windows.  Dr. Drish would have been shocked at the changes to his former home, but he would have been pleased to meet its new occupants.

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I have enjoyed hearing from some of the former congregants of Southside Baptist Church; they have such heartwarming memories. Some are found at http://www.facebook.com/…/remembering-southside-baptist-…

It seems to have been a wonderful church with amazing people and a deep spiritual life.  To me, this community of Christians seems underserved in the documented history of the Drish House and I would like to change that.  If you were a member of Southside Baptist I would love to have you share your stories or photos!

“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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