Vintage Crimson

Adventures in Restoring Antebellum Houses in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Category: University of Alabama

“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”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Many Faces of the Drish House

The Drish House has a colorful past.  It has been a home, a school, an auto parts store and a church.  Here are some historic photos of its many faces.  Views of both the front and rear facades are included.

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The Husbandry of Houses

Husband: 2. management and conservation of resources

Husband, in its archaic sense, denotes a caregiver.  Someone who watches over and tends to something else: an orchard, a crop a herd, a house.

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Almost a year has passed since I completed renovations on the Foster-Murfee-Caples House, and this is the role I have stepped into.  Instead of being a ‘housewife’, I feel that I have become a ‘house husband.’  I am the caregiver to my old house.

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Of course, there are still many projects to finish at 815 17th Avenue.  My ‘to-do’ list seems only to grow.  New projects are added quicker than old ones can be deleted.  As well, there are the ever-present challenges of cleaning, maintenance and seasonal chores. But, the spirit behind both the projects and the everyday chores is one of watchfulness and care.

Friends often ask how things are going with my old house (perhaps you have been among them). I have learned to gauge from the tone of their voice whether they want the short answer, “just fine”, or the long one.  There are always stories to tell.  There are always victories to laud or messes to bemoan.

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So, I live with an old house in my life.  I visit weekly.  I troll antique and thrift stores looking for a list of odds and ends.  I chat with the students who live there about history and preservation.  We talk about the importance of honoring the past and caring for our legacy of historic buildings.  They are always polite, but I am sure I sometimes bore them.  I manage and conserve.

My task is endless, but by no means thankless.  I feel the house is living now in a way it didn’t before restoration.  I am satisfied that it again plays a vital role in the community.  It shelters young lives and adds new chapter to its long story.  It breathes.  It has been here for 176 years and all is well within.

First Game Day!

College football is a dominant cultural force in my state.  People are identified not so much by race, religion,or even gender, but whether they are for Auburn University or The University of Alabama come football season.  It’s more than a sport, it’s a  an obsession.

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The University of Alabama first fielded a team in 1892 and the Crimson Tide has played every fall since except for 1918 , when the season was cancelled for World War I.  For the most part, those have been good seasons for Alabama fans, yielding 15 National Championships.

The first home football game of the fall is a special time for fans of The University of Alabama Crimson Tide.  The weather is cooler, there are parties in every house and parking lot in Tuscaloosa, and the mood is festive.  It’s a time to see old friends and meet new ones.  Everyone comes together for the tradition of spending Saturday in the South tailgating and then heading to the game in storied Bryant-Denny Stadium.

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Denny Stadium was first opened in 1929 and , at that time, it seated 12,000 fans,  It was named for University President George Denny.  The stadium was renamed Bryant-Denny Stadium in 1975 to honor Alabama’s legendary head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.  The stadium has undergone many additions in it’s history.  Now, it is the fifth largest stadium in the United States and seats 101,821.   Trust me, that’s a lot of people yelling “Roll Tide!”

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Last Saturday the Crimson Tide defeated the Rams of Colorado State University 31-6.  It was a good night in Tuscaloosa.  And, it was made even more special for me because, after the game, I walked home to my old house.  It was such a pleasure to turn the corner and see the house with lights ablaze.   There was music pouring out onto the sidewalk and the laughter of happy young people enjoying the mld weather, each others company, and a special Saturday night.

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The Devil Is in the Details

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Clearly, this table has not been used for dining in quite some time.  For the past several months, my dining room has been “command central” for the renovation of my old house. There has been a surprising amount paperwork involved.  It is sweat equity of a different kind.

Today I celebrated a milestone along the paper trail.  I completed the third and final phase of my application for a Historic Preservation Tax Credit. This tax credit is a wonderful program administered by the National Park Service.  If your renovation qualifies, you can receive a Federal tax credit worth 20% of your total qualifying renovation costs.

There are three phases of the application.  Each of them involved lots of photos, explanations, schematic drawings and math!  I am a historian, and you may have guessed that math is not my strong suit.  As I was completing the invoice totals for phase three, I overheard one of my sons cautioning another to avoid the dining room, “because mom is doing math in there.”  Nevertheless, I perservered and mailed the application this morning.  I am a bit nervous, after all a substantial amount of money is at stake, and I do have two sons at university.  Wish me well.

Soon, my dining room will revert to its original purpose.  I will organize all my records and pack them away.  A day will be spent dusting and polishing the furniture.  But the first meal eaten there will be bittersweet.  I will miss the chaos of renovations.

“The Crimson White” – Thanks!

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“The Crimson White” is the student-run newspaper of the University of Alabama. It has been published since 1894.  Today’s edition includes a wonderful story about my old house.   You can read the article at:

http://cw.ua.edu/2013/08/21/plantation-home-to-175-years-of-history/

Thank you to everyone at the paper for their kind words!!

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A Student’s Prayer

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As the student residents of my old house prepare to resume their studies at the University of Alabama, I would like to offer a prayer on their behalf.  Many things have changed in our world since Thomas Aquinas wrote this prayer in the 13th century, but our desire to learn and understand ourselves and our world has remained constant.

A Students Prayer

Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, origin of all being,

graciously let a ray of your light penetrate

the darkness of my understanding.

Take from me the double darkness in which I have been born,

an obscurity of sin and ignorance.

Give me keen understanding, a retentive memory, and

the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.

Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations and

the ability to express myself with thoroughness

and charm.

Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and

help in the completion

I ask this through Christ our Lord.

Amen

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10 Lessons I Have Learned From My Old House

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Move in day at 815 17th Avenue was a success.  The old house is bursting with life as the student residents prepare for a year of study at the nearby University of Alabama.  I think the house is happy to greet them and re-enter the mainstream of life in Tuscaloosa.

With the bulk of renovations behind me (there is still a lot of troubleshooting ahead, as well as a phase 2 renovation plan and landscaping), I have been reflecting on the lessons I have learned during the process.  Four months went by so fast, but the old house was a good teacher.  Here are ten things I learned:

1. Be Patient.  Patience is virtue that is not often lauded in our hectic lives.  But, working in an old house taught me that some things demand patience.  Much of renovation work is repetitive and tedious.  However, the results are worth it!

2.  Do Your Best Work.  Even if my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. McDonald, isn’t hovering over my shoulder with a gold star to give out, it really does matter that I do my best work.  The house will continue long after I am gone, and I want to leave a legacy of good stewardship for the future.  So, even when i was tired and dirty beyond belief, I always gave my best.

3. Be Humble.  Humility is a virtue learned quickly in old houses.  I quickly discovered that the renovation couldn’t be “all about me” or my ideas.  To be successful, especially on a tight tim line, requires teamwork.  NO egos allowed on the job site!

4.  Pay Attention.  Look closely at the house, and things will reveal themselves to you.  I have learned so much about architecture, construction, history and humanity in these last months.  Stop and really look at the house.  There is so much to learn if you focus.

5.  Book Learning Isn’t Everything.  In the South, people are frequently divided into two groups, those who have “book learning” and those who have “common sense.”  It is the rare person who has both, so each of these groups harbors contempt for the other.  Until I started the old house renovation, I was firmly in the “book learning.” group.  I have a MA in History, but spent my studies in the clean, temperature controlled library rather than wielding a hammer or paint brush.  I hope I have gained some “common sense” during the last few months, as well as dropped a few pounds.

6. Age Gracefully.  As my 50th birthday looms, I have learned from the old house that aging doesn’t make you irrelevant.  Like the house, I might have a few wrinkles and get cracked up by life, but these are the price of experience.

7.  Offer Yourself Joyfully.  Do what you can and give what you can with a smile on your face.  Open your doors even when things are messy.  It is always better to invite life in than to shut it out.

8.  Relax.  It is easy to stress over details that don’t really matter and no one else will ever notice.  It wont be perfect, but that is O.K.

9. Trust Your Gut.  Being a “book learning” person means I have the tendency to run to the library when confronted with hardship or difficulty.  I can research almost any topic right to death.  I have learned that it is frequently better to look at the reality of the situation squarely and go with my instincts.

10. Celebrate.  My old house is 175 years old this year.  That is quite a milestone, and I want to enjoy every day of it!

Southern Ladies

Jennie Baker Caples (Feb 13, 1895 – Oct 17, 1994)

Married to Fred Caples (Oct 7, 1861 – Oct 20, 1934)

Burial – Tuscaloosa Memorial Park

I have recently been privileged to hear from several friends who lived in  my old house while they were students at the University of Alabama in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  I have really enjoyed all the memories they have shared.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s my old house was owned by Mrs. Jennie Baker Caples.   She is the ‘Caples’ portion of the house’s official name, the Foster-Murfee-Caples House.  Mrs. Caples and her sister, Sarah, are depicted with their nephew, Dave Sherman, in the photo below.   My thanks to Dave for providing this wonderful photograph.  They are standing on the front lawn of my old house.  Dave is wearing his ‘Million-Dollar Band’ uniform.

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By all accounts, Mrs. Caples was a real Southern Lady.  Southern Ladies were once more common in Alabama than they are today.  The real Southern Lady was a woman of strength and character, not the simpering belles depicted in most books and movies.  Think Ellen O’Hara rather than Scarlett.  Southern Ladies settled a frontier, built a civilization, endured a Civil War, suffered defeat and survived a painful reconstruction.  They lived through a great depression, two World Wars and the Civil Rights Movement.  They marched through history in pearls, high heels and tasteful cosmetics.  They were pillars of their communities, churches, and families.  And, through it all they remained genteel.

Genteel: a. well-bred or refined; polite; elegant; stylish: b. having an aristocratic quality or flavor.

To be a Southern Lady was to embrace all that life has to offer, the good and the bad, with style.

I wonder if my generation still embodies the qualities of the true Southern Ladies.  Few of us wear heels to the Piggly Wiggly, but I hope that (underneath our yoga pants) our spirits still burn as brightly as those of our mothers and grandmothers.  Do you agree?  I would love to learn what ya’ll think constitutes a true Southern Lady in 2013.

Three Mysteries – Solved!

Every old house has an element of mystery, and 815 17th Avenue is no exception. There are so many things about the house that have had us scratching our heads. This week I found the explanations for three of those mysteries.

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The first mystery is: when was the house divided into six apartments? I know that the house was built in 1838 and occupied by the same family until 1912. I always suspected that it was divided into apartments soon after, but had no clues about an exact date. The answer to this mystery involved the claw-foot bathtubs.

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This is a photo of the bottom of the claw-foot tub, a perspective rarely seen. It is clearly dated July 17, 1915. Mystery solved! The bathrooms were added in 1915 and that was likely the year the house was divided – no family home would need six bathrooms in that configuration. I am so happy we are refinishing the old plumbing fixtures. They will be gorgeous and keeping them really helps maintains ‘soul’ of the old house.

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Mystery number two: When the house was last painted in the late 1980s, why were the third floor gables left off? I have really puzzled over this question. Did they run out of paint? Or, lose momentum (something i can empathize with)? Why paint two stories and then just quit?

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A chance internet search yielded an answer, which was seconded by my lovely neighbor. The house was painted by a local crew using scaffolding. Safety regulations precluded building the scaffolding tall enough to reach the third floor gables. Rather than rent a personnel lift, the painting was halted. Another mystery solved.

The third mystery: what are those openings at the bottom of the four first floor windows that face the front porch? At first, I thought of them as transoms. Alabama is very hot and humid in the summer (which lasts from May-September) and I thought it logical that ventilation was the purpose. But why have them at the bottom instead of the top of the windows? A visit from an architect friend yielded the answer to this mystery. The openings are called “jib doors’ and when they are opened and the windows are up, they provided a way to move easily between the double parlors and the front porch.

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It is a good week of work at the old house.

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