Vintage Crimson

Adventures in Restoring Antebellum Houses in Tuscaloosa, 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”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

“Glory Days”

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Monroe Place, the Drish plantation that included the Drish House, was sold at public auction in 1869, as Dr. Drish had died an impoverished man.  The plantation and house were purchased by a Northport, Alabama merchant and lawyer named E. A. Powell.  Mr. Powell graciously allowed Sarah Drish to continue living in the house until her death fifteen years later.   Sarah’s stepdaughter, Catherine, moved out of the house after her father’s death and went to live with one of her sons. Once one of the wealthiest women in Tuscaloosa, it is easy to imagine that Sarah Drish lived out her life in lonely genteel poverty, as her once grand house fell into disrepair.  Although it is hard to guess her emotions about the house, as she grieved for her husband and former life, I am sure she was saddened by its decline.  Perhaps she saw the house as a metaphor for her own aging.  They were both the products of a South that no longer existed.

After Sarah’s death in 1884, the house soon caught the eye of a another lady, a friend of Sarah’s, who was to give it an injection of new life.  Mr. Powell sold the estate to The Tuskaloosa Coal, Iron and Land Company in 1887.  The company subdivided the old plantation and started building houses on the lots.  The house itself was sold to Judge William Cochrane.  He  and his family subsequently undertook a major renovation.  On May 3, 1888, The Tuscaloosa Gazette reported “Mr. Cochrane is having valuable improvements made to the old Drish place which will ad much to the grandeur of that beautiful mansion.” The renovations took about a year to complete.  The work was primarily on the interior of the house, since no large scale architectural changes were made. Mrs. Cochrane likely modernized the kitchen and redecorated.  I like to think that she and I are kindred spirits, both us seeing potential in the Drish House!  The Cochrane’s were to live in the house until 1903.

 

 

“Just the Facts, Ma’am”

There is a lot of speculation involving my new project, the Drish House. It is an old and complicated house, and has certainly had an unusual history.  Over the years rumors have spread concerning possible paranormal activities.  Many of these are quite entertaining, but I thought it best that we begin with “just the facts.”   In this post, I wanted to share the “facts” concerning the builder and original owner, John Drish, and his family.

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Dr. John Drish was born in Virginia in 1795, where he trained as a physician and married a wealthy widow, Catherine Washington.  He had one daughter born to this marriage, also named Catherine.  Unfortunately, the first Mrs. Drish died while her daughter was still quite young .

Following his wife’s death,  Dr. Drish left his daughter with relatives in 1822 and came to seek increased fortune in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  He married another wealthy widow, Sarah Owen, in 1825.  There are many first-hand accounts of his good looks and charm – he certainly used them to his advantage in marriage!

Dr. Drish used his second wife’s money to buy 160 acres on the southern border of Tuscaloosa and dubbed the new plantation “Monroe Place.”  He began construction on his house in 1837.  Originally, the house would have quite plain, in the Federal style, but it was one of the largest houses in the county.  Catherine Drish came from Virginia to live with her father and step-mother and the family moved in the new house.

An avid builder, Dr. Drish was not content to just live in his new house.  In the 1840s, as Greek Revival style swept the South in the wake of Greek independence, Drish added massive porticos of columns to the house.  He chose the more formal Ionic style for the front and the Doric style for the rear.   Later, in the 1850’s as Italianate architecture came into vogue, Drish added a large, three-level Italianate tower to the house, along with many new trim details.  The house fit his stature as one of the wealthiest men in the state.

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The Civil War devastated the fortunes of the South’s planter elite, and John Drish was no exception.  The house survived the war, likely because the invading Yankees had received news that Confederate forces under General Nathan Bedford Forrest were nearby.  However, there was no money left for upkeep of the grand house and it fell into disrepair.  Dr Drish died in 1867 and Sarah followed in 1884.  They are buried in Tuscaloosa’s Greenwood Cemetery.

There are many more “facts” to come before we delve into other realms.  Be patient and let the story unfold.

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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“Hey Ya’ll, Watch This!”

 

“Hey Ya’ll, Watch This.” is more than the punchline to an old joke, it s a comment on southern character.  We in the south are nothing if not stubborn.  Just because something is difficult (or crazy) doesn’t mean we won’t jump in and give it a try.  So, I would like to announce that I have taken on a task thought by many to be impossible – renovation of Tuscaloosa’s famous Drish House.

I am sure I can hear ya’ll laughing…and these may be famous last words.  But, I have fallen for another old house and I am determined to find it a place in our new century.

 

 

 

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view of the front (north) facade.

I have been the owner of this old house for about two weeks, but it has been on my mind since I first toured it last fall.  My friends at the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society had owned the house since 2007 and were looking for someone to guide it into the 21st century.  I am honored that they have entrusted me with this task.

There will be much more to come – “Hey Ya’ll. Watch Me Do This – Again.”

 

 

The Gravitas of Old Houses

 

 

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The Gravitas of Old Houses

Look around, we are all frantic.

Seeking something we have collectively misplaced.

Wasn’t it here a minute ago?

Our appetite for more coexists with the emptiness of loss.

Always in motion, we are frenzied and doubting.

Where will we seek shelter and solace?

What breath can soothe us?

We seem exposed, lonely and fretful.  We can’t sleep.

Fear and absence haunt our dreaming.

Always moving, there lives in each of us a desire for steadfastness.

We need the peace of place, the mercy of history.

The dignity and virtue of the past.

The only skill we have mastered is leaving.

Carelessly we have left behind the things that could heal our spirits.

Charity, community, hospitality, piety lie abandoned in the garden.

Needing solidity, we seek old walls, heavy with stone and brick.

Heavy with the weight of lives lived long ago.

Breathing air filled with dust motes like flecks of gold in slanting sun.

The gravitas of old houses.

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