PLACES in PERIL Alabama Historical Commission by alicejenny



PERIL 2011


                                                             Elizabeth Presbyterian Church,
                                                             Sumter County, 
                                                             (All photos by Robin McDonald)

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           or the past seventeen years, representatives            Also, the village of Mignon, home of the old Avondale textile
           from the Alabama Historical Commission (AHC),           mill, is in danger of disappearing, as are several old movie
           the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation             theaters statewide that were once gathering places for com-
           (ATHP), and Alabama Heritage have publicized a          munity entertainment.
list of the state’s most endangered historic sites whose exis-        These sites are threatened by neglect, deferred mainte-
tence is so tenuous that they may not survive another year.        nance, fire damage, and shifting demographic trends reflect-
This annual ritual binds us to Alabama’s history in a visceral     ing the move of citizens from rural areas to bustling towns
way, as we consider the places that mark our progress on the       and cities. While development often creates hope for threat-
road to becoming the people we are today. The loss of even a       ened buildings in town centers, it can also imperil some of
single property will diminish the ability of future generations    our state’s most important rural structures.
to understand this complex story.
    The sites and structures chosen for the 2011 Places in Peril   Elizabeth Presbyterian Church,
reflect broad themes that have animated Alabama’s history           Livingston, Sumter County, 
since its inception, and each location reflects an important            As settlers moved into the newly opened lands of the Ala-
part of the state’s past—a part that could easily disappear. The   bama frontier, they brought with them the institutions and
threatened ceremonial mounds of ancient aboriginal settle-         traditions that had sustained them in their former homes—
ments of the Choccolocco Valley or the quiet elegance of the       including, for many of them, their religious traditions. In ad-
ruined Elizabeth Presbyterian Church in Sumter County,             dition to fostering a relationship with God, churches became
for example, remind us of the central role religion and faith      instrumental tools for building communities and a sense of
played in the lives of many of those who have abided here.         kinship, easing the sense of loss of loved ones left behind.
Those who chose to settle in the state during the early nine-          In November 1838 a group of settlers in southern Sumter
teenth century exhibited a dogged determination, and the           County gathered at a plot of land owned by the Knox family,
shadows of their material success can be seen in many dete-        establishing the Elizabeth Presbyterian church. Seven years
riorating antebellum homes. Bermuda Hill in Hale County            later, the congregation moved its church nearer to the town
and the Jemison-Turner House in Talladega County—both              of Gaston, a bustling little village that was more centrally lo-
constructed in Alabama’s early years by men determined to          cated for the membership. In 1858, due to the congregation’s
build wealth in the southwest frontier—stand in neglect and        growth, the members replaced the original log structure with
a state of near demise.                                            a wooden frame, two-story structure.
    Along with the structures representing the more private            Ruined churches populate the Alabama landscape as re-
aspects of past Alabama life, the list also highlights the need    minders of the rural roots of those who moved on to larger
to restore more public buildings, like the Gurley town hall,       cities. Elizabeth Presbyterian Church, a building where gen-
which is in desperate need of a new owner, or the Windham          erations of Alabamians gathered to celebrate life and mourn
Construction building abandoned in Birmingham. This                loss, is just one of many such structures that deserves a spot
structure, designed by an African American architect for a         on this year’s Places in Peril list.
black-owned construction company in the racially segregat-
ed South of the early twentieth century, now lies unoccupied       Powell School, Birmingham,
and a target for vandalism. Also forsaken is Birmingham’s          Jefferson County, 
endangered Powell School, a focal point of Birmingham’s               As the broad outlines of the new industrial city called
early efforts to ensure that industrial leaders provided an         Birmingham began to fill out and take form, its early lead-
education for workers’ children.                                   ers responded to calls to create a free school system for
    Though many of the listed places are specifically limited       the children of the city’s workers. Capt. James R. Powell,
to one building or site, a few represent broader areas in need     Birmingham founder and president of the Elyton Land Com-
of attention, like Anniston—promoted as a model city of the        pany, donated four blocks for the city’s first public school in
New South and a site, where brave Freedom Riders helped to         1873. The first building used for the school, named Powell
combat racial prejudice and segregation. Today, city projects      School but also known as the “Free School,” was replaced in
threaten various locations in this important historic city.        1888 with the current structure, which retained the name.

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For more than a century, thousands of Birmingham school
children learned in its classrooms.
    Though a majestic building that symbolizes the commit-
ment of Birmingham’s early business leaders to the educa-
tion of city children, the Powell School’s future is currently
unknown. Vacant since 2003, a January 2011 fire destroyed its
roof and consumed most of the interior. Community leaders
and historic preservationists, however, argue that the historic
building can be restored and returned to use. Captain Powell
once described Birmingham as “The Magic City,” and political,
business, and civic leaders are working hard to retain this bit
of the city’s early magic.

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The Jemison-Turner House,                                        grounds surrounding Bermuda Hill contain subsurface
Turner, Talladega County, c.                                 remains and merit further exploration through an archaeo-
   With the removal of Native American tribes from Ala-          logical survey.
bama lands, white settlers poured into the area to make their
fortune in cotton. Born in Lincoln County, Georgia, Robert       Avondale Mill Village,
Jemison brought his family and slaves to Talladega County in     Sylacauga, Talladega County, c. 
1837 and began acquiring property in the rich bottom lands          Associated with one of Alabama’s most significant early
bordering the Choccolocco and Cheaha Creeks. Joined in           twentieth-century textile operations, Mignon, the Avon-
Alabama by six of his siblings, Jemison achieved great wealth    dale mill village in Sylacauga, now represents the demise of
and political influence (and Robert Jemison Jr., a descendent     this once-great industry. Founded in 1897, Avondale chose
of the original Robert Jemison, became instrumental in the       Braxton Bragg Comer, a successful businessman and future
development of Birmingham). The house eventually was             governor of Alabama, to be its president, and the company
acquired by the Turner family, who established a mill nearby,    became known for its progressive labor policies.
and it remained in their ownership until the 1960s.                 Constructed in the mid-1910s, Mignon is typical of simi-
   Robert Jemison’s Talladega plantation remains significant      lar villages found throughout Alabama, which provided af-
for its unusual architecture and its exceptionally fine and in-   fordable housing and fostered a strong sense of community.
tact Federal period interiors. Deteriorating due to abandon-     With the decline of the textile industry, however, the village
ment and lack of funds, the Jemison-Turner Home offers a          became a shadow of its former self, retaining only vestiges of
tremendous opportunity to restore one of our state’s truly ex-   the design and character that defined it in the past. Recently,
ceptional early nineteenth-
century residences.

Bermuda Hill,
Hale County, c. 
   Sitting on a hill over-
looking the old Prairieville
to Greensboro Road, Ber-
muda Hill is a product of
an era when ambitious men
believed the road to riches
ran through fluffy white
rows of cotton. The house
sits upon land originally
owned by the prominent
Manning family, but in 1845
William W. Manning sold
the tract of land to William
Weeden of Madison County. The home was built around this         Opposite page, above: Jemison-Turner House. Opposite
time, though records do not indicate whether Manning or          page below: Bermuda Hill. Above: Avondale Mill Village.
Weeden built Bermuda Hill.
   Regardless of who built the house, the structure reflects      the Avondale Mill was destroyed by fire, emphasizing once
the refined taste and wealth of its early owners. Threatened      again the fragility of the historic mills that still exist in our
by neglect and deferred maintenance, the home features a         state. The efforts of former and current residents of Mignon
significant example of a Canebrake plantation house based         must be met with support from the larger community if this
on the I-house form. Some scholars, however, believe the         once-thriving village is to be preserved.

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                          THE JEMISONTURNER HOME
                            OFFERS A TREMENDOUS
                           OPPORTUNITY TO RESTORE
                           ONE OF OUR STATE’S TRULY
                             EXCEPTIONAL EARLY

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Downtown Anniston Historic District,                                 hall. The building is still in use today as the city’s fire station,
Calhoun County                                                       but it is on the market for a buyer.
   Historic resources, dating from Anniston’s heyday as the              Recognizing the value of the old town hall, the Gurley
“Model City of the New South” through its turbulent civil            community stands by, ready to assist a new owner in a viable
rights era, are threatened by a proposed federal courthouse          development project. Located sixteen miles east of Hunts-
project and the construction of a new criminal justice center        ville, one of the fastest growing regions in the nation, the
for the city. One location in particular—the
site of the May 14, 1961, attack on a busload
of Freedom Riders—is in imminent danger of
destruction due to the construction project.
   The courthouse plan also requires the de-
molition of sixteen more buildings that con-
tribute to the Downtown Anniston Historic
District, including an intact streetscape along
Gurnee Avenue that served as the backdrop
for the initial Freedom Rider bus attack. Pho-
tos of the bus when it was firebombed on the
outskirts of town became one of the iconic
images of the civil rights movement.
   Additionally, six other structures will be
demolished, including the Anniston City
Land Company Building (1890), one of
three signature buildings constructed by the
town’s founding leadership to attract inves-
tors to the city. The effectiveness of local and federal historic     Opposite page, above: Gurnee Avenue, Anniston. Oppo-
preservation protection will be tested by both projects. The         site page, below: Old Gurley Town Hall. Above: Windham
courthouse plan is subject to a review through Section 106           Construction Company Office Building.
of the National Historic Preservation Act. The proposed
justice center also is located within a locally designated his-      town hall offers multiple opportunities for development, and
toric district. Preservationists at the local, state, and national   the building qualifies for historic rehabilitation tax credits.
level hope to ensure the protection of the significant Gurnee
Street streetscape and the restoration of the Anniston City          Windham Construction Company Office
Land Company Building                                                Building, Birmingham, Jefferson County, 
                                                                        In a city that drew the eyes of the world for its aggressive
Old Gurley Town Hall,                                                defense of segregation, the Windham Construction Company
Gurley, Madison County,                                          Office Building is a remarkable reminder of successful African
  Nestled in a green valley surrounded by the peaks of the           American businesses that flourished in the “separate-but-
Appalachian mountains, the town of Gurley grew up around             equal” society imagined by Plessy v. Ferguson. The Windham
a water and coaling station that served the Memphis and              Office Building was home to Windham Brothers Construc-
Charleston Railroad. Even though the National Register of            tion Company, a major black construction firm that erected
Historic Places listed the town in 2003, one of its structures       some of the most significant buildings in Birmingham’s black
remains in danger.                                                   communities. Wallace Rayfield, the second formally educated
  Since 1895 the old Gurley town hall has supported the              African American architect to practice his profession in the
community’s commercial life. The building itself has had             United States, designed the building. Though listed on the Na-
many lives, including being used as a hardware store, a print        tional Register of Historic Places, the structure is unoccupied
shop, a lodge, a vaudeville and movie theater, and as the town       and consistently threatened by vandalism and other crimes.

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                           THE GURLEY COMMUNITY
                          STANDS BY, READY TO ASSIST
                           A NEW OWNER IN A VIABLE
                            DEVELOPMENT PROJECT.

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                                                                                  Motion Picture Theaters,
                                                                                        While fifty-inch flat-screen televisions
                                                                                    and home entertainment systems are re-
                                                                                    quired by many people today, there was a
                                                                                    time when American social life revolved
                                                                                    around going to the movies. Movie the-
                                                                                    aters formed a focal point in the cultural
                                                                                    life of most Americans for decades, but
                                                                                    by the 1960s this form of entertainment
                                                                                    had been upstaged by television. Many of
                                                                                    the grand movie palaces were abandoned
                                                                                    or succumbed to the wrecking ball, as
                                                                                    theaters of all sizes desperately tried to
                                                                                    hold on. While many small town theaters
                                                                                    continued to limp along through the 1970s
                                                                                    and 1980s, the vast majority of Alabama’s
                                                                                    historic movie houses had gone dark.
                                                                                        Few building types hold such broad ap-
Boiling Springs Native American Sites,                          peal within their communities. Accordingly, many cities and
Choccolocco Creek, Calhoun County                               towns have found creative ways to save and repurpose their
   When the Creek Indians of the Choccolocco Valley             historic theaters. In Birmingham, the Alabama Theatre, built
signed the Treaty of Cusseta in 1832, they gave up lands        in 1927 as a silent movie palace and known as the “Showplace
Native American tribes had inhabited since 10,000 BCE.          of the South,” has been restored as a performing arts center.
The remnants of their aboriginal settlement are scattered       Similar conversions have occurred in Mobile, Decatur,
throughout the Choccolocco Valley, and researchers have         Montgomery, Russellville, Talladega, Tuscaloosa, Winfield,
identified multiple archaeological sites that provide invalu-    and other towns. Many other historic theaters, however, still
able insight into the lives of Native Americans over the past   await restoration. (Below, Fain Theater, Wetumpka)
twelve thousand years.
   Experts have recently focused their at-
tention on the significance of an ancient
stone and earthen mound in Oxford, Ala-
bama.  Some  scholars believe the stone and
mound served ceremonial functions  at a
Native American burial site that lies beneath
a contemporary municipal sports complex.
The town of Oxford, however, is struggling
with the proper way to balance their desire
for economic development with its respon-
sibility to protect and preserve the cultural
history of these early inhabitants. A balanced
solution includes full compliance with appli-
cable federal and state laws, a complimentary
use of historic and cultural resources, and
good-faith consultations and negotiations
with appropriate Native American tribes.

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