By Elizabeth Brown
As I’ve blogged about antebellum architectural styles in Montgomery, I’ve been surprised by the number of times the examples that came to mind were moved, altered to the point they weren’t good examples, or worse, gone entirely. One of the old axioms of historic preservation is that poverty is its best friend (for a while, anyway), and Montgomery has always been a relatively prosperous place. We have remodeled and demolished our built environment more than places like Charleston or Savannah, so that what we have now is more of a mixture of eras. In the world of built environment, that can either mean excitement or confusion – we got both.
How can we find out how things used to be? Where can we find a record of our past? The Montgomery County Historical Society has made it part of their mission to collect photos of early Montgomery, and Landmarks Foundation of Montgomery also has good information about what used to be here. We’re lucky to be in the capitol city, because the resources of the state’s Department of Archives and History are at our fingertips as well. With the advent of the computer age, even the Library of Congress is a click or two away, and there you will find the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) in the archives called “American Memory.”
HABS started as a way to put out-of-work architects to work during the Great Depression. It was one of the Roosevelt administration’s “alphabet programs,” like the WPA and the CCC. These programs were sometimes derisively called “make work” programs, but they left us a lasting legacy about our culture. The mission of HABS was to provide information about significant buildings through drawings and large-format photography. Organized on a state-by-state basis, it was headed up in Alabama by Walter E. Burkhart from Auburn, who had studied documentary drawing while doing graduate work at Columbia. HABS provides an interesting view into buildings and the lives led within through photographs and drawings.
Take, for example, the Owens-Teague House on the corner of Perry and High. A great Greek Revival house of 1848, it was enlarged by the Teague family and embellished with additional metal cornice and doorcase work near the turn of the 20th century. The gray color it was painted a few years ago is the color the Teagues painted the house when they finished their work. The front is high-style, with unusual hand-carved wooden Ionic column capitols from the early period. Certainly it is close to everyone’s ideal Southern mansion. A quick trip around back shows that instead of a landscaped yard with entertaining space as we would have today, the whole back yard is a kitchen garden! Beans seem to be full up, with corn just rising and a hope for both peaches and figs later in the summer. Inside, the house seems rather empty, with original heavy parlor mirrors over the rather plain Greek-Revival mantels mixing with then-current fashion of slip-covered chairs and a ginger-jar lamp.
Roam through the HABS collection and take a at look the entry for the Stone-Young-Baggett House, which is out on the Old Selma Road. Compare it with the Owens-Teague House. It is easy to see that the two houses were likely the work of the same hand, with the body of the house similarly scaled and selection of exterior details from the Greek Revival vocabulary. The interior woodwork of the two houses is identical.
Dr. Burkhart must have had a special appreciation for Greek Revival as shown in the examples he chose to document. The corner of Wilkerson and Montgomery Street once had the 1850 Oliver-Houseman Residence, an example of the Bracketed Greek Revival. With the Italianate style providing the inspiration for cornice brackets, the rest of the house is pure Greek Revival. It has fluted Doric columns (note that true Doric columns have no base) and the door and window facings show a longer piece across the top often referred to as “ears.” Looking at the photographs, we see that the backyard is stuffed with outbuildings, with the kitchen and slave house on the right, and a wooden building described as a doctor’s office on the left, all backed onto a retaining wall from an adjoining house. The interior shows a beautiful mantle, probably cast iron, that must have been ordered at great expense, showing a real level of sophistication for Montgomery in the middle of the 19th century. Smoke rising from the chimney indicates the house is occupied, but the photos show a house fallen on hard times. The back porch is collapsing and the paint is in bad shape everywhere you look. It’s not hard to imagine that the Great Depression has taken a toll both on the house and the people who lived there.
We are indeed fortunate that Dr. Burkhart was on the job. As head of the architecture program at Auburn, he went on to build a great foundation for the school. He, his students and architects like Nicholas Holmes, Sr. of Mobile recorded many more buildings than were documented in most states, leaving us with a rich legacy of how we lived and what we built. The collection continues to grow, with teams from HABS as well as local architects and photographers contributing to the collection. Recent additions include the old brick ovens from Jenkins Brick (the latest technology when they were built here) and the Seibels-Ball-Lanier house on Adams Avenue, demolished about 1990.
Visiting American Memory is easy with this link: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/habs_haer/index.html
Look on left-hand side of the opening page and you’ll see options of searching by subject or place, choose place and Alabama comes up first. Montgomery, with 30 structures recorded, is on the second of two pages. All the illustrations in this article come from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.