Alabama's top 10 historic "Places in Peril" | Community Spirit
What do Powell School in Birmingham, Elizabeth Presbyterian Church in Sumter County and Avondale Mill Village in Sylacauga have in common? All are historic buildings that have been placed on Alabama's most endangered sites for 2011. The Alabama Historical Commission and Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation selected 10 sites for 2011 "Places in Peril" list, something they've been doing for the past 17 years.
"This list reminds us that much remains to be done to help Alabamians recognize that our historic places are essential community assets. These places represent one of the greenest approaches to providing places in which to live and work," David Schneider, executive director of the ATHP said.
Although being named a Place in Peril does not grant any formal protection to the sites, it can help bring awareness to communities about the historical value of each location. Often it also generates enough support to preserve the site and save it from further deterioration.
The following sites were included on this year's Places in Peril list:
- Avondale Mill Village, Sylacauga, Talladega County
- Bermuda Hill, Gallion Creek, Hale County
- Boiling Springs Native American Sites, Choccolocco Creek, Calhoun County
- Downtown Anniston Historic District, Anniston, Calhoun County
- Elizabeth Presbyterian Church, Sumter County
- Gurley Town Hall, Gurley, Madison County
- Historic Movie Theatres, statewide
- Jemison-Turner House, Turner, Talladega County
- Powell School, Birmingham, Jefferson County
- Windham Construction Company Office Building, Birmingham, Jefferson County
Photos of three more of the endangered sites are included at the bottom of this story. The AHC and ATHP provided the following background information on some of the endangered sites:
Jemison-Turner House (c. 1840)
Born in Lincoln County, Georgia, Robert Jemison brought his family and slaves to Talladega County in 1837 and began acquiring property in the rich bottom lands bordering the Chocolocco and Cheaha creeks. Joined in Alabama by six of his siblings, Jemison contributed to his family’s great economic and political prominence. In addition to his cotton plantation, Jemison owned and operated Turner’s Mill, a gristmill that provided a source of revenue independent of cotton.
Jemison's plantation house is significant for its unusual plan and its exceptionally fine and intact Federal period interiors.
According to Robert Gamble, senior architectural historian for the Alabama Historical Commission, “The home is especially notable for its unusual split-level rear wing. A long balustrade upper gallery, deeply shaded by a wide, overhanging roof suggests the lower Mississippi more than an upland Alabama valley.”
This split-level plan appears in only one other house in the state, located in Talladega County and also constructed by a Jemison family member.
The Jemison House is deteriorating due to abandonment and lack of funds to restore it. The house offers a rare opportunity to restore one of our state’s truly exceptional early 19th century residences.
Powell School (1888)
Seeking to attract new residents, Birmingham founder and Elyton Land Company president Colonel James R. Powell donated four blocks in 1873 to build Powell School, the city’s first public school. The initial building was replaced in 1888 by the current structure. For over a century, thousands attended Powell School, also known as the “Free School.”
The three-story red brick structure has a stone foundation and represents the Victorian Gothic style. The façade has three primary bays, which are divided into three bays separated vertically by pilasters and horizontally by brick courses.
Vacant since 2003, the school symbolizes the city's early business leaders' commitment to education. A January 2011 fire destroyed the roof and most of the interior, leaving the building’s future in doubt. Community leaders contend that the historic building can be restored and reused. The City of Birmingham is waiting on an independent structural assessment before determining if the building should be demolished.
More than a century ago, Colonel Powell described Birmingham as “The Magic City.” Currently, political, business, and civic leaders are working to create a little magic so Birmingham can retain this important piece of its history. City Councilman Johnathan Austin commented, “We’ve really got to to do our very best to save Powell.”
Windham Construction Company Office Building (1912)
The Windham Construction Company Office Building is a remarkable reminder of a successful African-American business that flourished in a segregated society. The building was home to Windham Brothers Construction Company, a major black contractor that built some of the most significant buildings in Birmingham.
The company established a national reputation, and the Birmingham office was the headquarters for offices in Nashville, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Detroit. In addition, Thomas Windham leased space to black-owned businesses, and the building became a retail and commercial hub in the black community. The building illustrates the influence black professionals exerted in Birmingham’s black and white communities in an era of forced segregation.
Wallace Rayfield, Alabama’s first formally trained architect, designed the building. The Windham Brothers and Rayfield collaborated on multiple projects, including the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Alabama Penny Savings Bank, Alabama’s first black-owned bank. In 1927, the company built the seven-story Birmingham Railway, Light and Power Company Building, a prominent building located in the city’s white business district.
Listed on the National Register, the building qualifies for a federal historic preservation tax credit. The structure is unoccupied and threatened by vandalism. Restoration of the building could help to revitalize the adjacent Smithfield neighborhood.
Downtown Anniston Historic District
A proposed federal courthouse project and the construction of a new city criminal justice center threaten Downtown Anniston’s historic district. Historic resources dating from Anniston’s heyday as the “Model City of the New South” through its turbulent Civil Rights history are endangered. As currently planned, the projects will demolish 14 percent of the district’s contributing resources.
These projects represent a significant investment in downtown and could benefit the city’s commercial core. Preservationists have long supported the original courthouse proposal that would have demolished the city hall building (1942), but saved the Anniston City Land Company Building (1890).
When the General Services Administration recently announced plans to move to the adjacent block, the number of historic resources that would be demolished for the project rose from two to sixteen. Among the latter is the intact Gurnee Avenue streetscape that served as the backdrop for the May 14, 1961 attack on a Greyhound bus carrying Freedom Riders.
The effectiveness of local and federal historic preservation protection will be tested by both projects. The courthouse project is subject to a review through Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Preservationists hope to preserve the significant Gurnee Avenue streetscape and find appropriate ways to mitigate any demolition that will occur as the process unfolds. The justice center complex is located within a locally designated historic district, and any demolition requires approval by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. While the city’s building authority has pledged not to demolish the Anniston City Land Company Building, its ultimate fate is uncertain.
Elizabeth Presbyterian Church (1858)
A group of Sumter County residents established the Elizabeth Presbyterian Church in November 1838 about nine miles south of York. Elizabeth Knox donated the land where the the first church was built, and it was named in her honor. Seven years later, the congregation moved their church nearer to the town of Gaston, a bustling little village that was more centrally located for the membership.
The growing congregation replaced the original log structure in 1858 with a wooden frame, two-story building. Slaves were members of the Elizabeth Church and remained part of the congregation after they were freed until the 1870s. Members also established a small cemetery on the property.
Economic developments and demographic changes have been unkind to many of Alabama’s rural areas. The descendents of those who settled these regions have moved to pursue opportunities elsewhere. When they leave, they leave behind structures like Elizabeth Presbyterian Church, a building where generations gathered to celebrate life and mourn loss. Today, a congregation of less than five members owns the church.
The church is threatened by neglect, as the congregation is unable to maintain it.
Bermuda Hill (c. 1845)
Sitting on a hill overlooking the old Prairieville to Greensboro Road, the Bermuda Hill house is a product of an era when ambitious men believed the road to riches ran through fluffy rows of cotton. The prominent Manning family first owned the property. The Mannings were early settlers and planters in Prairieville and owned large land tracts in the original French grants of the Vine and Olive colony. In 1845, William W. Manning sold the land to William Weeden of Madison County. The home was built c. 1845, but it is unclear whether Manning or Weeden built the house.
Bermuda Hill reflects the refined taste and wealth of its early owners. The home is a significant example of a Canebrake plantation house based on the I-house form. The façade is dominated by a full height pedimented portico, supported by four paneled columns embellished with sawnwork brackets. The first floor boasts a double leaf entrance with full transom and sidelights located in the center of the five bay façade. The second floor features a double leaf entrance with a similar transom that has a balustrade placed across the opening.
Some scholars believe the grounds surrounding Bermuda Hill contain subsurface remains and merit further exploration through an archaeological survey.
Bermuda Hill is threatened by neglect and deferred maintenance.