Not long ago, the once-grand home Dr. John R. Drish built in Tuscaloosa was in imminent danger. Long vacant, the place was home to assorted varmints, a favorite haunt of the homeless, a target of condemnation by the city, and an eyesore to many locals. Today, thanks to the generosity of the Southside Baptist Church and the foresight of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society, preservationists are breathing new life into the historic structure, and its future looks promising.
The house remained a private residence until 1906, when it was converted into a public school. By the 1930s, however, the structure had fallen on hard times and was purchased by a local entrepreneur, who opened a garage in the parlor, parked wrecked cars in the front yard, and nailed an unsightly "TUSCALOOSA WRECKING COMPANY" sign to the ltalianate tower.
To famed photographer Walker Evans, the contrast between the once-elegant house and its inelegant tenants spoke volumes about what had happened to the South. His 1930s photograph of the Drish house as a wrecking company remains among the most often reproduced photographs of Alabama, the negative now resides in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In the 1940s, the Southside Baptist Church purchased the house as a meeting site, and, eventually, built a large sanctuary abutting the house and a free-standing Sunday school building on the property. The house remained in this configuration until 1995, when the church, with a dwindling and aging population, closed its doors. The structure was leased for several years to the Heritage Commission of Tuscaloosa County, which had little money to put into it, and finally offered for sale by the Tuscaloosa County Baptist Association. Aware that the Drish house was an important historic property, church members approached the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society, whose members were interested in the property but unable to meet the purchase price.
Finally, when the city condemned the building and no other prospects were available, church members decided to give the property to the Preservation Society, and in July 2007 the deed was transferred.
One of the requirements of the grant agreement was that the public be allowed to visit the home after the cleanup was completed. Finding interested parties was no problem. Two local paranormal groups were anxious to investigate the house, and, according to witnesses, their findings were startling. Piano keys struck when no one was in the room, objects moved, and fuzzy figures appeared in photographs. (The society does not claim the house is haunted but maintains that if any house deserves to have ghosts, this one does.)
In October the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group teamed up with the Preservation Society and the University of Alabama Student Government Association to host six sold-out haunted building tours, the highlight of which was a visit inside the Drish house. Local and regional media were present for the tours, as they were for both paranormal investigations.
Someone tried unsuccessfully to burn the house down on Halloween night, but once again the Drish house proved it is a survivor and a dignified one at that. The society is considering a wide range of possibilities for the house's future and plans to begin fund-raising in the spring to pay for further improvements.
If you are interested in helping with efforts to save this beleaguered historic home, contact the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society at (205) 758-2238.
This feature was previously published in Issue 92, Spring 2009.
About the Authors
Susan Haynes is the executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society. Suzanne Wolfe serves on the TCPS board of directors and was the founding editor of Alabama Heritage.