OWENS & MILLSAPS
2606 8TH Street, Tuscaloosa Alabama
(Article from “Old Tuskaloosa Magazine,” Written in 1999)
Tuskaloosa’s earliest settlers were squatters. They had no title to the lands because the lands had not yet been surveyed and divided into saleable lots. The town incorporated in late 1819 and its general land office commissioner, Josiah Meigs, was growing impatient for things to move forward. Finally, in 1821, the survey began with the first street being laid out perpendicular to the river, beginning at boat landing below the Falls. The street proceeded up the River Hill and was named Market Street, later to be renamed Greensboro Avenue. Broad Street, later renamed University Boulevard, was laid out at a right angle to Market Street, and the remaining streets followed this pattern.
Other street name changes have occurred over the years. Eight Street was originally Pike Street and Lurleen Wallace Boulevard (Highway 69 South) was Jefferson Street. To the right of the intersection of these two streets was a town lot occupying a whole city block, as did many of the early lots.
Constantine Perkins, an early Tuskaloosa Lawyer who came from Tennessee in 1819 had fought in the “Battle of the Horseshoe” under General Andrew Jackson and was elected Attorney General of Alabama in 1825. In 1821 Perkins had been granted the lot at the intersection of Pike and Jefferson streets which he sold five years later to fellow jurist, Judge Henry Minor, described as “an old style Virginia gentleman.” Moving to Tennessee and being admitted to the Bar there, Minor was appointed Attorney General Northern District in the new Alabama territory by Governor William W. Bibb in 1819. In Huntsville Minor built a home and practiced law and, among his other duties and accomplishments, was a member of the first University of Alabama Board of Trustees, 1821-23. He moved to the new state capitol of Tuskaloosa in 1826, where he served on the Alabama Supreme Court and was the first reporter on the decision of the Court.
When Judge Minor bought Perkins’ city lot that same year he built he three-story square shaped “frontier-style” Classic Revival house still standing there today.
Six large square columns spanning the front porch support the roof in this elegant yet basic antebellum mansion. The house is an excellent example of the Classic Revival trend adapted to the simple life of the new frontier town in the 1820s through the 1830s. A walk up the wide front steps leads to double front doors and an equally wide straight-through hallway, which steps down a level before reaching the double back doors, opening into another full-width porch. Reverse stairs on the right mid-hall once lead to the large bedrooms upstairs and a small balcony off the front hall, which rests, between the two center columns of the front portico. The basement had finished rooms with brick flooring including the kitchen, dining room, and well-stocked and locked pantry. Wide pine board floors, nine-foot ceiling and wide woodwork throughout make this house inviting and friendly – a functionally elegant yet practical home to two large and influential pioneer Alabama families.
Life in the Minor household was gracious by most standards – intellectual development was stressed, as well as modesty and public service. The family enjoyed an active social life in this young Capitol City. Most of the Minor’s eleven children were born in this landmark house. His eldest daughter, Annie, was a much celebrated and beautiful belle of her day. When she married Mr. John Friend of Greene County instead of a Tuskaloosa boy, great was their sadness and protest. Minor’s son, Henry, Jr., attended the University of Alabama and went on to West Point Academy.
“Townhouses” in the horse and buggy days represented a blend of urban and rural that is hard to image today; a blending of neighbors and schools and social gatherings and gardens, cows, fruit trees and appropriately accommodating outbuildings. It was all there.
We have no firsthand accounts of the Minor family in this house, but life must have been good in these flush times. Residents of this house knowingly and unknowingly contributed to and influenced the course of a young Alabama.
Henry Minor owned extensive lands in Alabama and Tennessee. He received land grants in Greene County, Alabama, moving there in 1835 and extending his farming operations. Tuskaloosa was, of course, still the Capitol – the educational and political center of Alabama, so the house on Pike Street may have become Minor’s “townhouse” literally. But Minor lost some of his holdings during the financial panic of 1837 and died the next year at age 55. He is buried at Boligee.
For the next two decades the Tuskaloosa house remained in the Minor family. In 1857 the widowed Ann Sorsby Ross was moving to Tuskaloosa from her Greene County Circle Hill plantation allowing her ten year old daughter, Anne Rebecca Ross, to benefit from an education in Tuskaloosa. Mrs. Ross bought the Minor House – a transaction that eventually would launch the home into its most celebrated incarnation as the “Searcy House”.
Mrs. Ross bought the lot and house complete with all the outbuildings, and established her household there. Nine years later, in 1866, Anne Rebecca Ross graduated from the Alabama Female Institute and soon married Dr. James Thomas Searcy, son of Dr. Reuben Searcy. Both James and his younger brother, Reuben Martin, had served in the Confederate army. Reuben Martin Searcy was fatally wounded in the Battle of Murphreesboro.
James Thomas and Anne Rebecca moved in with her mother in November, 1868, gave birth to the first of their twelve children, the new Reuben Martin Searcy, who would also die as a young adult. Eleven more children would be born in that “Searcy House.” Soon the squeaks of racing children would again be heard in the wide halls, but no if “Papa” was home. He tolerated none of that foolishness. For the next twenty years Dr. James Searcy’s family would occupy the address that eventually came to be 2606 8th Street – no longer Pike Street.
Parents and a dozen children, cook, nannies, the yard man, extended family and guests, horses and buggies, cows, pigs, goats, dogs, chickens, — the whole Searcy city block bustled with life.
In 1892 Dr. James Searcy became the second superintendent of the renamed Alabama-Bryce Insane Hospital. The family moved to an elegant home on the hospital grounds but the Searcy house remained in the family until 1910 when Battle Searcy sold it to W.B. Chandler. It is probably right around this time that the property was divided into eleven city lots upon which are built all the surrounding houses.
W.B. Chandler made many alterations in the house including new paint and “modern conveniences.” Mrs. D. Sartain purchased the house in 1931, giving it to Sarah Childress in 1938.
But by now the house was more than a hundred years old and, despite some renovation and modernization along the way, it was showing its age. The roof was sprouting a few holes and the plaster walls were settling and cracking as they tend to do through the changing of seasons and years. In its least glamorous days the house served as yet another formerly glorious, inner city, run down boarding house.
As the decades moved further into the twentieth century the Searcy House fell into the void that sounded the death knell for so many of its contemporaries. Antebellum was out, modern was in and historic preservation not yet conceived, at least not on a scale required to reach Tuskaloosa. Yet the times, they were a changing’, and fate intervened for the old, columned house on 8th Street. They house stood empty for some time but was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, by its then owner Billy Cochrane, who with the Tuskaloosa County Preservation Society and the Tuskaloosa County Historical Preservation Authority combined forces to save the house. The latter agency acquired title to the house and, with a grant from the city’s Community Development Fund, began restoration.
But – the job was big, very big and the funds not big enough. So – Plan B: put the house up for sale to an individual who would carry on the work. And this is where Woodrow Hobson’s story begins. We’ll let him tell it.
I had worked for Tuskaloosa Title Company from 1958 until 1969, and then I went with Shenandoah Oil Corporation. In 1975, I got tired of all the traveling I had to do. I’d leave on Monday morning and come back on Friday night. I had two little girls. I told my wife, Pat, that I was going to open my own title company. So we did in, I guess in ’75 or ’76. I rented an office for $325 a month, which was fairly steep in those days, but the office was real nice. It was one block down from the Searcy house, and I’d walk to the courthouse on Greensboro everyday, and I’d pass the old house. That’s when it all started.
One Sunday morning I read in the paper that the Preservation Society had purchased the house to restore it, but they ran out of money and decided to sell it. The advertised price was $30,000. I showed the ad to Pat. We decided we’d go by after church and look at it. So, we walked through it. There was water on the floors, part of the roof was gone, a lot of the windows were out, the back porch sagged. . . We looked at this, scratched our heads a little bit, looked at each other and said,” Let’s do it.” Just like that. We called a real estate friend of ours and told her we wanted to purchase the house. So she said okay and we signed a contract the same day for $30,000.
After about a month I got to wondering whether we should have done that. About three or four other contracts had been submitted, but since we made the first offer at the full asking price, we got the house. One person offered us $1,500 to walk away from the sale.
The scary part came when I got three estimates from building contractors. We didn’t want to do anything fancy – just make the house usable for office space. We wanted office space for ourselves and we wanted to rent out office space to make the mortgage payments. The contractors came back with these figures that stopped me in my tracks — $300,000 –$350,000. One guy even said it couldn’t be done.
So, I walked the floor for a couple of nights. I’d built some houses in the late ’60’s so I know a little bit about construction. The basic structure of this old house was in good shape. The rest was cosmetics. So after studying it and talking it over with Pat, we decided to do it ourselves. I hired a man to be the foreman and he went and hired various people.
Once we began work, we discovered the best thing to do was to strip everything down to the studs. We hired an electrician to rewire the whole house. We hired a plumber to come in and redo all the plumbing and add two more bathrooms. The walls and ceilings were plaster, put together with mud and horsehair. We wanted to save it, but it was impossible due to the years of neglect. So we ripped it out and replaced it with sheetrock. The insulation between the walls was cottonseed. You can go up into the attic now and still see it. This cottonseed was probably put here when the house was built.
My son-in-law, before he married my daughter, was in college and wanted to work part-time. His job was to tear down the plaster. I bought a pick-up truck for $250.00. My son-in-law would come in after school, tear down and load up that little truck. He also cut the grass at the house and really became indispensable. Of course, after he married my daughter, the work stopped. He’s a good guy though. I kid him about that all the time. Before he married Sheila, anything I wanted him to do, it was “Yes, sir”, Mr. Hobson . . . Could I help you do this?” . . . or, “I’ll be glad to do that.” But he put a lot of sweat into this building.
When we started this project we’d been assured of receiving low interest loans and even some grant money to help do the job, but the funds dried up and we ended up borrowing most of the money at some pretty high interest rates.
It was one hundred percent luck that we ended up in a prime area in downtown Tuskaloosa. We just wanted our own office and we figured we could rent our office space and make the mortgage payments. And we were able to do that. So that was my main goal. And things just developed. Like I say, it was luck. Across the street was Judge Burns’ old home. No one was living in it and it was worse than this one. Several people looked at it to restore, but it was too far-gone. So it was torn down and now used cars are sold on that property.
Back then you wouldn’t want to walk around the neighborhood at night. Two attorneys owned the house next door and gradually people began restoring the homes and converting them to office space. Seventh Street caught on and people started redoing the older homes during the early ’80’s. It took us about six months to restore the Searcy House and we finally moved in, in 1979. We didn’t make it a showplace — we were just trying to survive the experience.
We had no interest in selling it, but one day, after we’d put up a For Rent sign to rent some office space, attorney John Owens came by, liked what he saw and thought it would be a perfect place to house his Tuscaloosa law firm, but there wasn’t enough space to rent to him, and then he asked if we’d like to sell the house. At first we weren’t interested. Pat and I talked about it some, and we concluded that we’re at an age where it’s time to let go of some responsibilities. We needed to downsize just a bit and the timing seemed to be right.
Mr. Owens hired a structural engineer to check the building. We sort of hoped he’d find something wrong so that the sale wouldn’t go through. But everything checked out. We put so much actual hard work into the house that it’s hard to let go of it. There are a lot of memories here. We’ve kind of gotten over it now. It’s best for us.
The Searcy House is about to undergo a transition once again as John Owens, a Tuscaloosa Lawyer, becomes the new owner and decides to make the house the office for his Tuscaloosa law firm. And serendipitous events have unfolded for John in the process.
Woodrow Hobson remembers that about five years ago a U.A. Interior design instructor, Beverly Kissinger, called up to ask if her class could come measure the inside and outside of the Searcy House as a class design project. They took days to complete their data collection and then they drew up a detailed set of plans, giving one to the Hobsons.
Among the members of that class, it turns out, was Terry Owens (Hurt), John Owens’ interior designer daughter. When Dad called her at her current home in Oregon, to tell her of his recent purchase and to seek her decorating expertise, she told him of the coincidence. Terry was now ahead of the game. She still had those class plans.
Just one month away from the birth of her first child, Terry recently flew into Tuskaloosa to assist her father in the plans for the Searcy House. But she assures those committed to historic preservation that the Owens’ are adhering to preservationist principals. Harvie Jones, Huntsville architect, who specializes in historic preservation is being consulted by the Owens’ in their planning for the house. “I will show them,” says Jones, “ways to incorporate things like wiring and lighting into the building with the least amount of modification to the historic structure.”
And so the old Searcy House moves forward with the changing face of the city – a noble reminder of the grace and character of Tuskaloosa’s early days and early visionaries who had faith in the future of Alabama.
Researching and writing the Searcy family and house story has been a little bit more personal for us than some of our other work because, for a short while now, the office of Old Tuskaloosa has been located in the former dining room of the old Searcy House on 8th Street. When we turn from our desk to glance outside, it is through the same windows that Abbie Searcy glanced as a child.
We at Old Tuskaloosa want to thank Pat and Woodrow Hobson for their story and their kindness. We acknowledge and extend our deep appreciation to Anne Fitts Searcy Yoder, daughter of the late Dr. Harvey Searcy, granddaughter of Dr. James T. Searcy, and great-granddaughter of Dr. Reuben Searcy, for so generously sharing her family knowledge, memories and documents. And thanks, Rebecca Roberts, librarian at the W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library at the University of Alabama for going above and beyond the call of duty.
UPDATE: This location continues to be the offices of the Tuscaloosa Law Firm, Owens and Millsaps, LLP