Historian: These buildings matter

Published 2:59 am Saturday, August 22, 2015

Dear editor,

“The time has come,,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things; of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax—of cabbages—and kings…” This famous quote is one that high school seniors are usually required to memorize in their English literature classes. It was penned by Lewis Carroll in “Through the Looking Glass.”

As I ride around the Public Square of Andalusia and down the outlying streets of the square and look through my looking glass, I view in many directions our “treasure of historic downtown buildings in the Andalusia historic district” as labeled by the Alabama Historical Commission. There are many sights that are an embarrassment to many who love this town and this community, the county seat of Covington. These seemingly abandoned buildings and unsightly storefronts are shameful. Roofs in some cases have fallen in and collapsed. Window panes and plate glass windows which once beckoned sidewalk window shoppers are broken out where pedestrians often walk. Some are boarded up. Disintegrated mortar in brickwork poses a threat to the stability of supporting walls of still architecturally beautiful structures. There is a danger of walls falling into the sidewalks such as an incident not too long ago in Montgomery. The major inhabitants of many of these older buildings are pigeons, wasps and hornets, snakes, rats and other rodents, dirt daubers, roaches, bats, and buzzards. Vines grow up the walls of some vacant buildings. Kudzu runs rampant in parts of the downtown. Neighboring businesses of some buildings are frustrated that the leaking roofs of adjacent properties will surely cause a deterioration of their own property that they have carefully restored and maintained and that they do business in.

In the past few weeks, I have noticed much conversation on the Facebook pages especially from former residents of Andalusia, people who grew up here, those who visit from time to time at class and family reunions, ones who are pleased at the work that has been done in the commercial districts of town but distressed and puzzled at the abandoned, unoccupied, unsightly, and, yes, dangerous eyesores that still exist.

“It is shameful,” one states. Another writes, “As much work as the City of Andalusia has done to restore and convert the old to new uses, why can’t they take action to assist or compel, if necessary, property owners to clean up and fix up the downtown areas that are needed?”

Locals chime in, “Why are some properties abated and others not?”

Here’s what those of us in the Covington Historical Society think about this problem. Our historic buildings were designed and built in another era when the population of Andalusia was growing from a village to a town. Many were built after the train lines were extended into town around 1900 at which time the farmers were able to ship out their cotton and pine products. Building materials began arriving. Homes and buildings started being constructed. All of the items townspeople needed were being shipped in by train like the trucks bring supplies in today.

Why are the faces and shapes and spaces these buildings occupy so significant? They tell the stories of our town, our downtown. That’s where the tailor’s shop was – the dry cleaners, the bakery, the shoe shop, the drug store, the hardware store, the jewelry store, the bank, the car dealership, the doctor’s office, the cafeteria restaurant, the furniture store, the dress shop, the mule barn, the silent movie theatre. It is important to know where a town has been to know where we need to go in the future.

Our young people should be aware that many hardworking business people had visions to create our town which started originally on the unpaved square with mud and boardwalks leading from one saloon to the next, from one office to a store, from one cola bottling plant to a hardware store. Eventually a gorgeous courthouse designed by an architect and constructed by master craftsmen of the day was built in the middle of the square. Those who wished the town to prosper followed suit and set out to build lovely structures all around the square and town. This was at great expense and financial risk. They planned and sacrificed. Pretty soon, Andalusians were very proud to have such an attractive downtown. Businesses flourished. Andalusia became



“home sweet home” to many as the population increased from 500 in 1900 to 5,000 by the 1920s. Shouldn’t we honor the builders of our town by saving what we have left since so many main street homes and buildings have disappeared in the name of “progress?” Some downtown buildings were removed to make way for needed parking which was necessary at the time since automobiles have replaced the mule and wagon as well as the horse and buggy.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a theme that has neen used across the nation especially during May, National Historic Preservation Month. That theme is “THIS PLACE MATTERS.”

Friends and fellow citizens, these places still matter. These storefronts on our main and side streets can still play an important role when new businesses choose to locate in them such as the deli sandwich and coffee shop, the ice cream shop, the flower and gift shop, the lawyer’s offices, the men’s clothing shop, the boutiques, the antique shop, the music shop, the health food store, the insurance and real estate offices, the book shop, the muffin man, and others that creative business owners of another generation come up with. With building owners and tenants working hand in hand to help each other in extraordinary ways, the dreams of many can be fulfilled. What benefits one, benefits the other.

The City of Andalusia over several mayoral administrations has been active in setting the example of restoration and beautification by restoring the square, restoring and converting the school for city hall, beautifying city main streets, establishing a park, and appointing a Downtown Redevelopment Committee to offer matching grants to those owners or tenants who would restore facades. They are to be commended for their efforts.

The historical society has been an enthusiastic promoter of historic preservation since the early 1980s when the society restored and converted the oldest wooden building in downtown from a train depot to a local history museum that is now a tourist destination. Workshops were held for the public on several occasions with presentations of “before” and “after” scenes of other main street projects throughout the south which introduced the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation encouraging building owners to utilize tax credits if using proper methods of renovation when doing work on their properties. Downtown Andalusia was finally beginning to come alive at one time but the trend has slowed down somewhat, and the public has begun to take notice.

Visitors are certainly impressed at the work that has been accomplished all over town but note that the private sector in the downtown needs work OR we stand to lose the character of our downtown if buildings have to be razed in the event of catastrophes which could include health and safety issues.

What can be done? First we can talk about the progress that has been made and salute those who have done their part. There are many citizens who have traveled and visited other places and brought back ideas. We need to listen. We can encourage our city council to talk with other municipalities who have had successes in their endeavors. We can encourage the county officials to be a part of participating since this is the county seat. We can compliment business owners who have made attempts to be players in the historic preservation movement. We can discuss with the City of Andalusia ordinances that are currently on the books that need to be enforced. We can organize in groups not to just complain but to come up with solutions in a civilized and educated way. If we do nothing, then nothing will ever get accomplished. Too much has been accomplished since this town moved up the hill from Montezuma around 1844 to not be able to get our problems resolved in a respectful way for everyone. Here we are in “the heart of South Alabama,” a strategic place on the Alabama map. We should all put our hearts and souls into making this a better place to live. Preserving our past should be right up there on our list of priorities. Now citizens, it is time for you to weigh in!

“The time has come, the walrus said…”


Sue Bass Wilson