Downtown projects reflect vision, preservation and faith in vitality
by Margaret Dabbs
Sep 08, 2010 | 2859 views | 0 0 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Standing on the front steps of the Walker County Courthouse and looking to your left, you cannot miss the old brick, three story, empty-eyed building just across from the square.

Often referred to as the Burton Building, it was built at the turn of the last century by brothers J.J. Long and C.D. Long and was massive alongside the other buildings of the day. Photographs from C.D. Long’s memorabilia reflect lines of mule drawn wagons in front of the building, loaded with lumber, ready for transport along dirt streets and roads.

Not too many years later the building was bought by the Burtons to house their saddlery business. With the coming of automobiles and mechanized farm equipment, this family later found better uses for their leather in golf bag manufacturing. Burton Manufacturing ultimately outgrew the downtown space and moved out to the Old Birmingham Highway.

The Burton Building housed other tenants over the years. Fred’s had a stint and Burton came back and did some small scale manufacturing there. But the building has been lifeless now for about a dozen years. A few unfortunate pigeons made their way in, but not out. The ground floor windows are covered and an eerie stillness envelops visitors until they brave the well-worn but relatively sturdy old staircase to the second floor. With windows uncovered, the brightness there surprises and the offered view of the courthouse square may be unparalleled.

The question then surfaces: Will someone find potential in this old building or will it die with razing and be transformed into a parking lot?

Fortunately and not surprisingly, Dr. David Rowland saw passed the obvious negatives surrounding the renovation of this 7,500 square foot ghost and has envisioned a functional, eye-pleasing building.

A LIFELONG BUILDER

Born and raised in Ohio, Dr. Rowland started college at Ohio University where his undergraduate education was interrupted by World War II. He came to Tuscaloosa in pilot training, met Mary Ellen, his bride for 63 years, and only returned to Ohio long enough to finish his undergraduate degree after the war.

Geology called to Dr. Rowland as an early undergraduate, but life and reality adjusted the focus of his education to teaching. Starting out in Bessemer, he ended up in Warrior as a principal. While remaining in the military as a reservist, at Camp Rucker he was assigned to the Jasper Unit and got to know several community leaders including Tom Bevill, George Hiller, Bernard Weinstein, and Bob Hamilton. This group convinced him to come to Jasper in 1956 to take over the presidency at Walker College which at that time had a campus of one building for its 32 students.

The Rowlands built their home next to the campus and their three children considered it their playground. The family dog stayed on campus all day as the official greeter. In his quiet, thoughtful voice, Dr. Rowland described the college as “an extension of our family.”

With his tireless ability to see potential past the obvious pitfalls and beyond the stumbling blocks, Dr. Rowland served as president of Walker College for more than thirty years. After his retirement in 1988, he became chancellor. When the school affiliated with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he accepted the position of interim president for two years and then took his final retirement in 1997. Looking back on his more than four decades with the college, Dr. Rowland commented, “It’s been a good life. It’s been a great life. Not many people are as fortunate as I.”

The patience and tenacity required by the college president role also come to the forefront with Dr. Rowland’s other interests. Led to be a “birder” by his son Allen after a trip to Reelfoot Lake to see eagles more than 30 years ago, Dr. Rowland wrote a column on this topic, complete with his own illustrations, for many years. This hobby took them all over this country, and the world, including the headwaters of the Amazon.

The enthusiasm for creating and building has followed Dr. Rowland for most of his life. At 19 he bought a lot in a subdivision, dug out the basement with the help of a horse and a slip, and built his first house which he sold before he joined the Army.

With the experience of being a part of building several other homes, and time and energy on his side, in the last few years Dr. Rowland developed an opportunity to be involved in a different kind of building. The old Weinstein’s building, last home to the Strawberry Patch, seemed to call to lawyers for offices as it sits within walking distance of the courthouse, probate court, county jail, post office, and several banks. Dr. Rowland designed large office suites with several comfort providing amenities and kept his “hands-on from beginning to end” approach in the renovation process. The lawyers as well as other professionals came, and this old building has a new face and a new life.

Further down 19th Street, the former location of Kathy’s Book Store now has Dr. Rowland’s updated, rejuvenating touch as it houses two lawyer suites. Over on 20th Street, the former C.D. Roberts Contracting building offers spacious, brightened up office space.

The Burton Building, Dr. Rowland’s current endeavor, is certainly his largest undertaking. The cleaning out process has just begun and the future inhabitants of this dinosaur building are an intriguing question mark at this point. However, this project certainly brings many positives including a fresh face on the courthouse square and another enticement to people to take advantage of a downtown making small, certain steps to renew itself.

THE MANKIN HOUSE

IS REBORN

Just a few blocks away from the Burton Building, for the last two years Downs & Company has lived the dream of an office in one of Jasper’s old homes.

Judge Billy Moore built this home on 1st Avenue, directly across from Maddox Middle School, about 1885 for his daughter Tommy Mankin who lived there most of her life.

The Mankin House was once also home to a young couple who shared it with Mrs. Mankin around the time of World War II when it was divided into two apartments. Another family raised their children in this home before it was purchased by the Keeton family who undertook the major overhaul replacing sheetrock and windows, updating plumbing and wiring, and converting the attic to usable second story space with large rooms and convenient storage. Carol and Joe Downs took advantage of this crucial interior work, adding their own extensive personal touches and making a few structural changes to fit their purpose. They also rebuilt the outbuilding to look like the house and landscaped using some of the original foundation granite.

The Mankin House finished product, taken in with a whole view from the street, is a delight to the eye and a welcoming lift to the spirit. The front porch, furnished with a white wicker swing and chairs, has a blue floor and ceiling (to discourage wasps) and creates an urge to linger in spite of business within. The knob on the original door gives away its century old age as it requires an extra turn or two.

Upon entering, the color is warm throughout, wooden floors gleam, footed tubs remain in the bathrooms, and fireplaces were kept in the main rooms. At the back of the main floor, the entirely white kitchen is further brightened by multiple windows.

The conference room, regularly shared with several community organizations, is actually a library as well, displaying a major part of Joe’s collection of fiction by Southern writers. His collection overflows this room and is found all over the house. This collection is a natural outgrowth of the Downs’ family affection for books as his parents owned a used bookstore in Marietta, Georgia, which specialized in rare and out-of- print books.

The Mankin House and the Burton Building are two vastly different projects, one successfully completed and the other a work just now in progress, yet to define itself. However, they share intrinsic common bonds. These two projects were undertaken by individuals with undefeatable vision and they encompass the same underlying values- an energetic dedication to preserving slices of our local history and a resolute faith in the vitality of our downtown.

Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890.