UA students drawing up plans for old mill office
by Jennifer Cohron
Oct 01, 2012 | 4532 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Two design students from the University of Alabama take measurements of one of the main windows in the former office building for Indian Head Mills in Cordova. The mill closed in 1962. Photo by: Jennifer Cohron
Two design students from the University of Alabama take measurements of one of the main windows in the former office building for Indian Head Mills in Cordova. The mill closed in 1962. Photo by: Jennifer Cohron
A dilapidated office building on an overgrown lot is the last remaining trace of the cotton mill that turned Cordova into a boom town at the turn of the 20th century.

It has been decades since anyone other than vandals and wildlife showed an interest in it.

However, students enrolled in Advanced Residential Design at the University of Alabama have spent the past several weeks documenting every square inch of the building in hopes that it can be given a new purpose in the city’s long-term recovery plan.

They are currently developing measured drawings of the office in its current condition as well as potential designs for a library if the structure were one day restored.

Another group of seniors taking the same course are making blueprints of Higgins TV Sales & Service on Burlington Avenue.

Students will be creating plans for a business incubator in that building, which is located adjacent to Main Street but will not be part of the proposed downtown demolition.

Instructor Michelle Lee said the set of plans that her students will be submitting to city leaders and the owners of Higgins TV will follow the federal standards written by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“We don’t sugarcoat anything,” Lee said. “So many times this act of documentation is tied into grants for refurbishment. Doing an accurate job of reporting what it looks like can sometimes even affect how much money is awarded for the grant.”

The possibility of restoring the mill office is one of the projects that Lauren Gilbert Vance is pursuing as a VISTA assigned to long-term recovery efforts in Cordova.

Vance said information being gathered by the UA students could be used to apply for status on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage, which would then open up access to funding for refurbishment of the building and technical assistance from the Alabama Historical Commission.

Mayor Jack Scott said he appreciates all of the time and effort that Lee’s students are devoting to the mill office project.

“They do a beautiful job,” Scott said.

The labor of Lee and her students would be worth thousands of dollars if professionals had been hired for the job.

Lee is only aware of six people in the nation who are experts in the kind of photography required by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

She added that architectural historians would charge several hundred dollars to do some documentation for the city, but it would not include the measured drawings that her students can offer.

In exchange for helping the city, the students get real-world experience in their field that will become a valuable bullet point on their resumes.

“We have students land jobs off of these kinds of projects. They get a lot of design and life skills that make them ready for the professional work world,” Lee said.

Lee has been bringing interior design students to Cordova since 2010, when Mayor Jack Scott and other city leaders asked them to document two buildings downtown that were then being considered for renovation into a new City Hall.

At the end of the semester, they presented the city with an informational booklet about the entire downtown.

“That turned out to be a pretty big deal because we had no way of knowing that a major tornado would come through and do that kind of damage last April,” Lee said.

Other classes have focused on some of the original mill houses that are still standing in Cordova.

Lee’s students have also learned about mill development and its role in helping the South recover from the economic devastation of the Civil War.

Cordova, which saw its population triple in the decade after Indian Head Mills opened in 1898 and steadily decline after its closing in 1962, is of special interest to UA’s design students.

“They love feeling like they are making an impact in a community that is not really readily accessible for the rest of the world to get out and help,” Lee said.

Although the mill that is the focal point of Cordova’s storied past is no longer in operation, the land it once sat on could prove important to the city’s future.

The 15-acre mill site is listed as a strategic asset for business growth in the long-term recovery plan adopted by city leaders last December.

Redevelopment of the Indian Head Mill property, which the city purchased from the Virginia-based E.T.Moore Company in 2011, is included in the plan’s community and economic development section among such projects as rebuilding the city’s grocery store and downtown buildings.