The Drish House
The Drish House is a federal style house that for over 175 years has been enlarged, remodeled, served as a house, school, auto wrecking company, church, storage
facility and for some time, vacant. The Drish House was known as Monroe Place in its early years.
History of Dr. John R. Drish
Drish was born in Loudoun County, Virginia in 1795 and was trained to be a doctor. He met and married a wealthy woman by the name of Catherine Washington. Together they had one daughter, Katherine M. Drish. His wife died when Katherine was a young child. He would leave her behind with relatives in Virginia and took his wife's fortune to Alabama. He arrived in Tuscaloosa in 1822, where he married a wealthy widow named Sarah Owen in 1825. During that time he bought 160 acres in what was the southern part of town. In 1837, construction was started on Monroe Place and the house was completed in 1839. He brought his daughter from Virginia to live on the plantation, along with him and his new wife.
The house shows architectural influence from Architect William Nichols, a noted Alabama architect. Drish had worked with Nichols as a contractor in building the capitol, jail and University. While there is no evidence that Nichols himself had anything to do with the design, it's merely thought that he influenced Drish. The house was adorned with 14 Tuscan pillars and had a double ellipse staircase. His niece was married to a skilled carpenter, John Fitch who designed and built similar staircases throughout town. It is assumed that Fitch too built the staircase at Monroe Place.
In the early 1840's, he added an Ionic portico and balcony to the front of the house along with a Doric portico of the Tuscan order on the south facade. Since Ionic was considered more formal, this is what faced town. In 1845, the capitol moved to Montgomery, leaving Drish and others to pour their assets into Tuscaloosa to help revive it.
Italianate Revival and the Fall of Drish
The War hit the Drish family harshly, like most others in the south. The Union Army burned the University and most of the town but retreated when word came Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was coming. This may be the reason why Monroe Place and many of the mansions that lined Greensboro Avenue were spared.
Ruined and bankrupt, Drish died in 1867. In an unverified Tuscaloosa lore, one afternoon when he was drunk, he lept from his bed, ran down the hall, and collapsed on the staircase. He was suffering during the time after his niece was tragically beheaded. In his will, his wife was bequeathed Monroe Place. Since he owed the state money, all of his stores and real estate, including Monroe Place were auctioned off. A Northport, Alabama lawyer by the name of Powell bought the property in 1869. He allowed Sarah Drish the use of the house until she died in 1884. She would live the rest of her life in poverty.
Monroe Place after the Drishes
Powell sold the estate to The Tuscaloosa Coal, Iron, and Land Company in 1887. Judge William Cochrane would buy the house the same year and lived there until 1903. He made many improvements to the house and modernized the kitchen next door. The house was then sold to Rev. James George Snedecor, who was the Superintendent of the nearby Stillman Institute. Snedecor sold the house in September of 1906 to the Mayor of Tuscaloosa. The city purchased the house for $8,000 with plans to use it as a school. The house served as the Jemison School for almost 20 years. School children wore the house thin; the magnificent spiral staircase which led to the tower, and the double ellipse staircase in the cross hall were removed. The cast iron porches were taken down and sold for scrap and the long line of elm trees which had led up to Monroe Place for so long were cut in 1923.
The Board of Education still owned the house, but had no use for it or the funds to maintain it. The Southside Baptist Church purchased the property in 1940 for $4,000. They spent two years altering the house, in which all the elaborate medallions and plasterwork were ripped away. The upper floor was gutted and arranged into Sunday school rooms. The outside columns were replastered to be smooth, losing their elaborate fluting. The tower to this day remains the only part of the house with the original plasterwork and moldings.
Church attendance declined throughout the years to where the house was delegated to be used as storage. In 1990, the church sought to tear down the house to build a parking lot in its place. With a cost of over $30,000, the church did not have the funds, so the house was leased to the Heritage Commission of Tuscaloosa County. The house was painted pink and the windows and doors boarded shut.
Monroe Place of the Modern Era
In 2007, the city had the whole site condemned. The house and the adjacent sanctuary and church offices had fallen below a state of despair. The Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society entered into negotiations with the church. They received the house on conditions that the adjacent sanctuary and administration building be torn down. In November of 2009 the adjacent buildings were demolished and the roof was repaired. Once again, for the first time in over a half century, the house stood alone.
The house has since been stabilized with future plans of renovation. Some ideas have been proposed, one of which is to turn the house into a History of Tuscaloosa Museum. The Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society hopes someone will buy the house and return it to its former grandeur.
Legend of the Drish
Any house that has stood for so long is susceptible to rumors. The truth is that Drish was a man who possessed many fine qualities, but he also drank and gambled beyond his control. His daughter Katherine fell in love with a young man, but her father did not approve. She was locked in room for several weeks and only fed bread and water. Her suitor left Tuscaloosa, and she would eventually marry a W.W. King from New Orleans to whom she bore two sons. He eventually returned her to the Drish House along with her young sons and divorced her. He believed she was going insane. During the same time, Drish's niece Helen Whiting was murdered. She was married to Mr. Fitch, the same carpenter who helped build the mansion's staircase. One day, in a fit of rage, Mr. Fitch sliced her neck with a razor, nearly severing her head. He was arrested, tried and declared insane and confined the rest of his days to a insane asylum. All of these events occured, giving the Drish House a dark mystique.
During this time Drish refused to eat and was only kept alive by force feeding. It was during this when he had leapt from his bed and fell running down the staircase. His slaves insisted this is how he died. Before his death, he made his wife promise that she would never send his daughter Katherine to a hospital for the insane. Katherine was confined to her bedroom, with her windows being fastened shut and the door locked at night.
The Legend of the Burning Tower has two stories competing for it's explanation. One story begins one night when there was a loud cry from the slave quarters, "Ole Miss, de house on fire!", but the tower was dark and quiet. The tower room was already haunted by a legend that a former runaway slave somehow had managed to get into the tower room and hid. He was eventually forced out from thirst and starvation. He was then handed over to his master, where it was conjured up that he was burned to death. So the legend of the burning tower was born.
Katherine's two sons returned to the Drish Mansion to retrieve their mom, and soon after Mrs. Drish died. It was said that she wanted the same candles burned at her wake that were burned for her husband's many years prior. A prolonged search failed to yield these candles, and they wouldn't be found until months after.
And so the legends were begun of a burning tower, either from the haunting of a runaway slave or from the candles that were never burned again.
One thing is true, Monroe Place did have a dark history, one that can be proved with the documentation of time. The house has stood as a silent testament of history, seeing the glory days of when Tuscaloosa was the state capitol with a newfound University, to the horrors when the city was burned to the ground during the War and most recently when one of the most devastating tornadoes on record struck Tuscaloosa.
Special thanks to Katherine Mauter and Ian Crawford of the Tuscaloosa County Presevation Society for allowing Forgotten Southeast to photograph the Drish Mansion,
along with providing historical documents.
All historical pictures are courtesy of the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey unless otherwise noted.
1. Amaki, Amalia K., and Katherine R. Mauter. Images of America Tuscaloosa.
Charleston: Arcadia, 2011. Print.
2. Windham, Kathryn T., and Margaret G. Figh. 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey.
Huntsville: Strode, 1969. Print.
3. Crawford, Ian. "Principles of Preservation Monroe Place: A Trend Flowing House." Thesis. Tulane, 2010. Print.
4. "Library of Congress Home." Library of Congress Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2012.
5. Alabama Department of Education. Dr. John H. Drish House. Digital image.
Alabama Department of Archives and History, n.d. Web.
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