By Joseph Brennan
It's a cloudy March day on Common Street but Steve May is beaming. “You see these triple sash windows? They’re incredible. They still work like they were built yesterday. And they’re all original” Steve illustrates to a small group of guests in front of the magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows of his newly renovated 1850’s Greek Revival home. He raises one, well over his head, opening the room to the porch. “Light and airflow were both so crucial back then. And it’s still practical. While moving in,” he adds “we just brought the couch in through the window!”
With the help of Restore Mobile, Steve and his wife Sarah opened the doors to 50 Common Street as a public home tour. Folks passed through gazing up toward the thirteen foot ceilings and at the array of historic architectural salvage Steve has collected over the years, including an enormous stained glass window from a 17th century church in Scotland that had been bombed in the second world war to a capital of a column from the old post office on Saint Joseph Street. Some in the room were friends and some were absolute strangers. It didn’t matter at all to Steve. He was just happy for the world to finally see what he had been dreaming of for so long. “The only thing I can compare it to, which probably isn’t an accurate analogy,” he preemptively admits “but as a man I feel like I gave birth to a house.” He has a way with words, to be sure, and it’s doubtful anyone would argue with him. The tour was not simply to admire tall ceilings and pocket doors, but to celebrate a tremendous preservation victory that began over two years ago and nearly could have ended with bulldozers.
Two Houses In One
Steve’s first encounter with the house began long before he made hard plans to buy it, but that first impression was lasting. “Twenty years ago my oldest brother moved here from Atlanta and wanted to buy the house. It never worked out for him, but ever since I saw it I was in love” Steve says. “Six months later I bought a house on Common Street, but I had always loved that house.” He and his wife Sarah purchased an empty lot down the street with plans to develop it sometime in the future. Their hope was to move a couple of smaller houses there, but Steve admits, “In my mind, I always imagined that house on that lot,” It’s important to note, and probably obvious by now, that at that time the house was not on Common Street. Rather, the house was situated at 137 Tuscaloosa Street off of Springhill Avenue in Midtown, built at a time when the area would have been the rural frontier beyond the cozy city limits of Mobile. And it get’s a little more tricky – it actually isn’t just one house. It is (or rather, was) two houses.
The lot was originally part of the Dubraca Tract, a Spanish land grant dating from when Mobile was a Spanish outpost. Beginning sometime in the early 19th century, arguably around 1825, a raised Creole cottage appeared on the property fronting Springhill Avenue, then called Springhill Road. It was sold several times before a second house was built sometime around 1852 in a towering Greek Revival style facing what is now Tuscaloosa Street . Eventually the two were attached and the Tuscaloosa Street side became the facade of favor. The older, back house became virtually forgotten by the average passerby. As if it can’t get more complicated, Steve, never short on history and theories, presents a new possibility: “I have a friend who found information on the Dubraca Tract that stated that there was a house existing on the lot when it was ceded in 1804. She sent me the text straight from the document. That house could be much older than 1825” he suggests with treasure-hunting excitement. Theories aside, what is known to be true is that it has been home to a handful of families in its time, but none longer than the O’Gwynns. They and their relatives, whom many of which still live in Mobile, called its grand gallery and hardwood floors home for nearly a century, from 1915 onward. However, after nearly 150 years, the faithful house was headed toward a potentially grim future.
"They could have torn it down whenever they wanted"
The house, as gorgeous as it is, was, after all, threatened with demolition in 2018. “They had the demolition permits,” Steve explains. A neighboring medical practice had recently purchased the property with plans of expanding their parking lot. “And they actually need a lot of credit for this,” he says of the owners. “They had the permits. They could have torn it down whenever they wanted.” While they did delay the demolition, there was however a catch: someone would have move the house for it to survive. Restore Mobile began advocating for a solution, appearing on local TV news to increase awareness and rally the community, in hopes of finding someone who would move the house. As awareness increased, however, so did anxiety. “I said, "Sydney, (Executive Director of Restore Mobile) I’m gonna chain myself to this house," Steve recounts. Fortunately, chains were never employed and instead the rallying efforts proved fruitful. Enter Bob Isakson, local developer and passionate preservationist, who through great determination sealed an agreement with the owner to oversee the dismantling of the houses and move them.
Restore Mobile appears on local news advocating for the house
“I found out that Isakson was looking to take the back house but didn’t want the front.” Steve said of the deal. The front house’s Greek Revival sensibilities were right up Steve’s alley. “You kind of have those certain types of architecture that’s like ‘that’s the one.’ Pure Greek Revival is my favorite.” says Steve and if any house is pure Greek Revival this one would be a contender. So what happened next, you’re wondering? Well, you'll have to forgive Steve's memory. “It’s kind of a blur. It all happened very quickly.” Who can blame him? His dream of moving the very house he envisioned on to the lot he and his wife purchased years ago was finally happening. That level of excitement warrants a few lost details. By June, the house was Steve’s and moving slowly down Government Street on the bed of a truck, like a Mardi Gras parade with Steve there as drum major watching every beat. “It was a surreal experience seeing that house being moved” Steve remembers. Piece by piece it was unloaded on Common Street, and over the next year and half it was meticulously put back together with support from the Oakleigh Venture Revolving Fund and architect Douglas Kearley.
Steve and his son Parker guide the house down Government Street in June 2018
The plan was simply to save a historic home, sell it, and move on, right? Well, that was the plan. “I thought maybe we could AirBnB it or we could rent it. And then I had this epiphany one night,” Steve pauses with bated breath “what would happen if we sold our house and moved into it?” It became clear that the house that had been speaking to him for twenty years was not meant for anyone else. “As it turns out, the whole time I was moving it for us.” As the renovation began wrapping up, Steve, Sarah, their son Parker, and dog Shiloh began moving in to their new home. The Mays now follow the O’Gwynns in the story of this house and the families it has held. Fortunately, that story will continue. “It’s just perfect for us. We’re living in our dream home and we’re happy as pigs in mud.”
"Once it’s gone, it’s gone”
Back at the home tour on the cloudy morning of March 20th, friends, family, and strangers mill through the lovingly renovated rooms as Restore Mobile volunteers offer history and insight. However, Steve notices one couple in particular. Two sisters, Judy and Babs Strought, stand in the living room with an honest mix of amazement and raw emotion. “We’re relatives of the O’Gwynns and lived next door to this house,” Judy says “We visited and stayed in this house all the time,” she adds. She goes quiet and she and her sister gaze around the room as if time had stopped. “Oh my gosh,” she realizes “I’m thinking about all my memories as child in this room.” There, in that moment, the purpose of this whole journey had materialized in front of Steve, and frankly in front of everyone whether they heard Judy or not. “And that’s why I hate to see these houses destroyed.” Steve says “You think about all the labor, the craft, the people that built them, the people that lived in them. I just think it tells a story. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.” Fortunately, this house and the stories it holds will live on.