Developer. Engineer. Photographer. World Adventurer. Storm Chaser.
The Drish House
The Drish House is a federal style house that for over 175 has been enlarged and remodeled while serving as a house, school, auto-salvage company, church, and
storage facility. In its early years it was simply known as Monroe Place.
History of Dr. John R. Drish
Drish was born in Loudoun County, Virginia in 1795, later becoming a doctor. He met and married a wealthy lady by the name of Catherine Washington, who together
had one daughter, Katherine Drish. His wife died when their daughter was a young child and so leaving behind relatives, he took his wife's fortune and moved to
Floorpan of First Floor
The house is considered to be built in the late Federal Style, and sits at the terminus of what was once known as Monroe Street in Tuscaloosa. The house consists of
two floors and sits on an elevated basement. Both floors had a cross hall with two rooms on either side that were separated by folding doors. Each side of the face
of the house was different, with the north (front) having 5 windows, 3 windows on the east, 4 on the west, and 5 on the south.
The house shows an architectural influence from architect William Nichols, a noted Alabama architect known for his work on the capitol, jail, and university in
Tuscaloosa. While there is no evidence that Nichols himself had any input on the design, its merely though that he influenced Drish while they worked together.
The house is adorned with 14 Tuscan pillars and had a double ellipse staircase. Drish's niece was married to a skilled carpenter, John Fitch, who designed and built
similar staircases throughout Tuscaloosa, so it has been assumed Fitch too built the staircase at Monroe Place.
In the early 1840's Drish added an Ionic portico and balcony to the front of the house, along with a Doric portico of the Tuscan order of the south facade. Since Ionic
is considered to be formal, it was chosen to face the town. In 1845, the capitol moved to Montgomery, leaving Drish and others to pour their assets into Tuscaloosa in
an attempt to revive it.
Italianate Revival and the Fall of the Drish House
Drish House Shown in Italianate Style in 1911 Photo Courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives
Drish and his slave, William, begin construction on a tower for Monroe Place in 1860, along with several other alterations. At the time an Italianate movement was
sweeping across the United States and Monroe Place would soon reflect that. Brackets were added along the top of the house and along the top of the newly built tower.
Cast iron porches were added to the east and west facade and the columns were re-plastered with delicate fluting and scored to look like marble.
Like many others in the South, the Civil War hit the Drish family harshly. The Union Army burned the University and most of the town but retreated when word came that
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 sparred.
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, as his niece had just been tragically beheaded. In his will, his wife was bequeathed Monroe Place, but since Drish
owed the state money, all of his real estate was auctioned off. A Northport lawyer by the name of Powell bought the property in 1869 and allowed Drish's wife Sarah
the use of the home until she died in 1884. She would live the rest of her life in poverty.
Monroe Place after the Drish Family
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. He then sold the house to the Rev. James George Snedecor, who was the Superintendent of
the nearby Stillman Institute. Snedecor sold the house in September 1906 to the mayor of Tuscaloosa. The city had 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 were cut in 1923.
Drish House Shown Abandoned in 1938
In 1925, the school board leased the house to Charles Turner, a mechanic. He nailed a large iconic wooden sign with the wording "Tuscaloosa Wrecking Co" to the front
entrance of the tower. The yard and house would eventually be filled with rusty car parts. It was during this time that noted photographer, Walker Evans, photographed
the house in 1936. His work was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1938. It was made famous because it chronicled the decline of the south during
the Depression. The wrecking company went under soon afterwards leaving the house exposed to the elements.
The Tuscaloosa Board of Education still owned the house but had no use for it, nor 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 the elaborate medallions and plasterwork were ripped away. The upper floor was gutted and arranged into
Sunday school rooms, while the outside columns were re-plastered 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.
Throughout the years, attendance at the church declined and 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. Which 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 site condemned. The house along with 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 2009, the adjacent buildings were demolished and the roof repaired. For the first time in over half a century, the house once again stood alone.
The house has since been stabilized with plans of renovation. A few ideas have been proposed, one of which is to turn the house into a history of Tuscaloosa museum.
The Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society has hopes that someone will buy the house and return it to its former grandeur.
Legend of the Drish House
Any house that has stood for 175 plus years 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 of their relationship. As a result, she was locked in a room for
several weeks while only being fed bread and water. Her suiter 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 with their two young sons, and then divorced her. He believed she was going insane. During this time, Drish's niece Helen Whiting
was murdered. She was married to Mr. Fitch, the same carpenter who had helped build the mansion's staircase. One day in a fit of rage, Mr. Fitch sliced Helen's neck with a
razor, nearly severing her head. He was arrested, tried, and declared insane while being confined the rest of his days to an insane asylum. Thus, from the ese events the
Drish House has received a dark mystique.
During this time Drish refused to eat and was only kept alive by forced feeding. It was during then when he supposedly 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 therefore 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 its explanation. The first begins one night when there 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 runaway slave had somehow managed to get into the tower and hid. It being
said that he was eventually forced out by 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 burner tower was born.
In the other, 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 searched failed to yield those candles, and they would not be found until several months later.
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 Tuscaloosa when it was the state capital 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 devastating tornadoes on record struck.
I would like to give a special thanks to Katherine Mauter and Ian Crawford of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society for allowing me photograph the Drish Mansion,
along with providing historical pictures and documents.
All historical pictures are courtesy of the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey unless otherwise noted.