Selma’s lost treasure: Historic home going to waste

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 5, 2005

The Selma Times-Journal

A treasure is

rotting away in the center of Selma.

The once elegant faade is pulling away, exposing the century and a half old brick underneath.

Though the brick is still sturdy, the inside is dark and empty, except for the room where addicts and the homeless break-in to sleep.

Today, the house is a sad mockery of what it once was and what it could be again.

Experts say the house-recently named as one of the state’s 12 Places in Peril by the Alabama Historic Commission (AHC)-has the potential to be one of the great architectural sites in the Southeast.

“That rivals some of the best architecture in New Orleans,” Harmony Club owner and professional building restorer David Hurlbut said. “It’s considered by many to be a great example of low-country architecture, like the stuff you see in Savannah.”

The building is co-owned by the AHC and the Selma-Dallas County Historic Preservation Society.

Historic Society President Nancy Bennett said the cottage is just waiting for the right owner.

“(We) are most interested in finding someone who will take the building and give us the plans they intend to do with it,” Bennett said. “We’re just desperately looking for someone to love it and save it.”

The plan and the dedication are just part of the deal.

Even with the right caveats, the Historic Society and the AHC will give the house away, the new owner/owners must have deep pockets.

“You’re talking about a million and half easy, to really do it right,” said Robert Gordon, a Historic Society member who every so often mows the yard and cleans out the beer and liquor bottles strewn about. “That’s a whole lot of money, (but) you could spend that easy.”

According to an AHC press release, the rare raised cottage with Greek Revival and Italianate details was built in 1842 as the center of Weseley Plattenburg’s plantation. It is one of the few structures shown on the map of the Battle of Selma. The city grew up around it and now the house is all that remains of the 2200-acre plantation.

Hurlbut said that a restored Plattenburg House would be a huge asset to the city’s already growing tourism industry.

“It’s a big worry of mine,” he said. “It’s just such an untapped resource.”

Gordon agrees, “I worry about that place all the time. It’s actually a shame about the house because so many people have worked so hard on it.”

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Gordon praised everyone who helps with upkeep, like Jim Wood, Time Bjelke and others.

“A lot of people have worked on this building,” Gordon said. “We just hope somebody saves it.”

The AHC and the Alabama Preservation Alliance (APA) release the Places in Peril list annually. The list highlights some of Alabama’s most significant endangered historic sites.

“Being listed as a significant historic endangered site carries no formal protection, but it can help generate the local support necessary for the sustained preservation of these resources,” said Melanie Betz, an architectural historian with the Alabama Historical Commission.

Originally, the home was a stagecoach stop in the early and mid 1840’s.

“Mr. Plattenburg was a very well known member of Selma at that time,” Bennett said.

At 93, the Plattenburg House was still such a showstopper that the 1935 Historic American Building Survey, the AHC release stated, recorded it.

In the years since, it has fallen into disrepair. The Historic Society has given it away twice only to take it back each time for failure to renovate it to the agreed specifications.

“With a loving owner, it could once again be as beguiling as any show place in Selma,” the AHC release stated.

Bennett added that government funding for projects like the Plattenburg House is a thing of the past as well.

“There are no grants to help with it,” she said. “The grant money for that type of thing dried up a long time ago.”

Since its days as a stagecoach station, the building has served several purposes, including an apartment building, Bennett said. She added that she believes the Plattenburg House could once again fill a valuable role in Selma.

“I think there are viable uses for it,” she said. “What I would like to see is something put into the building that would be a contribution to the neighborhood and the community.”

Until the right people come along, however, the Historic Society will continue to try and save it.