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Be Your Own House Detective

 By Heather , Bluffparkal.org  heather@bluffparkal.org  ; Photos courtesy of  Jefferson County Historical Commission /©2010 BluffParkAl.org

Bluffparkal.org will start a special series on the Homes of the Shades Crest Road Historic District in 2010. In the Historical Journey through Bluff Park Series we covered the district, its land and the resorts within it but not the homes, being that there are so many. In this new series, we will look at a few prominent, significant and unique homes out of the 65 structures inside the district.

The homes begin with 601 Shades Crest Road at the intersection of Park Avenue and Shades Crest Road and ends with 937 Shades Crest Road past Mr. P’s Deli on the shorter, less traveled side of Shades Crest Road (running parallel with Alford Avenue).


The history of a home can disappear if no one takes interest in its background.  What is a house?  A house is a building with 4 outside walls, only bedrooms and a roof over the occupants head, but a home is a place where stories and memories live from generation after generation.  

“Every house where love abides And friendship is a guest, Is surely home, and home, sweet home For there the heart can rest.”
Henry van Dyke (1852-1933)
American clergyman, educator, writer, professor of English literature, Princeton.  

In a private search with Bluffparkal.org, a Bluff Park resident we talked to did not know the history of their historical home.  We checked into the three major organizations that have registries in the area but did not find anything until contacting the Jefferson County Historical Commission.  Executive Secretary Linda Nelson, from the commission, found documentation from the marker application for the home and two photos which gave the owners a starting point in their search. 

Tracing the threads of your homes tapestry adds another dimension to home ownership.  With the right resources anyone can become their own house detective!  So grab your magnifying glass and best trench coat, we are on the hunt for history! 

There are several historical marker programs - both on the state level and on the national level.  One such program is The Jefferson County Historical Commission.  This commission was established in 1971 by an act of the Alabama Legislature.  It is made up of twelve appointed members, and a major focus of the group is their Historical Marker program.  Seventy-five percent of their markers are on historic homes including  The Hale-Joseph Home, The Wheeler House, The Northrup-McClellan House, The Stewart House, The Sharpley-Hewitt-Beasley Home and The Ellithorpe-Wade Home, all of which are in Bluff Park. 

Commissioner and author Cathy Adams helps homeowners through the steps in researching historical sites and applying for the Historical Marker program.  “First, I think people have a couple of misconceptions, namely one, that a property has to be ‘chosen’ to be added to the registry, it does not, and second, that gathering the information to make the application is complicated which is also untrue.” Adams says


A property has to be at least 50 years old as set forth by the National Register of Historic Places, and retain its historic integrity and appearance.  This does not mean that it has to be in one hundred percent original condition, and most historic homes and buildings are not, but it must retain its general shape, exterior materials and historic character.  There are no restrictions or guidelines that govern changes to a property that is on the Historical Marker program. “We do, of course, encourage good preservation principles and are glad to advise owners upon request.” says Linda Nelson. 

The most commonly used resources for house detective work are the Real Estate Atlases of Jefferson County Jefferson County Board of Equalization Appraisal Files (both located at the Birmingham Public Library) and city directories.  Valuable information often comes from neighbors or previous owners.  Oftentimes they have stories and photos that official records do not.


“A house has the character of the man who lives in it.”
- Proverb
Ancient Egyptian Temple Proverb. Translation by Ihsa Schwaller de Lubicz.

Cathy Adams hit the streets canvassing her neighbors for their help in tracking the histories of their individual homes for her book on the History of Redmont.   “Some knew quite a lot and others nothing, but my favorite story involves neighbors who had moved from out of state into a charming home in which they were raising three busy daughters.  She thought the house ‘wasn't very interesting since the realtor had told them it was just a spec house built by a developer in 1949’.” Adams says.   They were able to track the house back to 1924 and contacted the son of the original owners.  The son had a wonderful story of how the house was his parents dream home, designed by Miller Martin and Lewis, one of the premier architectural teams in town at the time.  

“When the couple transferred out of town a few years later and put their house on the market, the ad read, ‘Buy a part of Redmont History, historic home designed by Miller Martin and Lewis.’  The husband called me and thanked me for ‘adding $50,000 to the value of just a '1949 spec house’.” Adams says.

“Peace and a well–built house cannot be bought too dearly.”
- Proverb
Danish proverb.

 Researching a home can be fun, educational and surprising!  “My neighbors who have researched their homes have found the process fascinating, and most have gone far beyond accumulating the basic information for the application form.  Research often leads to contact with original, or at least former homeowners and family members.  We hear great stories of aged ‘children’ returning to childhood homes they haven't visited in years and always with great stories to tell.” Adams says.  

Avenues for house research are enumerated on the "Where to Begin Your Research“(http://jeffersonhistorical.org/research.html) packet available on the JCHC website.  The Birmingham Public Library is the place to start, and then there are other resources such as the County Probate Records.  Mrs. Nelson advises, “Do not wear clean clothes down there, since the old volumes are wonderfully grimy!” 

In our private search with the Bluff Park resident, we were able to get copies of the information that the JCHC had.  The photos discovered were the most interesting.  One photo from the 1950’s shows a wonderful old car, and another photo from 1961 shows some changes made to the driveway.  The owners learned from archive records their home was built in 1950 and the first “long-term” occupants lived there for 37 years.

When The Jefferson County Historical Commission started they were somewhat at a loss to know how to review and mark houses and buildings from the modern period. “When traditional styles began to not be the only thing out there and post -War styles began to reach the 50 year mark, we continued to mark a number of them with the traditional shield marker.  

There was no designation between pre-War and post-War plaques at the time ,” says Nelson.  At this point, a second plaque was designed. “We decided to provide a marker with a more modern design, a simple rectangle that would better reflect the modern period but still have the traditional shield logo and enamel colors.”  All buildings built after 1945 receive this marker.   

Buildings built before 1945 display the original vertical plaque with the seal at the top.  Both plaques bear the likeness of Thomas Jefferson and display the historic name and date of the structure’s construction.  Sites are dated according to the occurrence of a significant historic event.  The names given to the homes are typically that of the first or longest-term occupant, or the name with which it is most commonly associated historically.  For example: The Hale-Joseph home is named “Hale” because brothers William and Evan Hale built the home (and several others in Bluff Park) from their lumber company. “Joseph” is for the current owner Mr. and Mrs. Carlo Joseph.  


*Bluffparkal.org exclusive interview with members of the Jefferson County Historical Commission.  

*The Jefferson County Historical Commission Website 

*Anyone interested in applying for the Jefferson County Historical Commission Marker program can get an application package upon request or the package can also be downloaded from their web site, www.jeffersonhistorical.org. The package includes the application itself, some general information about the Marker Program, and a sheet entitled "Where to Begin Your Research."    

*To read more on revitalizing a historic home see “The Yellow Cottage” for Hale descendant Susan Kelley’s work in revitalizing her home. 

*Houses can be on more than one register, and many are.  Many of JCHC marked properties are also in National Historic Districts or are individually listed on the National Register of Landmarks and Heritage, and some are on the Alabama Register.   

*Cathy Criss Adams is the author of Worthy of Remembrance:  A History of Redmont.  (Also on boards of Birmingham Historical Society, Birmingham Jefferson Historical Society, Oak Hill Memorial Association and Sloss Furnaces.) 



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