Plantation home to 175 years of historyBy Alexandra Ellsworth | 08/20/2013 11:35pm
Built in 1838, the Foster-Murfee-Caples house has seen a lot of history.
Nestled between two bungalow style homes and magnolia trees sits a three-story white plantation house with a large front porch, that at one time, probably overlooked fields or a tree-lined avenue. The house, only a few blocks from campus, seems out of place among the smaller houses mostly inhabited by college students.
Although the home had been left in disrepair over the years, the charm and history captured Nika McCool’s attention.
“It wasn’t exactly saying ‘make me pretty again,’” McCool said. “Maybe at a certain age houses are like women of a certain age, we have outgrown being pretty in favor of being gorgeous, experienced, powerful and dignified. Our faces show how much life we have lived and that we have lived well.”
Located at 815 17th Ave., in the heart of Tuscaloosa’s Druid City Historic District, the house was built by Marmaduke Williams, a representative in the Alabama State of House of Representatives from 1821 to 1839. The house was a wedding gift from Marmaduke Williams to his daughter Agnes Payne Williams and her husband Hopson Owen.
In 1861, Agnes and Hopson’s daughter, Laura, married James T. Murfee in the home’s front parlor. Murfee taught mathematics at The University of Alabama and led the student cadet corps into action when federal forces invaded Tuscaloosa in April 1865.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the University was militarized and the all-male student body became the Alabama Corps of Cadets, led by Murfee. When Croxton’s Raiders reached the University April 4, 1865, Murfee rallied his cadets on the front lawn of his home, now 815 17th Ave.
The plantation was sold in 1911 and open fields surrounding the home gave way to city streets and bungalows. Soon after, the house itself was subdivided into six apartments to provide housing for UA students.
In the 1960s, the house was owned by Jennie Caples. David Sherman, her grand-nephew, lived there while studying at the University from 1964 to 1967. Caples let Sherman and his older brother live on the third floor for free, but Sherman’s memories of the house begin earlier than that.
“As a kid, I would love to visit my aunt Jennie in her big magic house in Tuscaloosa,” Sherman said. “She would tell us the story about when the Yankees came through Tuscaloosa and shot a cannon ball into the house – I think in the area of the top of the back porch. I was told it was still in the wood in the house. I would look for the cannon ball for evidence of it to no avail.”
Sherman said his aunt was a true Southern lady and kept the house in wonderful condition. His older brother Mike was the first to move into the house with Caples.
“When my brother Mike went to Bama, Aunt Jennie gave him an apartment on the third floor,” Sherman said. “Later, I stayed there when I enrolled. It was a two-bedroom apartment on the north side. He taught me to climb around the third floor porch onto the roof and onto the gable over the window, where it was flat and we would sunbathe.”
Sherman graduated from the University with a degree in geology and currently lives in Santa Clarita, Calif., working as a geologist. His great aunt sold the house not long after Sherman and his younger sister graduated from college.
The house’s second floor balcony was a backdrop for a Playboy shoot in fall 1982. Playboy magazine came to Tuscaloosa looking for a genuine Southern belle to represent the University in the first “Girls of the SEC” issue. The picture is currently hanging on the second floor of the house.
In recent years, the once proud landmark fell into disrepair as result of neglect and misuse. It continued to house students but became dilapidated and unsafe for residents. On March 15, 2012, McCool and her family purchased the house and began renovations to restore the Foster-Murfee-Caples home. McCool said she had two motivations for buying the home.
“I have four sons and two of them will be here this fall, and I expect the other two will want to come here, so part of it was a practical thing,” she said. “It will always be a place where they can live that is close to campus. The other thing is harder to put your finger on, but we just love this house. This house needed a friend. It was still sound but it was not very far from the point where it would have gone down really fast.”
Last year, the McCool family spent time away from their hometown of Mountain Brook in order to transition the Foster-Murfee-Caples house into a home.
“We spent our spring break working on this house,” McCool said. “So it was my husband and I, our three younger son, and then one of my son’s friends. We came and stayed at the Hampton Inn and worked on cleaning up the house and pulling out the carpet that smelled like cat pee. And there was a lot of trash that had to be thrown out.”
Four and a half months later, the house was ready for the Aug. 1, 2012, move-in date. The McCools chose to leave the house subdivided into apartments so it could continue to house UA students as it has for almost a century. Two of the students living there this year will be McCool’s own sons, John and James McCool.
John, a junior majoring in international studies, helped discover the home.
“I would come by here and see it all the time and I guess we didn’t really look into it until my mom got a Realtor to show us around,” he said. “The Realtor didn’t even want to show us the house at first. He didn’t think there was a chance in hell that we would buy it. He showed us around but we didn’t really see any houses that were what we were looking for, then we saw this house and my mom was intrigued by it and it just kind of was a slippery slope from there.”
Aside from a few bats, John and James said they weren’t experiencing any problems with the house so far and are excited to see and enjoy the finished product of their work.
“Oh, it’s such a relief [to be done],” John said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s kind of cool because you can see there is some of our blood and sweat in this house and to see that finished is so great.”
James said he’s excited to have the opportunity to live in a house despite being a freshman.
“I think I am the only one of my friends that actually has a house so it’s kind of an advantage. I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
Though it was a big family push to get the house finished in time, Nika said hearing about the house’s history through studying it and hearing stories told by people who rediscovered the house through her blog, Vintage Crimson, was what she enjoyed most.
“Sometimes they have to look at picture, but then they are like ‘Oh, I went to a party there,’ or ‘my girlfriend lived there,’” Nika said. “It’s just been student housing for so long that so many people have some kind of story or connection. But it’s been really fun talking to people.”