Alabama Travel Articles
Alabama's Recycled Attraction
Article and photos by Kathleen Walls
So you think building green is the latest construction trend. Oh yeah? Well here's 'The Rest of the Story." There was some very environmentally conscious building going on in Alabama the 1930s. Dr. William Henry Burritt was a somewhat eccentric man but one far ahead of his time.
When he began building his retirement home atop Round Top Mountain just outside of Huntsville, Alabama in 1934, construction workers must have thought the good doctor was a few straws short of a bale when he instructed them to stuff straw bales inside the walls and ceiling of the mansion for insulation. He also had the revolutionary idea of building the house in the shape of a Maltese Cross to get cross ventilation as well as great views. To top off that, rich as Dr. Burritt was, much of the house was built with recycled material.
Today, architects as well as tourists still enjoy the good doctor's dream home. It's one of Huntsville's most popular attractions.
The story surrounding the building of this green mansion is as extraordinary as the house itself. William Henry Burritt was the only son of Dr. Amatus Burritt and Mary King Robinson. Dr. Burritt came into his profession with a strong background. Both his father and grandfather were homeopathic physicians. His father had remained neutral during the Civil War and served as a mediator between the two sides when Huntsville fell into Yankee hands.
In 1892 Dr. Burritt married Pearl Budd, the daughter of a union captain stationed in Huntsville during the Civil War. The marriage was short lived. Pearl died on July 3, 1898.
The year following Pearl's death, Dr. Burritt was treating a wealthy heiress and widow, Mrs. James T. (Josephine) Drummond who was visiting Huntsville when she became ill. The wealthy widow became enamored wit her new physician and proposed to him. They were married on November 29, 1899. Josephine was twenty years older than Dr. Burritt. Her wealth allowed him to retire from the practice of medicine and devote all his attention to his new bride. They traveled widely during their marriage and acquired many interesting things. Josie died in 1933 and the next year, Dr. Burritt returned to Huntsville and planned his retirement home, farm, and goat dairy. He purchased the top of Round Top Mountain and construction started in 1934.
The good doctor's life was rarely uneventful. True to form, his new home burned to the ground on June 6, 1936, just one day before he planned to move in.
While he was rebuilding, he married again. This time to Alta F. Jacks, the daughter of a prominent family in New Market. That marriage ended in divorce on March 9, 1949.AS you may have guessed, Dr. Burritt was not a conventional man. His likes and dislikes were strong. Tea, coffee and alcohol were not allowed in Dr. Burritt's home, nor did he allow their use in his presence. He did not believe using hot water so the house had cold water piped in but no hot. According to Joyce, our house guide, rumor is that is why his third marriage ended in divorce. He did not like the driving setup of conventional cars so he ordered a right-hand drive car. He claimed it was to be sure that he stayed on his side of the road. However, since Dr. Burritt was blind in one eye the right-hand drive may have been more practical for him driving up and down the mountain. His Studebaker is now on display at the mansion.
He also had a rather odd sense of humor. As he grew older and someone asked him how he felt, he replied, "If I were still practicing medicine and anyone came to me over the age of sixty-five, I would recommend they shoot themselves."
After his death, he willed his home and property to the City of Huntsville to be used for a museum and public park.
The "park" surrounding the home is filled with homes representing the styles built by Alabama settlers, authentic 19th Century crops, and living history interpreters Our guide, Claudia Shar, was dressed in Regency period clothing representing the early part of the century 1810 to 1820. she introduced us to some of the livestock.
There is Miss Twiggie and Little Pig, two female potbellied pigs and Miss Lilly, the cow, named for Lillie Flagg a cow who won the competition for producing the most butterfat. Mr. Rhett who owned her threw a three day party in her honor. The resident goats are Abby and Annie and Bushie. Of course there are the horses and chickens as well.
So now you know how Huntsville got what became its first museum showcasing not only the magnificent Burritt Mansion but the period homes of the area as well as the culture and lifestyles and is still proving that sometimes old ways just get recycled and become new again.
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