A House Full of History
March 7th, 2011 - Filed under: Cover Story
When something has always been there, it can easily be overlooked by those who see it daily. Such a part of everyday life, we look past it, registering its presence only subconsciously. The Gorgas House, a two-story cottage in the University’s historic district, sometimes falls victim to being so overlooked.
Built in 1829, two years before UA’s official founding, it is the only building to have been part of the entire history of the University.
Originally known as the dining hall, or steward’s house, there was one large dining room downstairs, heated by matching fireplaces on opposite walls. The floor was the same bricks that still make up the front walk. Upstairs the steward’s family lived. In keeping with Low Country architecture, no basement was dug, but there was an attic. A separate kitchen stood on the site of today’s Morgan Hall.
By 1847, maintaining a dining hall for the University’s students proved too much. Students were told to dine off-campus, and the house was renovated. Pine floors covered the brick floor, the dining hall was divided into two rooms, and a central stairway was added. It was a faculty residence until the arrival of the Gorgas family, whose presence in the house from 1879 to 1953 welded their identity to the house ever after.
In 1879 ill health had forced UA President Josiah Gorgas to resign, and he was offered the post of University librarian, a post his wife quickly took over. The Gorgas family moved from the president’s mansion to the cottage. The House served as infirmary, post office and place where homesick students came for Mrs. Gorgas to console them. The distinctive porch was expanded in 1895 and served as a place where Mrs. Gorgas could relax after her busy days.
In 1953, the last Gorgas daughter living in the House died. The House became an event venue, particularly for weddings. In 2001, Marion Pearson became House manager, a post he held until his death in 2010. Under his care, the House became a museum where students could learn University history. Each semester he conducted tours of the House to classes, members of Greek houses, other student groups, as well as parents during orientation. He was gratified at the amazement students showed at the rich history surrounding them.
In an interview just days before his death, Pearson spoke of the unique treasure that the House has become for the University.
Unlike some museums, the Gorgas House is furnished almost completely with actual family belongings, not merely period pieces. “I have a policy that nothing in the House that belonged to the Gorgas family can be replaced by a non-family item,” Pearson explained. “We are fortunate to have so much family memorabilia. The place is chock-a-block full of Gorgas belongings.”
While cabinets and pie safes hold delicate china cups and saucers and small knick-knacks, and a glass-paned bookcase contains volumes once enjoyed by the Gorgas family, the museum centerpiece is the gleaming silverwork collected over a lifetime by Amelia’s son, William Crawford Gorgas, and his wife as they traveled Central and South America. It holds pride of place in a large display case in the front parlor.
Upstairs bedrooms are roped off but visitors can peer through doorways to see beds, paintings, dressers and a crib. Original interior paint colors have been replicated.
Amelia Gorgas’ presence is still felt, especially in the upstairs parlor where her portrait hangs. The painting shows a small, white haired lady with a gentle smile, head tilted slightly as if looking at her visitor in the doorway. When the visitor walks down the hallway to look into the room from a second doorway, however, the portrait head seems to have moved so that she is again looking her visitor in the eye.
“There are portraits where the eyes seem to move, but we have a portrait where the whole head seems to follow you,” Pearson said. Quite possibly the students who knew Mrs. Gorgas felt that her gaze was always upon them, whether they were ill, unruly or homesick. It is a tribute to her and her home when new generations of University faculty and students take the time to really look at the house named for her family.
Pearson commented that the brick wall fence around the House was not original, and that a white picket fence, in keeping with the House’s original appearance, would replace it. In the months since Pearson’s death, this has been accomplished. University Museums continues to show the kind of care for the House and respect for its historical integrity which marked Pearson’s tenure.
The Gorgas House Museum is open to the public on weekdays, by appointment. For more information, visit gorgashouse.ua.edu or call 348-5906.
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