Friday, December 31, 2010

121 Sparkman Street SW - By Lee Y. Greene, Jr.

An installment story about my hometown in North Alabama.

Hartselle, Alabama is like most other places of 12,000 or fewer souls in the South. Most everyone is moderate to middle class, as the area prospered only when the Tennessee Valley Authority came in the 1930’s to change our area from an agrarian economy to a service economy. With the advent of the aerospace and defense industries in a nearby county, our hometown evolved into a bedroom community.

Folks live here, but work and spend their day elsewhere. Because of this suburban evolution, we have lost the days of porch sitting and story telling, now that we commute and no longer really know our next door neighbor. That doesn’t mean that funny things don’t happen here, but that fewer connections are available to tell them. This is a story from my hometown:

In 2003, Lisa and I decided to stop renting office space for the surveying company. We began to look for available commercial buildings to buy and convert for our needs. We did not need much parking, as our clients generally contact us by email or telephone. We looked at several properties, and found a few that piqued our interest. One was Dr. Martin’s old optometrist office on Sparkman Street. It was a solid brick building that was once a cotton warehouse at the turn of the last century. We went to the building across the street , a TV repair shop, also on Sparkman Street, to check out any flood history, or other problems we needed to know about. Mr. Dwight Looney was very helpful and told us the history of the place since he had been there.
We placed an offer with the realtor, but someone else had also offered (earlier, but less than us) and threatened to sue Mr. Albert Henry, the seller if they did not get it. He relented and sold them the building. To his credit, he took a week to talk with his attorney, and think about it. At the end, the realtor had sued him before, so their threat, although with no legal merit, rang true to him.
A few months later, after the sting of the loss of the building, things turned around. I noticed a for sale sign in the window of the TV repair shop. I contacted the realtor and made an offer, not believing that it was available. We went back and spoke with Mr. Looney, who said that our last meeting got him thinking of retiring and he was now interested in selling. We had an inspector go through the building, and got a local attorney, George Miller, to work on the title and closing paperwork. I know many real estate attorneys in Hartselle and Decatur in my work, but I had helped George with a difficult closing a few months before, so he offered to do the closing for the filing fees.

A few obligatory weeks passed while realtors and George did their thing. Mr. Looney removed his operation and the closing date arrived. The building a was actually owned by his brother, who was at the closing along with Dwight. David Burleson was there from the bank and everything went smoothly, until they gave us the keys. It seemed that the front door key worked, but they hadn’t seen the back door key in a while, like five or more years! Basically the building sat unlocked while they had the business. Only in Hartselle. Also, after the closing, everyone got up to leave and George, the closing attorney said “well, lets go.” “Go where?” I asked, not sure of where this was headed. “Let’s go see what you two fools just bought.” Again, only in Hartselle will the closing attorney leave the transaction to go see the property and pass judgment on it, with commentary about how stupid we were to buy such a place, and so forth. All in good fun.

A few weeks later, we began the renovation process. By renovations, I mean we gutted the entire place from wall-to-wall to ceiling. The building was built in 1927 at a time when materials were delivered by railcar to the Hartselle station. One of the unique problems we had to solve was the tin ceiling. The pressed tin pattern was very unique and looked nice, on the front. The back area was apparently a storage area or workshop and was not so nice. There were bullet holes, rusted panels, and other damage to the ceiling. Lisa and I searched Ebay, all the restoration web sites, and even got my cousin who does restoration salvage in Atlanta to help us find matching panels. None to be found, anywhere. It appears that the company that made them went out of business during the Great Depression, so that was the end of the search. George Dutton who was doing the restoration work for us made replacement panels by taking a good one down and making a rubber mold of it. He then poured a cement paste into the mold and voila, new replacement panels that are exact matches.
Another problem that we found was that people did not know that the TV repair business had closed. For months, folks still brought TVs and left them at the back door so Mr. Looney would fix them. We carefully put them inside every morning and stacked them up at the end of the building. We finally got in touch with Dwight and asked him what we should do, since no one left a name or number on them. He said he would be down later and get them. He did, and only in Hartselle, he knew who each one belonged to! We helped him load them up and take them to his house in Falkville where he continues to repair TVs.

A few months later, the building was ready and we moved in. Everyone liked the new place and it serves its purpose well. It is in the National Register of Historic Places, and has quite a history inside. To date, we know of it being a hardware store, a casket store, a pressroom for the Hartselle Enterprise (a/k/a the The Hartselle Enquirer), a record shop, Yarbrough’s radio repair shop, and then the TV repair shop. The coolest bit of its history was from a client of ours who was leaving for Korea on the bus which stopped across the street. Mr. Dwain Howard kissed his then girlfriend goodbye under our awning one rainy day in 1950 to go overseas to war, not knowing if he would ever see Hartselle again. He did, came home, and married her.

Mr. Dwight Looney passed away in 2010.