One of the last things the late Athens City Councilman Jimmy Wayne Gill was able to do before cancer took him from office was present what I am told was a hilarious improv stand-up comedy piece to the City Council about the need for the Houston Memorial Library to be restored. This was because, according to Gill, all that was holding it together were termites holding hands, and something needed to be done before the whole thing fell down. Now, while that may have been a bit of an exaggeration, the two-story wooden home of the former Governor of the State of Alabama George S. Houston was in great need of some extensive TLC, and Jimmy and the rest of the council could see that it had great value for the people of Athens-Limestone County. So they set out to repair and restore the Houston house, and it re-opened a year ago.
There is nothing like a remodel and restoration project to try men’s souls, and this was no exception. The desire was to preserve an important piece of local history and make it compliant with modern standards. The deeper they dug, the more they realized they needed to do. How do you keep the original woodwork and make room for safe electrical wiring? What are your responsibilities to be accessible to those with disabilities? And, how do you go after and retrieve the things that have “grown legs and walked” over the years, including books, a bedroom suite, silver, and more?
These challenges and more were faced by the crew, paid and volunteer, and they prevailed, although the bedroom suite is still MIA.
The house was built on land that had been purchased in 1818, before Alabama became a state in 1819, but the date of construction is thought to have been some time in the 1830s. Governor George Houston lived in the house from 1845 until he died in 1879. His widow, Ellen, lived there until her death in 1909, and in 1937 the house was given to the city by the family with the stipulation that it be used as a public library.
And here is one of the best parts, for those of you who need a stroll down memory lane. This is a library that issues handwritten paper library cards with sequential numbers, that is, at least until January 31 when a different library card system is going to be put in place. My own library card is #15,074. That means that more than fifteen thousand people before me have passed through these doors, have signed on the dotted line, checked out books, and been a part of history.
Lending libraries are one of the things that make America so beautiful. To have the belief that if they want, everyone can read and be well educated for free is one of our greatest resources, and I for one am glad that the Houston Memorial Library and Museum has been preserved for that purpose.
I am grateful to have the chance to go sit in the window seat on the east side of the house and imagine the Houston children who lived there, and thousands of others before me doing the same thing: curling up with a great book. And, I would like to invite you to do so as well.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner