2300 17th Street
Last week saw much celebration in Tuscaloosa and across the Deep South as fans of the University of Alabama’s football team, the “Crimson Tide,” celebrated the team’s victory over Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game after a nearly perfect season. But this is also a city that has seen the depths of despair after a massive EF4 tornado struck the city in 2011. The tornado cut a huge swath through the city killing some 44 and injuring scores more. After leaving Tuscaloosa the funnel barreled through rural Alabama flattening homes and small communities before striking Birmingham.
As the tornado swept through the eastern portion of Tuscaloosa, the tower of the Drish Mansion would have afforded a nearly front-row seat. The tornado first touched down in neighboring Greene County and then moved towards Tuscaloosa almost following the route of I-20. The mansion sits on a small knoll in a traffic island where 17th and 23rd Streets intersect, close to the intersection of I-359 and 15th Street. The tower of the mansion would have afforded a spectacular view of the 1.5 mile funnel as it began its rampage through the city. Crossing I-359, the tornado slammed into Rosedale Park about a mile south of the Drish Mansion. The funnel cloud continued through the city ripping its way through residential and commercial areas and devastating this mighty university town.
This would not be the first nor the last tornado this manse will witness and it only adds to a lengthy list of tragedies it has seen. Seemingly, every time I begin research on this home it seems that another tragedy or tragic period appears. Glancing through the WPA guide to Alabama (originally published in 1941 and revised in 1975), I discovered a statement that the house was used to house Confederate prisoners of war after the battle of Shiloh in 1862. Add this to years of other tragedies and you have a host of ghosts on hand.
The most striking feature of the house is an elegant, Italianate-style tower that rises from the façade. It is somewhat at odds with the obviously Greek revival architecture but the overall effect is quite imposing. According to David Higdon and Brett J. Talley in their recent Haunted Tuscaloosa, the tower was also used to appease one of the vices of the home’s builder, Dr. John Drish. He is described as a jealous man and the tower was used to observe the building of the Jemison house (now known as the Jemison-Van de Graaf Mansion and also haunted), being built by rival planter Robert Jemison, Jr.
It is also this tower upon one of the house’s many ghost stories is centered. Dr. Drish is described by Kathryn Tucker Windham as being a man who “gambled and drank—and did both very poorly.” In an alcoholic rage one night in 1867, Dr. Drish stumbled to the staircase where he uttered a shriek and dropped dead. Before the funeral, Sarah, Dr. Drish’s wife, had the body lay in state in the home with candles surrounding the bier. Following his interment at Greenwood Cemetery, she stored the candles away with strict orders that the same candles be used during her own funeral. When she passed away in 1884, the candles could not be located. Since that time, passersby at night have witnessed flames leaping from the tower, the vengeful acts of an earthbound and unhappy spirit.
The 20th century saw the degradation of this beautiful house. The 1941 publication of Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, attests to it with a photograph of the Drish House serving as the Tuscaloosa Wrecking Company. Photos from the Library of Congress show the delicate architecture marred as the building served as an auto parts store. In the 1950s, the home became part of Southside Baptist Church which was built adjoining the house. The church remained, obtrusively sticking off one side of the house, until its demolition in 2009. The house is now owned by the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society who is working to return this home to its antebellum splendor.
- Higdon, David & Brett J. Talley. Haunted Tuscaloosa, Charleston, SC: History Press, 2012.
- Stevenson, Tommy. “Church demolition restores look of Drish House.” Tuscaloosa News. 12 December 2009.
- Walker, Alyce Billings, ed. Alabama: A Guide to the Deep South. NYC: Hastings House, 1975.
- Windham, Kathryn Tucker & Margaret Gillis Figh. 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. Tuscaloosa, AL: U. of Alabama Press, 1969.