Bell, Friends of Gaineswood take over management of historic site

Carolyn Bell and the Friends of Gaineswood are now responsible for the day-to-day operations of the historic home.

Carolyn Bell and the Friends of Gaineswood are now responsible for the day-to-day operations of the historic home.

Carolyn Bell must be forgiven if she stumbles a bit calling to mind the history of Gaineswood and some of its features.

After all, she has been the site director of the historic home only since the first of the year. Bell still needs to sort through all the files and search through the storage units to see what is on site.

But her passion for Gaineswood is evident as she recounts its history and talks lovingly of the furnishings that make it one of the most unique homes in America.

Bell became director when the Alabama Historical Commission turned over the day-to-day operation of the home to the Friends of Gaineswood. While Alabama retains ownership of the Demopolis landmark and three other house museums around the state, it is relinquishing supervision and upkeep to local non-profit groups because it has no money to continue operating them, said Bell.

“We’re low on the priority list,” she explained. “This is part of the heritage of this area, and it needs to be preserved.”

Traditionally the home has been closed to visitors in January, but new days and times will be in place when Gaineswood reopens. Tourists may visit Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. beginning Feb. 3. Bell said the board also is opening the home on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sundays from 2-4 p.m.

Gaineswood 2The weekend hours have been added at the request of local residents who want to show off the home to guests, she said.

For the next three years the state will help the Friends of Gaineswood with financing for staffing, general maintenance, upkeep of the grounds and pest control –an estimated $50,000 annually. At the end of that time, all operational needs will be met with whatever the Friends can pay for, but the state will continue to fund major repairs.

The four house museums that are being released to friends’ organizations are the ones that draw the fewest visitors, Bell said. It is unfortunate, she continued, since Gaineswood is one of only 37 National Historic Landmark sites in the state. Others in the area are St. Andrews Episcopal Church and Moundville.

“Gaineswood is one of the most unique examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States,” Bell said. The home features all three kinds of Greek columns: Ionic, Doric and Corinthian.

The Friends of Gaineswood board of directors has been meeting frequently in recent months to work through the transition and make plans for raising funds to keep the home open, she continued.

“We have challenges of how to raise funds and continue,” said Bell.

The board is offering memberships at $50 each, and donations always are welcome. The home’s gift shop will reopen soon and, said Bell, she hopes to offer unique items that are specific to Gaineswood, including the work of local artists and craftsmen.

Besides funding, Bell said Gaineswood is in need of part time help to give tours and docents to volunteer their time during special events.

Gaineswood has been through many hands since it started as a two-room dog-trot cabin built in 1821 by Indian agent George Strother Gaines. Gen. Nathan Bryan Whitfield bought the home in 1842 and a year later started an 18-year project of expansion.

Whitfield’s son, Dr. Bryan W. Whitfield, bought the home in 1866, and Edith Whitfield Dustin, his sister, purchased it in 1896.

The home was unoccupied for several years, and in 1923 ownership went out of the family. The state purchased it in 1966, and restoration began in 1971. It was opened to the public four years later and has welcomed visitors for 40 years.

Bell said that 70 percent of the furnishings in the house have been donated or are on loan from the Whitfield family, many of which were original to the house. The latest acquisition are silver serving pieces owned by Betty Whitfield, the general’s second wife.

Anyone interested in becoming a member of the Friends of Gaineswood or making a donation to the museum may send a check to the organization’s secretary at P.O. Box 531081, Birmingham, AL 35253. Donations also can be mailed to 805 S. Cedar Ave., Demopolis.