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Sturdivant Hall Museum

Caroline Greer, Auburn University
Sturdivant Hall
Sturdivant Hall is a historic house museum located in the Old Town Historic District in Selma, Dallas County. The house, considered one of the state's and region's best known examples of Greek Revival architecture, was completed in 1856 and is owned by the city of Selma and maintained by the city and the Sturdivant Museum Association. It was formerly known as the Watts-Parkman-Gillman House when it was documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1934. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and is a prominent stop on the Historic Selma Pilgrimage tour.
Sturdivant Hall is a Greek Revival mansion, which was a popular style during the time period in which it was built. It is a two-story structure faced with stucco-covered brick that gives the home the appearance of being built from ashlar, or stonework. The 60-foot front fa├žade showcases six 30-foot Corinthian columns (known as a hexastyle portico). Identical doors on both levels have Greek Revival elements as well as two full Corinthian columns on either side. A second-story balcony with elaborate iron work spans most of the facade.
The side elevations also feature a balcony on one side and a small second-floor balcony above a porch on the other side; both have a cast-iron structure and decorative details. The rear elevation has two 30-foot Doric columns and a "distyle in antis" portico, another Greek element that references two walls extending beyond a recessed porch. In the case of Sturdivant, those spaces are small rooms. The house has a low pyramidal hipped roof with a small cupola on top that helps with ventilation. As was customary, the kitchen was separate and was accompanied by a smokehouse and a two-story servant's quarters forming a semi-enclosed courtyard.
The interior of Sturdivant Hall displays considerable decorative elements and detail work, including elaborate plasterwork and millwork throughout first floor, including the drawing room and ladies' parlor, which are especially detailed with door surrounds and Corinthian columns with paneled pilasters and topped with cornices. The first floor also has a dining room, gentleman's parlor, and a "warming" room. The second floor has a T-shaped hall leading to four bedrooms and cantilevered stairs to the attic. The cantilevered balcony on the second floor has cast-iron railing. The attic landing has spiral stairs around a central pole that leads to the cupola. There are heart-of-pine floors and three marble fireplaces.
Col. Edward T. Watts, a planter, purchased the property for $1,830 in 1852; construction on the house began in 1853 and was completed in 1856. The home cost $69,000 and was designed by local builder Thomas Helm Lee, a Virginia native who was a cousin of famed Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Italian artisans were brought into to do the plaster and marble work, with marble imported from Italy. Watts's family lived there until 1864, when they moved to Texas.
Local banker John McGee Parkman purchased the home for $65,000. After the Civil War, Parkman became the president of the First National Bank of Selma, but the bank suffered huge losses after cotton prices dropped. Alabama's military governor Wager Swayne had Parkman arrested and seized the bank primarily because it held deposits belonging to the U.S. government. Imprisoned at nearby Cahaba Federal Prison, also known as Castle Morgan Prison, Parkman attempted to escape the jail with the help of friends on May 23, 1867, but he was shot and killed. Before Parkman died, he allegedly vowed never to leave his house, and many believe his spirit haunts the building to this day. There have been many stories about this, including one featured in 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey by Selma native Kathryn Tucker Windham.
Sarah J. Norris, Parkman's widow, and their two daughters lived in the house until January 1870. The house was then sold at auction for $12,500 to Emile Gillman, a prominent local merchant in Selma. Gillman's family owned the house until 1957, then vacant and in a state of disrepair, when they sold it to the city of Selma for $75,000. The estate of Robert Daniel Sturdivant bequeathed $50,000 at his request for a museum to be set in Selma to house his and his wife's collection of antiques. The rest of the money came from the Selma city council and the Dallas County Board of Revenue, each providing $12,500. The house was then restored over time. It is decorated with period antique furniture, a porcelain collection, a doll collection, and a fine collection of art.
The house is located at 713 Mabry Street and is available for rent for special events, private functions, and private tours. Public tours are available through the house, the detached kitchen that now houses the gift shop, and the garden. There are admission fees; numerous fundraisers help support the upkeep of the house and its manicured grounds and gardens. It is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Nearby are the First Baptist Church of Selma, the Selma Interpretive Center, the Ancient Africa, Enslavement, and Civil War Museum, the Old Depot Museum, the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, Brown Chapel AME Church, and the Vaughan-Smitherman Museum.

Additional Resources

Hammond, Ralph. Ante-Bellum Mansions of Alabama. New York: Bonanza Books, 1951.
Published:  January 24, 2020   |   Last updated:  January 24, 2020