The spread of Atlantic seaboard culture into the Gulf South during the early nineteenth century brought with it important strains of both vernacular and academic architecture. Bride’s Hill, Alabama’s premier example of the Tidewater-type cottage, embodies the former; the Dancy-Polk house is an early and important instance of the latter. Rooted in the colonial period, both strains were essentially conservative rather than innovative. Though contemporary carpenter’s handbooks, such as those of Owen Biddle or Asher Benjamin, frequently inspired decorative details, these elements were grafted onto house forms that would have been recognizable half a century earlier.
Francis Dancy and his wife, née Elizabeth Mason, descended from prominent families long seated in the Chesapeake-Albemarle region of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina (often referred to by cultural geographers as “greater Virginia”). In their Alabama mansion, it is difficult not to see a generalized recollection of the great houses they would have known back in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions of their native states—houses that reflected English Georgian precedent, though more often than not rendered in wood from North American forests rather than brick or stone.
A two-story, five-bay, hipped-roof main block—here rising nearly a full story above a brick enclosed service area—breaks into identical flanking wings to create a facade some ninety feet long. The visual focal point of the facade is a well-proportioned, two-tiered pedimented Tuscan portico; its tympanum is now marred to a degree by an incongruous metal vent. Physical evidence indicates the presence at one time of a similarly pedimented one-story portico at the rear. Originally, louvered shutters flanked the windows.
When completed in 1829, the Dancy-Polk house was one of the most formally composed residences in Alabama. Its treatment and massing echoed not only older American and British design precepts, but also, faintly and distantly, the far ranging influence of Palladio and the Renaissance villas of the Venetto.
Built in the middle of a village just beginning to shed its frontier trappings, the Dancy house is nonetheless essentially rural in character. Although set back imposingly on an expansive lawn, a sliver of the property was claimed as early as 1834 as right-of-way for the Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur Railroad then being pushed forward to provide transit around the treacherous Muscle Shoals of the Tennessee River. Toward the end of the same decade, the Dancys decamped to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, perhaps dismayed by a slumping local economy and lured by the sugarcane and cotton-growing prospects of the lower Mississippi Valley. The Decatur residence was relinquished to their daughter, Caroline, and her husband, Jonas C. Wood.
At the beginning of the Civil War, the house was occupied by Woods’s daughter, Lavinia, and her husband, Dr. Thomas Polk, cousin to both President James K. Polk and the Right Reverend Leonidas Polk, whom history would remember as the colorful “Fighting Bishop of the Confederacy.” When occupying Union forces built a fortified perimeter around Decatur in the spring of 1864, the Polk house was among a handful of buildings commandeered for military use—an event that spared it when virtually every other building in town was razed to create a clear field of fire. Ordered into exile along with other Decatur residents, the Polks returned after the war to pick up the threads of their life. During the lean years of Reconstruction, as the surrounding town rebuilt and slowly began to grow, Lavinia Wood Polk turned her family home into a boarding house, which she managed until her death in 1888.
Much of the original woodwork survives in the house, including Adamesque mantelpieces, tall paneled chimney cupboards, and a graceful stairway with a bannister terminating in a swirled volute. Neglected and crowded by a deep railroad cut at the front and a busy state highway to one side, the Dancy-Polk House was purchased and restored in the 1970s by local businessman and history buff Ned Anderson.
Gamble, Robert. Historic Architecture in Alabama: A Guide to Styles and Types, 1810–1930.Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
Di Valmarana, Mario, Robert Gamble, and Louise Brooks Joyner. Palladio in Alabama: An Architectural Legacy. Montgomery, AL: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1991.