History of the Club
The University Club, a classic Greek Revival style structure is an historic aspect of Tuscaloosa life. In March, 1819, the land on which the University Club now stands was reserved by the Congress of the United States as part of a donation to endow “a seminary of learning” for the state of Alabama. By December of that year, the trustees of the University had sold this land to finance the building of the University. The purchaser was R. H. Walker, and a succession of owners followed. Walker sold the property to Hobson Owen, who in January, 1834, sold it to James H. Dearing, a steamboat captain and member of the Alabama Legislature. Dearing spent $14,000 to erect, reputedly under the direction of architect William Nichols, the magnificent structure that continues to maintain its position of imposing authority on University Boulevard. The house had the same general appearance it has today, although it had no sun porch on the south side, and in the center of the roof there was a square platform from which the smoke of the river boats could be seen as they approached the town bringing supplies from Mobile. The kitchen stood on the north side, separate from the house but connected by a covered walk to the north porch.
The Dearings lived only two years in this beautifully planned home because students from the University helped themselves to their poultry and fruit and trampled Mr. Dearing’s cherished flowers. Dearing noted in a letter to the editor of the local paper that “night after night and week after week . . .companies of student came by . . . singing songs, most obscene, and using language that was most disgraceful and offensive to decency.”
To further exacerbate the situation, Dearing house became involved in a controversy concerning a woman servant whom students spirited from his house to the University. This controversy ultimately erupted in a near riot on the University campus when Dearing arrived to search for the young woman. In retaliation for Mr. Dearing’s part in this episode, the students attacked his home and destroyed Dearing’s front gate. Students then raided his hen house, where he and the students exchanged gun shots. In the exchange of fire, one of the students–ironically the son of a friend of his–was injured. As a result, Dearing built a new home to the south and away from the main line of traffic between the University and town. In 1836, Dearing sold his original home to Richard H. Lewis for $14,500.
In March 1838, Lewis sold the house to the Governor, Arthur Pendleton Bagby for $10,000. Bagby, who served as governor from 1837 to 1841 was not provided an official residence by the state. Thus, the home he purchased came to be known as the Governor’s Mansion. As far as is known, he was the only governor who occupied the structure while Tuscaloosa was the state capital.
In 1843, Bagby sold the house to the Reverend Benjamin Sykes for about $8,000. Sykes passed away two years later, but his widow and children continued to occupy the home. In January 1851, Augustus Sykes, a brother of Benjamin, bought the house for about $6,000.
In 1852, Richard N. Harris purchased the property. In February, 1871, Henderson M. Somerville, who was married to Harris’ daughter, Cornelia, purchased the shares inherited by his wife’s siblings. Judge Somerville, the founder of the University of Alabama Law School was a Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. The home remained with the Somervilles until April of 1900 when Dr. James L. Williamson purchased it. Dr. Williamson owned the property until 1922, when Dr. S.E. Deal acquired it for about $16,500. Dr. Deal made many alterations to the house under the tutelage of architect David Whildin. These additions included a sun parlor, a second story to the east wing, central heating, conversion of the outside kitchen to a garage, and construction of the present kitchen on the old north porch. The property remained in the Deal family until Dr. J. M. Forney purchased the house in May, 1939. Dr. Forney used the buildings as an office until World War II when he entered the service. The house became, for a short time thereafter, the Tuscaloosa Service Center where thousands of servicemen were entertained during the war.
In April 1944, University President Raymond Paty, convinced Mr. and Mrs. H. D. Warner to aid the University in acquiring the home as a social center for faculty and staff. The Warners, with their usual generosity and graciousness, helped furnish this architectural jewel and presented it to the University of Alabama for its University Club menage.
President Paty appointed a committee composed of Professor W. C. McCoy, Dear Martin ten Hoor, Mr. Gordon D. Palmer, Mr. H. D. Warner and Mr. Jeff Coleman to organize the University Club. Mr. Coleman served as temporary chairman of the committee. In addition, Mr. C. H. Penick, University of Alabama Attorney, assisted the committee in preparing a constitution and a charter. Coeds who were using the building as a dormitory were relocated. Repairs were made to the structure, and in early 1946 the house was opened as the University Club.
Mrs. Warner sought and acquired suitable antiques and was responsible for much of the decorating of the club. By 1957 the popularity of the club was well established. Use of the structure increased until a new dining room was added and the kitchen was enlarged per the specifications of architect Harry Haring. In 1967, the building was again redecorated. The Warners contributed $10,000 for these improvements.
During the 1970’s, Jack Warner, son of Mr. and Mrs. H. D. Warner, oversaw further improvements and decorative embellishments. Under Mr. Warner’s direction interior changes were made to the second floor of the building resulting in a new bar, ladies and gentlemen lounges, and a “Taproom Smoker”. Warner pursued a Steamboat-Gothic theme for these changes and gathered antiques, paintings, and artifacts from across America to create the present second floor. The Warners continue to show great interest in the club and often contribute or loan additional pieces of art and furnishings.
The house is Greek Revival style with six Ionic columns. It has a hipped roof with one end chimney, with one on each side. It is solid brick construction with plaster over the brick and painted white. The front door has double wooden doors, with a fan-shaped transom, rectangular side lights and pilasters. Upstairs a front door with rectangular transom and sidelights, opens to a recessed balcony with wooden banister. Upon entry, hanging downstairs in the entrance hall, is an oil portrait of Mildred Westervelt Warner, who gave the building many of the furnishings. The hall leads to the east to the Social Dining Room which has a beautiful ceiling fresco, a handsome Empire sideboard, a pair of chinese tables and interesting wall paper. Also note the oil painting of Governor Arthur Bagby hanging in the Social Dining Room.
In the formal parlor, north of the entrance, the carved furniture is mid 19th century. The wallpaper is French. It was made from original blocks rescued during the French Revolution. The panels were made to fit the paper as it was. Consequently, while the paper which illustrates scenes from the legend of Psyche and Cupid fits the wall, and the scenes are not in sequence. Two of the original panels are in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Throughout the house, the fresco work and ceiling medallions are the originals. The chandeliers are not the original ones but are imported and very old. The mantels are antique as are the mirrors. Of particular interest are the pair of Blackamoor tables. In the parlor there is an inlaid mother-of-pearl table, a black cabinet with ormolu and porcelain insets and an old brass fire screen.
To the south of the downstairs hall is the music room which has a tall case clock and baby grand piano.
The upstairs is a Steamboat-Gothic type interior. Of special note in the Blue Room are the gazebo, with crystal canopy, and several paintings, including “Wisdom taking Captive Folly,” a late 17th century classical Flemish work from the famous Washington and Lee University’s art collection and three hunting paintings. “At the Jump,” “Coach at Hunt,” and “The Morning” by Scott Leighton. The cast-iron chimney pot mantelpiece is from London.