Kirkwood House, Eutaw Alabama

Date added: September 22, 2023 Categories: Alabama House Mansion Greek Revival
Front view (1934)

Foster M. Kirksey settled in Greene County in the late 1830's establishing a cotton plantation at Finches Ferry on the Black Warrior River. Although he considered himself a planter, he also operated an extensive business as a cotton broker and importer maintaining offices in Mobile and Eutaw, the Greene County seat. He was elected county sheriff in 1845, but did not move his residence to Eutaw until after his first wife's death in 1857.

Purchasing 97 acres on the western side of town, he planned a gracious mansion of a modified temple style overlooking a lake, bridge, and curving driveway. Construction began that same year and Kirksey insisted on the finest materials and workmanship. Eight marble mantel pieces of Carrara marble were imported from Italy and white cedar trees arrived from California. An observatory cupola rose 17 feet above the roof line and was circled with a walkway and 10 fluted Ionic columns that matched those on the wide veranda. Egg and dart molding ornamented capitals of the columns on the outside and the pilasters on the interior of the house. Deep entablatures were used on the hall doors and over windows.

By 1859 the nearly completed Greek Revival home, the planter's symbol of prosperity, had become a landmark in Eutaw. Final touches were temporarily interrupted in 1860 by Kirksey's second marriage to Margaretta Liston, a second cousin to Mary Todd Lincoln, and the subsequent wedding trip. The couple returned later that year full of plans for completing the house and furnishing it, seemingly oblivious to the impending war. The cast iron grillwork for the balcony, French mirrors, and chandeliers were ordered from Europe but never arrived once the naval blockade of Southern ports was enforced.

Despite the loss of a considerable portion of his fortune with the economic collapse of the south, Kirksey was able to retain possession of Kirkwood, but was never able to complete it with the lavish details he had originally planned or to maintain it properly.

The house stayed in the family until 1961 when Mr. Clement Roebuck inherited it from Mrs. Jane Kirksey, the builder's daughter-in-law. Roebuck never occupied the house and it was virtually unchanged when Mr. Roy Swayze purchased it in 1972. While all but 3 of the 97 acres had been sold by Jane Kirksey earlier, the purchase did include much of the original antebellum furniture, all of the family papers and parts of the dissembled cupola. The owner, with the assistance of restoration experts, is using all of these sources to completely restore Kirkwood as closely to Foster Kirksey's original goals as possible.

Building Description

Kirkwood is a stately two-and-one-half-story mansion built by Foster M. Kirksey between 1857-60 in the still popular Greek Revival style. A two-story veranda that extends across the main facade and around the west elevation dominates the classical house. Fluted free-standing Ionic columns support the veranda and a deep Italianate bracketed cornice. To accommodate the change in porch width from front to side the columns are spaced unevenly at the corners.

The five-bay, main facade features eight shuttered full-length windows flanked by pilasters and central double doors on both stories. Although these doors lack transoms, they do bear wooden entablatures and the main entrance has colored glass sidelights in colors of amber, red, and purple. The full-length balcony which horizontally divides the flushboard front and side elevations is still incomplete. The blockade of Southern ports in 1861 brought a halt to the import of such final details as the cast iron balcony railing.

The house follows an almost square plan measuring approximately 41 feet across the front and 53 feet deep. Almost as an afterthought a hipped-roof, rectangular, 28-foot wing was added to the house when it was in the final stages of construction. This extension created an L-shaped back porch that was enclosed on the north end for use as a pantry. The present owner converted it to a kitchen. Chamfered square posts support the remainder of the porch roof. A large dormer window projects from the wing roof on the east side close to the main portion of the house providing light for the back staircase.

Originally a 10-columned cupola or observatory similar to that at Rosemount in Forkland, Alabama crowned the low-hipped roof. The seventeen-foot structure included exterior walkways on all four sides and enclosed a room ten feet wide and seventeen feet long. When the roof began to leak the Kirksey family removed it and lowered the roof leaving the base as a low-standing structure with clerestory windows. Four interior chimneys surround the cupola remnant and a fifth chimney is located on the north end of the wing.

The central hall plan was used in the interior of the house with double parlors on the east side, two bedrooms on the west, and four bedrooms on the second floor. The dining room, which is the only room with a wood mantel fireplace, was first located in the wing which is separated from the bedrooms by a stairwell. The main stairway in the central hall has walnut balusters and rails. The attic half-story under the cupola provided an excellent remote site for a gaming room and is reached by stairs on the second-floor central hall.

Some of Kirkwood's finest features are found in the interior detailing. While eight of the ten rooms have white Carrara marble fireplace mantels, the most exceptional are. those elaborately carved ones in the main parlors. Doors and windows are surmounted with wood entablatures supported by pilasters with egg and dart molding on the capitals. The door knobs are Sheffield silver plate. The interior woodwork received seven coats of paint initially and retains the same paint today. The southeast bedroom on the second floor retains the original stenciled floor, one of the few examples remaining in Alabama of this type of craftsmanship which sought to imitate parquetry through stenciling.

Both the interior and exterior of Kirkwood are now being conscientiously restored by the present owner, who has sought the assistance of restoration expert, Edward Vason Jones and his staff of artisans. Structural restoration was the first priority and rotted foundation sills and timbers were replaced. The stucco on the chimney, column supports and the underside of the veranda roof was redone.

Although the house was never completed due to the war and Kirksey's subsequent reduction of fortune, the present owner plans to complete it, according to the builder's intentions. A drive and brick walkway were installed in 1975 using 1840 bricks. Plaster cornice and ceiling medallions were added in the parlors, entry hall, and first-floor guest bedroom. All of the millwork has been completed for the eventual restoration of the cupola. Fortunately, most of the original elements from the cupola were in storage in the house and used as models.

Kirkwood House, Eutaw Alabama Front view (1934)
Front view (1934)

Kirkwood House, Eutaw Alabama Rear view (1934)
Rear view (1934)

Kirkwood House, Eutaw Alabama View on balcony (1935)
View on balcony (1935)

Kirkwood House, Eutaw Alabama Double parlors (1934)
Double parlors (1934)

Kirkwood House, Eutaw Alabama Marble mantel in S. E. front room on first floor (1935)
Marble mantel in S. E. front room on first floor (1935)

Kirkwood House, Eutaw Alabama Brown marble mantel in S. W. rear room (1935)
Brown marble mantel in S. W. rear room (1935)

Kirkwood House, Eutaw Alabama Main facade and west elevation, taken looking northeast (1976)
Main facade and west elevation, taken looking northeast (1976)

Kirkwood House, Eutaw Alabama East elevation and wing, looking west (1976)
East elevation and wing, looking west (1976)

Kirkwood House, Eutaw Alabama Main facade and looking north (1976)
Main facade and looking north (1976)