The Columns are all that's left of this Grand Plantation House

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama
Date added: October 25, 2023 Categories: Alabama House Plantations & Farms Greek Revival

The character of James Jackson provided a raison d'etre for the Forks of Cypress. Jackson, an ambitious Irish-born venturer of capital, probably moved to Lauderdale County, Alabama, shortly after his 1818 purchase of the land on which the Forks would be built. Jackson had initially immigrated to Philadelphia in about 1799, where he went into business with his brothers. In 1801, Jackson relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, where he continued to act as a merchant and also pursued surveying. Heavy investment in lands in Lauderdale County as a prominent part of the Cypress Creek Land Company no doubt precipitated his removal to Alabama in the late 1810s. He is considered a founder of the town of Florence. James Jackson was a friend and close associate of many of the Tennessee elite including Colonel John Coffee and Andrew Jackson. James Jackson's quest for success led him to run for (and in fact win) a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives in 1822 and 1823, and a state Senate seat in 1825 and 1830. The desire to obtain a definitive expression of social status to accompany his successful business projects and civic career drove Jackson to commission a house for his Lauderdale County property that few people in early nineteenth-century America could have seen without taking an interest.

The question of who designed the mansion at the Forks of Cypress is a somewhat complex issue, and to some degree is subservient to the larger question of why the house came to be. The former is a question that must be addressed, however. The Forks was a truly exceptional building compared to most of its Tennessee River Valley contemporaries. In the 1820s and 1830s large numbers of people in the area were clearly living in buildings that could be considered largely temporary in their nature. Even most of the wealthier individuals in the area were living in traditional vernacular building forms, particularly the "I-house" and the "tidewater cottage". Jackson's long-time political rival for the seat in the state legislature from Lauderdale County, Democrat Hugh McVay, in fact lived in nothing more than a log dogtrot, even though he was a wealthy planter in his own right. The Forks of Cypress is of course itself at the core a variant of a vernacular building type, the "double pile", but the exterior impression it makes is altogether different from its eighteenth-century ancestors on the East Coast. This contrast with past elite precedents and contemporary planter's houses has one major source: the monumental peristyle colonnade. Any patron of a house of this magnitude and level of stylistic innovation (who, like James Jackson never seems to have been involved in the building industry himself) probably had the advantage of advice from a professional source, either a master builder or a member of the then recently congealed profession of architect.

English-born architect William Nichols is the strongest candidate for having accomplished the formal design of the Forks of Cypress. The term "design" should be used here with caution, however. It is certain that in early Alabama, the patron would almost always set the basic program for any structure. The patron of the Forks could be considered James Jackson on a narrow level. On a broader level, it could include Jackson's wife and even other members of his family and circle of friends. The actual fabric of the building itself could be enhanced or limited by the skills and dispositions of the craftsmen at hand. The early 19th-century American architect or master builder can almost always be found associated with any innovative stylistic event. The Forks of Cypress was a culmination of one such design occurrence.

Only two known men working in northern Alabama during the construction of the Forks of Cypress could possibly have had the exposure, inclination, or education to produce such a monumental building. These were William Nichols and George Steele. There is also, of course, the possibility that the designer of the Forks could have also been an unknown architect. George Steele can largely be ruled out as the architect of the Forks of Cypress as he was still throughout the 1820s more an artisan than an architectural designer given the works that have been documented as his from this period. Steele also was basically a "court architect" for the Huntsville elite and Florence was apparently not his "turf'. Only one Alabama house contemporary to the Forks may have any great relation at all to the design, Belle Mina in Limestone County--the house of Thomas Bibb. This double pile structure shares the honor with the Forks of Cypress of introducing the monumental classical portico into Alabama domestic architecture. The two-story hexastyle Tuscan portico of Belle Mina seems, however, to have a different stylistic root than the peripteral portico of the Forks. In its essence, Belle Mina seems nothing else so much as an overblown version of the pavilions on the Lawn at the University of Virginia. Belle Mina is a stylistic descendent of Jeffersonian Piedmont Virginian building, quite unlike the Forks which has an altogether more complex stylistic pedigree.

For several reasons, William Nichols appears the most probable candidate for the design. First, Nichols was working as State Architect of Alabama (particularly as the architect of the old Alabama State Capitol in Tuscaloosa) at about the same time the Forks was under construction and at the same time Jackson was at his most politically active.' Given the circles that both men moved in the late 1820s, their meeting was highly probable. Nichols, in fact, is thought to have come to the vicinity of Colbert and Lauderdale Counties in order to work on the Muscle Shoals Canal, which would have placed him in close proximity to the house site itself. Nichols is documented to have worked with monumental classical orders as early as the mid-1810s at Hayes (the James Johnston House) in Edenton, North Carolina. Besides the use of monumental orders, Hayes also shares with the Forks of Cypress the feature of a stair hall. The stair hall in these structures is formed by the subdivision of a central passage into a front and a back half, one of which possesses broader dimensions and contains the main stair of the house. Stair halls were a very unusual feature in America, but were more common elements of plan in Nichols' native England. Notably, the stair hall of the Forks is very rectilinear and more Georgian in its form while the stair hall at Hayes is much more sophisticated and Adamesque, but this perhaps can be explained for the paucity of talented craftsmen in Alabama rather than any larger design issues. Another notable link between the design of the Forks and Nichols' architectural predilections is illustrated by the use of a type of segmentally arched fanlight on the south facade of the house which matches very closely Nichols' fanlight at Hayes. The fanlight is only one of two of its type in Alabama architecture of the period, the other one being part of a known Nichols design, the old Alabama State Capitol in Tuscaloosa. Finally, the use of the Ionic order corresponds to the architectural predilections of Nichols. The architect used an order nearly identical to the Forks of Cypress Ionic in the Alabama Capitol in Tuscaloosa. Both of these orders share the idiosyncrasy of "turning the corner", i.e. projecting the volute of corner columns at a forty-five-degree angle in the Roman manner. This element has some precedence in the Georgian architecture of Nichols native Bath. The use of the colossal order in a domestic design, the use of the stair hall, the use of a particular version of the Ionic order, and historic circumstances all point towards Nichols as the "lead" designer for the Forks of Cypress. Nichols' involvement cannot by itself, however, explain the innovative use of a peristyle at the Forks of Cypress.

The only peristyle houses that could possibly predate the Forks of Cypress are in the Lower Mississippi Valley Region. The Forest (Dianah Dunbar House), a no longer extant plantation house in the Natchez vicinity built in 1816, was perhaps the first truly peristyle house in America." The Forest, known mainly from accounts and a sketch by a governess who once lived there, had a monumental Tuscan or Roman Doric peristyle wrapped around a house otherwise heavily influenced by French Colonial architecture. The peristyle type itself appears to emerge from the eighteenth-century French plantation houses of the lower Mississippi. These houses were frequently two stories tall, had high-hipped roofs, and were surrounded by galleries that reached all the way around the structure. The main circulation in these houses was exterior rather than interior, and therefore the galleries made up an important spatial component of the house. The designer of the Forest simply formalized the French design by using monumental piers to support the second-story galleries and the eaves of the roof that formed the extensive recessed porch. The Forks of Cypress actually takes the peristyle dwelling in a different direction.

The frame core of the Forks, unlike the cores of the peripteral lower Mississippi houses, was basically an inward-looking central passage house of the broad Anglo-American tradition. The Forks neither possessed a gallery or utilizes its peristyle porch as a space for circulation. The shade that the recessed porch of the Forks of Cypress offered was a quality always appreciated in warmer climates. The necessity for a porch on all sides of the house, however, is an impulse no one else in the Tennessee River Valley ever seems to have had. The detached treatment of the porch as a formal element apart from the "cella" of the main house is more formal and classical than the Mississippi River Valley houses on the whole. Further enhancing the Forks' classicism is the fact that it possesses a discreet, low-hipped roof in contrast to the baroque, massive, high-hippedroofs of the Mississippi examples.

The design of the Forks of Cypress abandons several of the climatic and cultural characteristics of the Lower Mississippi peristyle house type and in doing so lifts the peristyle house out of the realm of folk building and into the architectural avant-garde of the southern frontier. James Jackson no doubt knew of the French architectural traditions of the Lower Mississippi Valley. He had familial connections in Louisiana and traditionally had extensive business connections there as well. In addition, the Natchez Trace itself goes through Lauderdale County and certainly would have been an information pipeline between regions. Likely, James Jackson's contributions to the design of the Forks of Cypress were the requirements that the building have a porch on all sides and that the house make a statement by its grandeur. Nichols (assuming that he was the architect) then took the program and decided that the porch would take a monumental colonnade form, either following the model of a classical temple or perhaps simply wrapping a colonnade around the structure in a way reminiscent of the crescents of Bath. Whatever the exact design precedents for the Forks of Cypress were, James Jackson's intent with the Forks of Cypress was to create a monument in which to live, an Alabama Acropolis so to speak, which would impress any and all who viewed it with the aristocratic tastes and means of its owner.

The monumental architecture of the Forks of Cypress was an extension of James Jackson's successful quest for social prominence. In early-19th century America, display of wealth and hospitality were explicitly linked. Jackson used his material wealth to acquire possessions, of which his plantation house was one, that would advertise his elite qualities, which allowed him to obtain a positive reputation for himself and acquire wealthy "dynastic" marriages for his offspring. That approximately thirty years after his death, Jackson was still being described as "possessed of great energy, tact, and judgment, which, added to an open and manly deportment, wealth, and liberality, gave him extensive popularity and influence" and also as having "dispensed a princely hospitality till his death" attests to his success in acquiring a truly aristocratic status among his contemporaries.' Among Jackson's possessions were the sources of his wealth, including three plantations and 201 slaves, as well as the displays of his wealth, including horses, furnishings, and the house. The ruins of the Forks of Cypress are the last remains of a world of aristocratic conspicuous consumption Jackson created that allowed him to generate a reputation of status and prominence upon his peers in the Tennessee Valley.

Jackson used horses, hospitality, and the house at the Forks of Cypress to cultivate his genteel status. The planter owned more than $30,000 dollars worth of horse flesh at his death in 1840. Thirty-three race or riding horses (as opposed to work horses) were listed in Jackson's inventory. Jackson in fact owned a half share of a prize English stud, Glencoe (ancestor of Man O' War and Citation among others), worth $10,000. Jackson's horses represent a substantial risky investment--an adult thoroughbred in Jackson's inventory was frequently worth more than an adult slave (and in the case of Glencoe, more than twenty slaves). Yet a horse does not produce goods for sale and its ability to produce capital is dependent on its own success at the races as well as the shrewdness of its owner and the abilities of its jockey and trainer. A horse's worth would depreciate rapidly if injured, and the animal could be easily destroyed by a fall. A barn fire could have truly disastrous economic consequences, so it is no wonder that Jackson had lodgings at his stable and that he apparently kept on guard there at least one slave, named Jim Thornton, armed with a shotgun to ward off intruders." Although clearly an undertaking that had to be closely watched, raising race horses undoubtedly paid back Jackson with personal satisfaction at having raised quick and beautiful animals as well as lending him the aura of aristocracy, both since horse racing was of course the "sport of kings" and also since the equine investments had a high economic risk. Jackson also apparently had his own race track at the Forks of Cypress, which certainly brought him many visitors who would be suitably impressed by Jackson's equine stock as well as his extravagant hospitality.

Jackson had his house equipped with furnishings and other objects for use in entertaining large numbers of guests. The material possessions associated with Jackson's hospitality include plentiful seating (notably forty mahogany chairs and three sofas) and extensive dining accouterments (Several tables, $150 worth of table cloths, towels, and napkins, sets of cut glass and china, and finally $1500 worth of silverware). These objects functioned in the spatial context of a house designed specifically for entertaining. The house at the Forks of Cypress contained on its first floor substantial rooms with the main function of accommodating guests, providing them with food and amusement. These were the parlor, dining room, and stair hall. The "piazza" of the house itself could additionally be used as a place in which to receive visitors in fair weather. The cellar of the Forks of Cypress was a room for the support services associated with entertaining, and convenient storage for food and beverages. The handily disposed kitchen also must have been an asset when many guests arrived.

Beyond its role as an accommodator of functions, the house at the Forks of Cypress had another message to give its visitors. More than any other house in Alabama at the time, the Forks of Cypress was a display in itself. Sited on the edge of a plateau in a position to dominate the landscape, the house turned its formal colonnade to the world on all sides. Twenty-four brick columns in themselves represented a conspicuous display of wealth and power. The design of the house was conscious of the gaze of the public down to very small details as well. Notably, the stylobate still shows which sides of the house would have addressed visitors arriving at the Forks of Cypress. The base is faced with ashlar masonry on the south side (the main entrance) and the west side, while the north and the east sides (the latter adjacent the kitchen) are faced with field stone." The very fact that the Forks possessed an Ionic peristyle and took such a progressive form marked it as a symbol of status. The ruins of the residence at the Forks of Cypress remain significant today not only as a work of pure design, but as the one extant symbol of the world of privilege, display, and status that James Jackson created for himself and his family that would place them firmly in the most elite circles of the old Southwest.

Site Description

The Forks of Cypress ruins, the remains of an exceptional Alabama plantation house dating from c. 1825-1830, consists today of a series of twenty-three brick columns, arranged as a peristyle, resting on a limestone stylobate. A brick foundation with brick and limestone-lined light wells and a brick-lined cellar with a later poured concrete floor mark the former location of the house within the peristyle. Brick paving occupies the area between the colonnade and the foundations. The ruins crown the level top of a gentle slope at the confluence of the Big Cypress and Little Cypress creeks. The surrounding countryside consists largely of tree-lined open fields with a few trees scattered in the immediate vicinity of the site. The rolling agricultural land to the south of the house probably closely resembles the historic pastoral setting of the ruins within the horse farm of James Jackson, the man who commissioned the house. A short distance to the west of the ruins stands a mid-twentieth-century frame barn. The setting to the northwest of the house has been slightly compromised by the recent construction of a large house in the Post-modern Eclectic vein about one hundred and fifty yards from the site. The new house does, however, rest on a somewhat lower site than the ruins and backs up to a tree line, so that its presence does not greatly influence the predominant sense of open space characterizing the historical pastoral landscape. A large stone chimney stands from what was once a log saddlebag dependency of the house remains some distance to the northeast of the house. At the end of a ridge almost directly to the east of the site, but not visible from the ruins because of its location in woods, is the Jackson family cemetery.

The ruins of the Forks of Cypress consist of all the non-wooden elements of the house, the rest being consumed in a great conflagration in June of 1966, with the exception of the chimneys which had collapsed following the fire. The ruins have three basic components: the twenty-three brick columns and twenty-four column bases, the stone stylobate and brick porch floor, and the stone-lined cellar and window wells. The columns of the Forks of Cypress consist of multiple curved bricks molded to varying sizes in order to achieve their pronounced entasis. On several of the columns, most notably the one on the extreme northeastern corner, the plaster that originally covered the shafts still remains. One column is missing in the middle of the eastern elevation because one of the chimneys collapsed on it as a consequence of the 1966 fire. The capitals of the columns were wood and therefore did not survive. The columns rest on bases with torus moldings that are accurate for the Ionic order.

Three limestone steps still allow access to the porch on the south facade. The bottom step originally terminated in ornamental scrolled returns, and the more eastern end of the step remains intact. The stone stylobate is composed of a fieldstone retaining wall capped by a slightly protruding stone course. The stylobate is faced with dressed stone on the south and west elevations. On the east and north elevations, the fieldstone has always been exposed. Inside the physical parameters of the stylobate stonework, the porch consists of brick paving laid directly in earth. The brick-lined cellar extends beneath what was originally the south half of the frame portion of the house. The brick lining is still visible, as are some elements of stonework, including the fieldstone lining of what was once a window well and cut stone slabs that mark locations of chimney bases and cellar entrances on east and west elevations. Not now visible but confirmed through archaeological investigations, the floor of the cellar is covered with a twentieth-century layer of concrete. Concrete or plaster remains in sections on the cellar walls. Archaeological investigations have shown the existence of the foundation of the kitchen building immediately to the east of the house proper, but these are not currently visible.

Detailed information about the portions of the house that were burned in 1966 are available in the form of drawings. These show that the house was basically a double-pile frame form with the unusual plan element of a widened stair hall in the north half of the central passage. High style architectural detail typical of Alabama during the 1820s and early 1830s was scattered throughout the house in the form of mantles, fanlights, sidelights, and moldings.

Some archaeological exploration has been performed around the house foundations and on the site of the kitchen. This work has been limited in its nature, primarily with the purpose of confirming that the colonnade, the house core, and the kitchen were all of contemporary construction. Great archaeological potential remains further out from the house, where there is a high probability of sites relating to slave life, the early horse industry, and plantation landscape in general.

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama First Floor Plan
First Floor Plan

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Second Floor Plan
Second Floor Plan

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Attic Floor Plan
Attic Floor Plan

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama (2010)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama (1939)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Southeast corner, looking northwest (1997)
Southeast corner, looking northwest (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama East elevation, looking northwest (1997)
East elevation, looking northwest (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Base of column on southeast corner, looking southwest (1997)
Base of column on southeast corner, looking southwest (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Interior view of colonnade, looking northwest (1997)
Interior view of colonnade, looking northwest (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama North colonnade, looking west (1997)
North colonnade, looking west (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama North colonnade, looking west (1997)
North colonnade, looking west (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama North colonnade, looking west (1997)
North colonnade, looking west (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Northwest corner of house foundation (1997)
Northwest corner of house foundation (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Brick porch paving (1997)
Brick porch paving (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Interior of southwest corner looking southwest (1997)
Interior of southwest corner looking southwest (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Top of fourth column looking west on north colonnade (1997)
Top of fourth column looking west on north colonnade (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Interior cellar wall looking south (1997)
Interior cellar wall looking south (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Interior cellar wall, looking south (closeup) (1997)
Interior cellar wall, looking south (closeup) (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Chimney base on west end, looking east (1997)
Chimney base on west end, looking east (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Interior of cellar, looking southeast (1997)
Interior of cellar, looking southeast (1997)

The Forks of Cypress Plantation House, Florence Alabama Southwest corner of cellar, looking south (1997)
Southwest corner of cellar, looking south (1997)