Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Special Places

August 2

The village of Fairhope used to be full of gullies, crannies, hidey-holes, and other special places where a kid could go and be alone with nature. All you had to do was climb down to the heart of a gully to be surrounded by trees and silence, and feel the sand under your bare feet.

But gullies were usually where you went with friends, to explore and climb and design new games. Grownups went to gullies too. I am told that in the old days, when paved roads had not yet been provided and gullies were deeper and dominated the landscape, visitors from other places would be taken through the gullies to join the adventure of basic Fairhope. A friend from the Washington, D.C., area used to visit his grandmother in Fairhope in the 1950's, and as soon as he got to her little house on Pier Street he would take off his shoes and head to the nearest gully to play alone. He might have encountered any number of native Fairhope youngsters there.

There are still special places here. I am thinking of the room in the Friends' Meeting House out on Fairhope Avenue. This plain white wooden structure has been home to the gentle sect for years. I can't say how many years, but I recently went to a spiritual meeting there and can say the little building resonates with the sacred thoughts and prayers of generations. It offers sanctuary and grace with no obligation; its cool quiet is prayer itself.

Dahlgren Hall on the Faulkner campus is another special place. This was once the library for the student of the Marietta Johnson School, when it occupied the same campus. At the time I attended, the building was known as the Rec Hall -- short for Recreation Hall, of course. When the school's campus changed hands, and the Organic (Marietta Johnson) School moved to a different location, the building was preserved with much help from Harold Dahlgren, and it was renamed after him. The restoration was nothing short of superb for the little run-down space. The floors, walls, and windows remained, but all was shored up, wood was stripped and refinished, and now the building is perfect for gatherings, meetings and classes of groups of 150 and under. It provided a cheerful space for Pancake Day last April.

Knoll Park, once a plain Indian burial mound, is a quiet place cresting near the bay bluff. Early settlers planted azalea bushes ringing the park, but because of its heritage it is not used for activities except around its borders. All of the park lands of Fairhope are special, for the most part untouched, for the most part remaining much as they were 100 years ago.

Another very special place is the Bell Building. This was one of the first school buildings in the county, built in 1904 and bought for Marietta Johnson for her school by philanthropist Joseph Fels. The building remains as a museum dedicated to Fairhope History and to the perpetuation of the work of Marietta Johnson. I occasionally volunteer to work in the Marietta Johnson Museum, and its bounty of information about the lady and the school she founded is a constant source of wonder and inspiration.

So many of the special places in town have been replaced or remodeled that it's sad to say we don't think about them much any more. The first library is now an office building for the University of South Alabama. The Colonial Inn, Fairhope's traditional hotel, was demolished years ago. There will soon be New Orleans-style condos where the Corte house, a Tudor mansion in the center of town, once stood.

Yet there are special places in Fairhope for us all. The new buildings going up indicate little understanding of what makes a special place, but we hold on to the few that remain from the past.

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