Magnolias, marble and music: Clements restore once-fading Columbiana home

Published 3:32 pm Thursday, April 29, 2021

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By SCOTT MIMS / Staff Writer

COLUMBIANA — If the walls of Magnolia Manor could talk, they’d surely break into song—the newly restored, two-story historic home at the corner of Alabama Avenue and Shelby County 47 once was home to Columbiana’s own “Dixie Bluebird,” Mildred White Wallace, well-known singer and music composer throughout the state.

Wallace, the wife of lawyer and circuit judge Wales W. Wallace Sr., had 150 compositions to her name as of a 1931 article from The Birmingham News. Wallace, who co-penned Shelby County High School’s Alma Mater, was also editor of the Shelby County Democrat, which would merge with the Alabama Reporter to become what is now the Shelby County Reporter.

Though nearly lost to time since Wallace’s death in 1981 and long subjected to the elements, Magnolia Manor has sprung back to life, in the time since Susie and Randy Clements of Clements Family Vacation Rentals purchased and restored the beauty, complete with an antique piano from the years of Wallace’s inspiration.

“Everything’s built around that piano,” said Randy Clements. “Whether it’s a musician or a family comes and it’s a piano player, it’s going to be nice for this house to ring with music again like it used to for 150 years.”

Purchased at a Chattanooga, Tennessee piano shop, the restored piano came complete with its own speaker system and Bluetooth, giving it the capability of accompanying any song on your playlist. The music bounces off the marble walls and fireplaces, which have their own chapter in Magnolia Manor’s history.

But to truly understand how far this home has come, one must go back to its condition before the Clements saw its potential.

The Clements first took notice of Magnolia Manor in 2017 on a realty website. It was Susie who was drawn to the house, which was a shadow of its former beauty. The tall magnolias out front hinted at the name.

“I’ve always loved old houses, so we had a realtor friend show it to us, and we walked through it,” she recalled.

“It needed a lot of work,” Randy was quick to add. “It was a shell of a home. It needed a lot of work, but she loved it.”

What they found upon inspection was the roof caving in, blue tarps everywhere, the windows shot, the wooden shingle roof rotten, and everything exposed to the rain. Still, Susie couldn’t get the old home out of her head. She could see a potential that nobody else saw.
“It has good bones, and I just fell in love with it,” she said. “The fireplaces and all the history—it was going to rot away if somebody didn’t save it.”

The first offer fell through, and the second offer ended with the same result. But, as cliched as it may sound, the third time is the charm, and it certainly was for the Clements in June 2017.

“We got it and I was real excited,” Susie recalled. “We came in right away and did the roof, and fixed the rotten wood on the outside. This year we got serious and started to renovate the inside.”

Magnolia Manor is a 3,200-square foot, two-story home that is close to the “foursquare” or Greek revival design, typically defined as four rooms on top of four rooms with a center aisle—with slight modifications. Susie also calls it a farmhouse.

The home is thought to have been built in 1853. The Clements did extensive research and arrived at the date after meeting with members of the Shelby County Museum and Archives.

The manor sits on stone pedestals and has survived numerous storms and, according to rumor, even housed Union soldiers during the Civil War.

“When they came through to demolish the Shelby Ironworks, supposedly they stayed here and they destroyed and burned houses along the way. So it survived that,” Randy shared.

In studying the history of the area—the foundry and the ironworks—Randy found that a train passed through Columbiana and nearby Sylacauga, hauling passengers and materials, among them Sylacauga marble which was used as a building material in local homes including Magnolia Manor.

Half of the home’s eight fireplaces (yes, eight!) boast the glistening white marble, but Randy believes it was originally used on all of them.

“I think they were all marble because I found marble slabs and chunk laying around during the construction that would lead me to believe that they took out the marble for whatever reason,” he said. “Maybe there was a storm, a fire or they rebuilt it or something, and they went back with wood.”

A company Randy does business with purchased the marble quarry in Sylacauga, and he spoke with them about incorporating the marble in other aspects of the home. Now the kitchen’s island boasts a marble countertop, which in turn sets off the fireplaces and the subway tiles on the walls. The bottom of the island was locally crafted from reclaimed 200-year-old lumber.

Utilizing local craftsmen was something the Clements wanted to do, and it was easy because so many people loved the home. Randy’s company, Clements-Dean, self-performed the electrical work but Columbiana locals installed the plumbing, heating and air, and refinished the floors.

“We used local trades as best we could,” he said. “These guys that just live right here. They were excited about it; they wanted to be a part of this too.”

Bathrooms with modern amenities were added to each of the three bedrooms to make them into master suites. Each room has its own brand-new HVAC unit with a thermostat. The downstairs sports a powder room, laundry room, kitchen and common area.

The home’s ceilings measure about 10 feet upstairs and 12 feet downstairs, Randy estimated.

“We wanted to have brand new electrical, plumbing and mechanical. We wanted to make sure everything was new and fresh. The walls are all stripped clean and we foam-filled all the walls. The whole attic is foam-filled,” he noted.

Added Susie, “We tried to keep as much of the historical charm, the original floors and doors and things that really mattered, but then added conveniences in modern times with insulation and the bathrooms.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the home is the staircase. The wooden stairs were rebuilt by hand to get them up to code, as they were previously too steep and were deemed unsafe. The project added a landing that was not in the original design, as well as new railing. This design resulted in a “nook” on the top floor that adds even more character to the home.

While Randy was on-site working on the renovations, it was not uncommon for people to stop by and share stories from Magnolia Manor’s past.

“A lot of the officials in this town have grown up in this town, and they’ve watched this house as kids and skipped rocks off the windows and, you know, grew up here, and they watched the history of this house evolve,” Randy said. “And they were so excited when they saw that we were going to save it and not tear it down, because visually when you looked at it, it looked so far gone that it would be another old, historic house gone.”

Now, Magnolia Manor is open for business. The first renter, a wedding party with bridesmaids, stayed there on March 19, 2021. The couple hopes to rent out to groups of people staying in town for local events like weddings, Arts Council shows, high school graduations, etc.

“Everybody in town is really excited,” Susie said. “There’s just a major shortage of housing and lodging. We had our daughter’s baby shower here in December, and it was just perfect. We had Christmas music playing and everybody loved it.”

Susie added that she thinks of the project as “personal” and not merely a business venture; part of this has to do with her late grandmother, who is buried in the cemetery just south of the home. She lived in a similar home in Tennessee when Susie would visit her during the summers.

“I was really close to her. She would have loved this home,” she said. “It’s just really special to us, and we hope it’s special to a lot of people. I think everyone who’s worked on it has had that same feeling.”

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