Miss Betty's Alabama 1830s House
by Louise Pipher
The Baby House was originally owned by Miss Betty of Pleasant Hill, Dallas County, Alabama. Miss Betty played with this Baby House as a child, circa 1815. It may have been built for her by the plantation carpenter who most likely was also a slave; or it could have belonged to Miss Betty’s mother, who oral history tells us was English and previously from England which suggests that the house could be even older than the 1830 date we have attached to it.
Miss Betty’s daughters died as children but her three sons lived to fight and die in the War between the States in the 1860’s. Her husband had been killed in a plantation accident before the Civil War.
Mr. Otis Jackson’s grandmother, Hebe, was born a slave in 1832 and was a cook for Miss Betty and her family. Although reticent about details, it seems that the Baby House came into the Jackson family because the Jackson family stayed on with Miss Betty to help out after the Civil War was lost and the slaves were freed. As a reward for this service, the Baby House and other pieces of nice furniture came into the Jacksons’ possession.
Hebe’s son, Tom Jackson, was born in 1868 and was the youngest of twelve children. Tom married Susan, presumably on the plantation in Alabama. Tom and Susan had a son, Otis Jackson, who was born to them on March 12, 1894.
Otis Jackson married Chessie. Some years later, in the 1930’s, they moved to San Francisco, bringing his parents Tom and Susan with them. All of their belongings were on a truck. On their journey to California, an accident caused some of the belongings and the Baby House to fall from the truck, damaging the top part of the Baby House.
After arriving in California in the 1930’s, his father Tom repaired the house and Chessie eventually used it in the playroom of the house where she cared for children of parents working in the war plants during World War II. It was during this time that the interiors of the Baby House were altered. The doors and staircases were removed for safe keeping and were packed away and eventually lost. The front exterior staircase was destroyed in the fall from the truck. The children gave it much wear and tear during the war years.
Tom Jackson died in 1947 and his wife Susan died earlier in 1938; both in California.
During the years 1957 to 1977, the house was stored in a garage where it became warped and the interior walls became twisted. This was the condition of the house when Mr. William Briner acquired the house from Esther Rosen/Rasen in 1978. He collected for over 40 years and was an art teacher and past president of N.A.M.E (National Assoc. of Miniature Enthusiasts). He was quite well known "on this side of the pond"....
We have two letters that Esther Rosen/Rasen wrote to William Briner. The first:
Jan. 10, 1978 Dear Mr. Briner, Thank you for your payment and enclosed are a couple of more photos of doll house. Please do not feel you must rush in your payments. Thank you, Esther Rosen/Rasen.
The second letter:
Feb. 21, 1978 Dear Mr. Briner, Thank you for your final payments. Today the house was picked up by Railroad Express. Hopefully you should have it in 10 to 14 days. I know you will enjoy having this as much as my daughter and granddaughter did. Again Thanks. Esther.
Since Mr. Briner had restored the house, he decided to call it the “Briner Baby House.” He attached a brass plaque to the very center front of the house stating, “ Briner Baby House 1830, Restored by W.E. Briner 1978.”
When I acquired the house in 2009, after Mr. Briner’s death, I changed the house’s name to reflect its original owner, calling the house “Miss Betty’s 1830 Alabama House.” The brass plate that so distracted from the house was removed and placed on the back side of the house to acknowledge his efforts in reviving the house to a usable state.
We have the photos that Esther Rosen sent to Mr. Briner of the house in 1977 when he acquired it. With those pictures we can compare how the house looked then and how it looks now, after his restoration efforts.
Miss Betty's House in September 1977, before restoration
We also have his restoration notes, in diary form, that I will attach to this history as it does tell us of some of the things he found, what he did to make changes and sometimes why he did what he did, when oftentimes not keeping to any effort to leave the house as original as possible; something most restorers try to do.
If I had more time and energy I would perhaps take that info and return the house to what his records indicate but somehow I've come to terms with it the way it is now. I personally do not like the wallpapers so maybe someday I'll work on replacing those but the house is charming and it reflects its past---and even its more current past. I have only changed the furnishings. William had a way of mixing everything up that I didn't like--new furniture, art-findings types of pieces with antique and funky all in one house. I took all the furnishing out of all of his houses/buildings and furnished what I could with old and am selling off the newer and findings type of pieces. I'm happy to share this house with DHPP readers as it is very special---I've particularly enjoyed the lowest level of the house!! Someday I will replace the double staircase entry to the house.
Diary notes of William Briner as he restored the house
Monday, Sept. 26th – put cornice back up in the music room – did not look good because of warped ceiling.
Tuesday, Sept 27th – removed cornice again and put up ceiling of pebble board and replaced cornice—purists would not like it but I’m pleased and the ceiling is level at last.
Thursday, Oct 20th – Joe Hermes wallpapers arrived and I papered the music room in a blue and white toile.
Friday, Oct. 21st – painted ceilings in drawing and dining rooms. Plan to use a Chinese mural in dining room and a rose on blue toile in the drawing room.
Sunday, Oct. 23rd – Removed pieces of drawing room walnut chair rail which still existed. Plan to put a paneled dado in its place. Only one piece of skirting baseboard left- also walnut-painted and 7/8 inches high. I gilded the dining room cornice, painted fireplace wall and cupboards.
Sat. Oct. 29th – Papered parlor and dining room. Woodwork in dining room had two pieces glued together. Bottom piece around door was a dark mahogany finish and a grooved pained piece glued on top with black for a base. No door top. Plan to do a broken pediment. House is looking beautiful. Floors will be a problem; if only they had not warped.
Mixed the blue paint I had used in the parlor and dining room with a little red and almost matched the hallway color. Painted dining room mantel this lavender color and will do the chimney breast in hall the same with a paper to harmonize.
Sat. Oct. 29th – Have finally concluded rear of house – house shrank at some time between the 3 vertical boards and a piece of wood 3/16 inches wide placed in the cracks – reminds me of another English house of 1885 which has done the same and the cracks are clearly visible. Have not as yet decided how to light the house- purists I’m sure would shudder to hear me even consider it, but it is so much more enjoyable to have it well-lighted. Covered ceiling molding in hall, of which one long strip is missing --was originally white and then the lavender color. It is of pine. I’ll paint it white to match the ceiling. Only one 3-inch piece of skirting board left. Painted same as wall. Pine wood. Red underneath the lavender – then bare wood. A brown glue used to hold in place. Using a hand mirror, I was able to paint side of fireplace away from viewer and cover a sloppy job done previously (lots of deep red paint showing).
Sunday, Oct. 30th – Papered hallway of Baby House. Began work to replace the staircase.
Tues., Nov. 1st – Today I found another square nail when working in the downstairs pantry hall. Still no screws with flat ends. Painted all of bottom floor antique white except kitchen fireplace and floor which are a red, but probably not original. One wall by arch seems to have been varnished at one time (the wall between the cooking area and the stairway).
Nov. 9th – Sanded and painted the four missing shelves from the kitchen and pantry.
Nov. 11th – Veteran’s Day – Glued and nailed in the missing kitchen and pantry shelves. Began work on a copper (which would not have been appropriate to this house – it is an English kitchen item).
Nov. 12th – Painted the copper and installed. Began on sink.
Nov. 13th – Installed sink and began on stove. Put in servant’s stairs.
Mon., Nov. 14th – Did more work on kitchen range and installed it.
Nov. 15th- Worked on servants stairs and doors.
Thurs., Nov. 17th – Installed door between bedrooms and finished servant’s stairs.
Sat., Dec. 3rd – Went to AMSI and bought paneling for drawing room and dining room and cut same for drawing room.
Dec. 6th – Did paneling for dining room and painted both DR and Din R pale blue.
Dec. 7th – Gave panels 2nd coat.
Dec. 9th – Ill (sick) stayed home from school (work) and installed the paneling and did some lighting work.
Dec. 11th – Dining Room floor seems to have been originally a dark stain and then painted a neutral brown – will re-stain it a dark walnut if possible. Also did the floors in the hall, drawing room and music room today.
Dec. 14th – Finished paneling and baseboards. Glued in staircase and corner cabinet.
Dec. 15th – Worked on door casings – all complete on interior.
Dec. 18th – Worked on exterior. 1st coat (bottom next to wood) Brown, white, yellow, green, beige, dark red, and brown. Painted it brown exterior.
Dec. 21st – I assume the holes above interior windows were where drapery rods were attached at one time. Mr. _______ called today and said he is moving and found a pediment for the front of the house and asked if I wanted it. He thinks front stairs broke when house fell off truck. I went and picked it up.
Dec. 22nd – Pediment belongs over the window above entrance door. Could not find markings except nicks, but only possible place for it. Replaced badly damaged right corner pilaster.
Notes at first looking through the house when first found:
- Valentines were on top bedroom wall along the top of walls.
- Left bedroom – tiny flower bouquet print wallpaper – gray background – stubborn to remove.
- Outside left wall, 3 boards, middle on 2 inch wide. Color- blue on the bottom, beige print and yellow on top.
Notes on colors of the various rooms over the years:
- Upstairs left bedroom: first painted blue, beige, wallpapered, pink and then yellow. There was a Madonna and baby picture over the fireplace when acquired.
- Upstairs right bedroom: first painted beige, wallpapered, green and then yellow. The woodwork was deep red like in the Hall.
- Left middle floor – Music Room: first painted beige, wallpapered salmon and white stripe, and then beige. The wallpapered room had a dentil cornice added after it was papered.
- Right middle floor – Drawing Room: painted beige only.
- Left Dining Room: first painted mustard color, medium tan, white and finally green with white. The chimney piece in this room had first mustard, medium tan and green and white….not just white. When painted white, the dado was bare pine wood and then white and then green and white on the wall area above the dado.
- Right Hall (servant’s stair area): first painted deep red and second painted brown.
- Bottom left kitchen: first painted beige then yellow.
- Bottom center kitchen hall: first painted beige and later green.
- Bottom right storage pantry: first painted beige and later brown with beige.