Dunn - Williams House, A Vintage Vignette

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Dunn - Williams House
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
October 2, 2008

In the heart of Madison’s historic district, at 19 Front Street along the railroad between Sullivan Street and Church Street, is perhaps the most stately of the old mansions of the town. Today it is in need of a caring new owner to restore it to its former glory, but even so, it is an imposing structure that reminds the beholder of the time about 100 years ago when it was the residence of the wealthiest man in town.

Sitting on a magnificent lot of nearly two acres, this house incorporates the older home of Madison’s first railroad depot agent, physician William B. Dunn. The flyer prepared by Pat Glenn of Rise Real Estate from historical society data states that the original house was built between 1845 and 1847. However, it is now known that Dr. Dunn lived in the household of his brother-in-law, Richard Wiggins, at the time of the 1850 census. Furthermore, from 1818 until 1854 the land where the house was built was owned by the State of Alabama. The site was adjacent to the right-of-way granted in the early 1850s to the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. At age 76, James Clemens, father of U. S. Senator Jeremiah Clemens, purchased the land that became the historic district of Madison when the railroad determined that it needed a depot between Huntsville and Decatur. Clemens prepared a town plat and began to sell lots on both sides of the railroad, with the first sale (Lots 12 and 13) occurring in February of 1857 to Madison’s first merchant, George Washington Martin. The Dunn house was built on Lot 21 or 22, both of which were purchased by William Dunn on November 24, 1869. It is doubtful that the doctor would have constructed his house on land that he did not own prior to that time. Per the 1860 census he lived south of the railroad tracks, until he bought the lots north of the tracks where Front Street is today.

The original 3-room Dunn house was constructed almost 150 years ago. It was a one-story cottage that was raised on logs and rotated 90 degrees to face west after Madison mayor and entrepreneur Jim Williams and his wife Mattie Whitworth bought the property in 1904. They then added a massive 3-story Queen Ann styled structure to face Front Street, while incorporating the smaller, one-story Greek Revival Dunn house as a back wing. The early 1900s addition has a slate composite roof. It includes double wrap-around front porches of about 47 X 10 feet on the first two levels, with 9 Tuscan columns each. There is also a side porch of 8 X 12 and rear porches of about 32 X 7 on two levels. The house has six chimneys, with nine original fireplaces, two of which now have gas log inserts. There is a fireplace in each room except the kitchen. The ceilings are at 10 feet throughout, and there are two stairways from the first floor to the second floor. There is another stairway from the second floor to a partially floored attic for the third level. The doors have transoms, and the floors are made of oak and heart pine. The parlor can be closed with a nine-foot pocket door.

The house contains 5 bedrooms, with the smallest being 15 X 15.5 feet and the largest at 21.5 X 17.5. There are 3-1/2 baths, one with an old claw-foot tub. The two center halls of the dogtrot plan are about 42 X 11.5. The family room is 17 X 17.5, the formal living room is 17 X 17, the formal dining room is 21.5 X 17.5, the den or library is 15 X 16, and the eat-in kitchen is 21 X 17.5. There is a cottage now used as a workshop and for storage plus a detached garage that was once the horse stable. This house is on the National Historic Register, and it majestically awaits a historically-minded new owner to enjoy its graceful ambiance.

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