Historic mission: Huntsville group begins renovation of home at Blue Mountain College

By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal

Some folks’ idea of a summer vacation conjures up images of sandy beaches or trip to the mountains or maybe Disney World. Others would rather paint a porch railing or swing a hammer.
Barbara and David Duff fall into the latter category.
The 80-year-old couple was among three dozen volunteers from Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., who descended on the campus of Blue Mountain College for a week to help renovate an old house that sits in front of the campus.
“We’ve probably done seven, eight, nine mission trips,” said Barbara Duff. “We just got addicted to it. People can’t believe you give up your vacation to go work and get sweaty and dirty. But if we can show a neighborhood God’s love, it’s worth every bit of it.”
The volunteers were in town to work on the Palmer-Donnell House, a two-story Victorian home built in the summer of 1892 by Charles F. Palmer. His grandfather, Frances Frederick Brougher, sold Blue Mountain College the land it sits on today.
Palmer’s daughter, Charlotte “Lottie” Palmer, later married Alonzo Donnell and the house became their residence. He was a chemistry and science professor at the college and she was on staff.
“When I first came here in the late 1960s, the house was so, so sweet,” said Lea Bennett, alumni affairs director for BMC. “It had a white picket fence. It was one of the dollhouses of Blue Mountain.”
In the 1970s, after the death of Lottie Donnell, the house fell into a state of disrepair. For a while it even became a rental house. And then in 2010, the college was able to purchase it.
“Alumni for years wanted that house to be a part of the campus so we could keep it pretty,” Bennett said. “I mean, hello, it’s right in our front door. You could just about hear the applause when we announced we were buying it.”
Windows, porches and stairs
Structurally speaking, the years were kind to the home, but the three additions to it were not.
One of the first things the Mt. Zion group did when they arrived was cut off an addition on the back. They also took out a room that had been added to one side of the house to make room for a deck.
And they removed a narrow spiral staircase in the entryway and enlarged the area by five feet to build a new staircase with a landing.
“An advance team came on July 6 and the rest of the team started arriving the next day,” said Jerry Sims, one of the volunteers. “There were builders on the advance team and they helped us get started and going in the right direction. Some of the volunteers have a construction background and some don’t.”
From July 7 to July 13, the volunteers concentrated on replacing all the windows in the home, removing and duplicating the front porch railing and rebuilding the area where the new staircase will go.
“We ran into several problems, as you do with any old house,” Sims said. “We’ve learned to be flexible.”
Kim Blaxton and her son, Connor, were among the volunteers working on the house.
“I was not familiar with Blue Mountain at all, so I was intrigued by the area,” she said. “But to be honest, I wanted to bring my 13-year-old son here. It’s a great opportunity for kids to do community service and get exposure to skills and craftsmen. There’s a wealth of knowledge with this team and it gives kids an opportunity to be hands-on. It gets them away from video games.”
Connor spent his time doing demolition work and building a frame and wall for the staircase.
“No painting though,” he said. “That’s the ladies’ work.”
Five years’ worth of work?
The mission group from Huntsville heard about the work that needed to be done on the old Victorian house from their pastor’s wife, Charlotte Madison.
“Charlotte is a 1969 graduate of Blue Mountain College and she serves on the board of trustees,” said Bennett. “She’s a very, very active alumna and devoted to this school. She knew when we bought this house what shape it would be in. She let the president know of the dynamic ministry they had at Mt. Zion.”
Stan Irwin, who works on special projects at the college, said it’s common for different volunteer groups to come from all over the country each year to do work around the campus.
“We are honored to have these special people come up here and help us on this house,” he said.
The college pays for all the supplies and the rental of any equipment that’s needed for the home’s renovation.
Sims said his church group is looking at another three to five trips if they have to do all the work on the house themselves.
“I can’t wait to see it all completely restored,” said Patsy Horsley, one of three volunteers who’s in charge of cooking. “Using volunteers, they think it may be a five-year project. I think it’s great they want to restore it and not tear it down. This house has so much character.”
The college’s plan is to turn the Palmer-Donnell House, which will have four rooms downstairs and three upstairs, into a welcome center and alumni house that can be used for meetings, offices and as an overnight guesthouse for visiting alumni.
“I hope it won’t take five years,” Bennett said. “I’d like to see it happen in the next couple of years. But that takes resources and more resources.”
ginna.parsons@journalinc.com