The Bridge House, Albany Georgia
At this location in 1857, Albany city founder Nelson Tift built a toll bridge spanning the Flint River and commissioned Horace King, a prominent African American architect and former slave to build the bridge. In addition to being the largest property owner in the county, Tift was already the owner of an early ferry in Albany before constructing the Flint River Bridge. Initially, Tift petitioned the County Commissioners to build the bridge but was denied on the basis that the bridge location was outside of county limits. Deciding to build the bridge at his own cost, Tift sold some of his people he had enslaved and used the proceeds towards the cost of this bridge which was completed at the cost of $30,000. To recoup his investment, Tift set a toll of 75 cents per four-horse carriage and two cents per head of livestock. The original bridge that Horace King designed was destroyed in a fire several years after construction possibly due to public unrest related to the tolls. A second bridge was destroyed in 1897 when the Flint River Flooded. In response, the county built the current bridge to the south of the bridge house. Over the years following its construction, the bridge house was used as a theatre, ballroom, a Confederate meatpacking operation, and a meeting place for members of the Ku Klux Klan. After 1915 the building served the Keenan business for the P.A. Keenan’s Empire Smithing Company and eventually the Keenan Auto Parts Company after World War II. In 2008, the building was converted into the Albany Welcome Center and eventually into the Albany Convention & Visitors Bureau. As a result, the building which was once used to collect tolls for the bridge demonstrates the long history of the South and the connection between the infrastructure built by enslaved persons and enslavers and the New South of the 20th century.
Backstory and Context
The Bridge House, built-in 1857, is located on historic Front Street in Albany Georgia. Also known as “Tift’s Hall” this unique building was commissioned by Nelson Tift, the city founder. Tift was the largest property owner in Dougherty County and was a prominent slave owner. Before building this bridge, Tift was already the owner of an early ferry that served as a crossing over the Flint River. After County Commissioners and Tift argued about whether the County should build Albany’s first bridge on Tift’s plot of land along the river, Tift resolved to build his own bridge.
To fund the construction of the bridge and bridge house Tift sold several of his slaves, allowing him to commission freed African American architect Horace King to design and construct the bridge for $30,000. To recoup the costs that building the bridge and bridge house had accrued Tift set a toll on the bridge, 75 cents for four-horse carriages, 2 cents for a head of livestock, free for walking. While the bridge itself was initially popular, the cost of the toll was draining upon community members of Albany. Eventually, the first bridge Tift had built was destroyed in a fire, believed to have been caused due to the community resentment of the toll. After the first bridge was burnt down, a second bridge was built on the foundations of the first and eventually sold to Dougherty County for $20,000 in 1887. Tift kept ownership of the bridge house.
The Flint River Bridge was designed and constructed by Horace King, a freed African American slave who had been trained to be an architect. King was born into slavery in South Carolina in 1808. He was of African, Catawba, and Indian descent. While living in South Carolina, King was first introduced to bridge construction in 1824. During this period he developed an attachment to the Town Lattice Truss style. In 1832 King was sold to contractor John Godwin and moved with him to what is now Phoenix City, Alabama. Under the tutelage of Godwin, Horace King completed his work on his first major project, a 560-foot bridge across the Chattahoochee River.
With the high-quality work and design King had created, he quickly gained a reputation and became a widely known bridge builder in the South. Eventually, thanks to his architectural and engineering skills, King was granted his freedom. In 1858 the Alabama Legislature passed a law that specifically granted King freedom and special rights to allow him to continue his practice of architecture.
The bridge house that King built is a two-story building with symmetrical Classical proportions, four chimneys, and Italian details in the arched brackets under the eaves. In its original layout the building had one side of the building’s first floor as quarters for the bridge keeper, and the other half set up as Tift’s offices. The second floor, known as Tift’s hall, was designed as a theater and ballroom. Tift hired New York artists to paint ornate frescos on the ceilings and walls of the second floor, helping the theater be considered one of the most beautiful in the state. The hall’s beauty attracted leading actors, dancers, and local stage plays, with the theater seating being adjusted so that it could accommodate balls and dancing classes.
The upstairs hall was also during its history used as a meeting point for the hate group the Ku Klux Klan. Members of the group relayed messages to one another to assemble by telling members to “meet above the arch” in reference to the large arched windows that made up the front facade of the building.
During the Civil War, the bridge house was used at a meatpacking operation to feed Confederate Navy sailors. The outside grounds were turned into a slaughter pen that held hogs and cattle. The inside basement was used to pickle the meat so that it could be shipped.
The 2nd bridge that Tift had constructed was destroyed in 1897 thanks to a massive flood that damaged major portions of Albany. The county built a new bridge south of the bridge house since Tift had only sold the county the bridge itself, not the land on the shores of the river. With the bridge house now out of regular bridge use the building was eventually sold to P.A. Keenan’s Empire Smithing Company, turning the building into a blacksmith, wheelwright, and general repair business. To keep with the times after WW2 the building was converted to the Keenan Auto Parts Company.
On November 19th, 1974, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in architecture, transportation, and performing arts. In 1994 the building was again purchased by Dougherty County after the flood of 1994. In 2001 the building became the focus of an eminent domain battle between former Albany political figure Paul Keenan and Dougherty County. The city commission wanted to acquire the building for its downtown Albany master plan. Keenan eventually donated the building for development to the county with the building at an estimated value of $525,000. Through careful renovation by local architect David Maschke, the building became the Albany Welcome Center and eventually the home of the Albany Convention & Visitors Bureau.
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