Oxford City Council ponders project for old downtown
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com
Oct 31, 2013 | 4600 views |  0 comments | 101 101 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The former First National Bank building in Oxford now holds a retail business. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
The former First National Bank building in Oxford now holds a retail business. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
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Downtown Oxford’s Main Street is lined with historic homes and buildings, some of which date to the mid-1800s.

They could be regarded as the last of their type, however, for previous structures of that era have been lost to time and neglect. Oxford City Council members are considering saving what’s left by establishing a historical commission.

“I think we realize that even though we have the big economic impact areas of our city, this is really the heart of the city,” said Councilwoman Charlotte Hubbard.

Oxford is not the only local municipality debating the preservation of historic structures.

Jacksonville considered establishing a historic commission in September, but three council members voted against it, saying while they support historical preservation the commission would have too much authority. Some also said wording of the resolution conflicted with state law.

In Anniston, a resolution to create two historic districts was approved Oct. 17 by the Anniston Historical Preservation Commission, said John Valieant, commission chairman. The City Council has final say-so, and could vote on the matter in the coming months, he said.

If the districts are created, those who own property within them would have to check with the commission before making changes to the outsides of their structures.

Out of sight, out of mind

Oxford’s dilemma is a common one, Hubbard explained. What was once a gathering place and shopping destination for the community fell away as shopping malls and retail outlets sprouted up elsewhere.

The Oxford Exchange shopping center has plenty to offer residents, Hubbard said, “But there’s no character there. There are just times when you want to come home, and that’s what this area is.”

An old theater on Main Street was torn down years ago. It was too badly deteriorated to save, Hubbard said. Historic homes in other areas of downtown suffered similar fates, she said.

Shortly after taking office in 2012, current members of the Oxford City Council were asked to list projects important to them. High on everyone’s list was the restoration of historic downtown, Hubbard said. She was asked to head the council’s efforts on the project.

Hubbard owns a downtown business, Hubbard Antiques on Choccolocco Street. The foundation of that building dates back to the Civil War era, though the structure atop it burned during the war and was rebuilt in the late 1800’s.

Hubbard is also opening a restaurant a few doors down from her shop, in what was once Mr. Robinson’s Cash Store, where children would stop on the way home from school to buy candy bars and sodas, she said.

Hubbard said that as a business owner she does have a personal interest in the revitalization of downtown, but said she would have worked to preserve the history of the place regardless.

An important step

As part of the restoration project, council members have discussed pouring new sidewalks and updating lighting throughout downtown. The city could pay for the work with money from the general fund or through grants, Hubbard said, but more grants are available to nonprofit historic commissions.

Lena Gutierrez, owner of the custom clothing embroidery shop Ruby Jean’s, said her business, which opened in March, stands to benefit from work done to save historic downtown Oxford and draw new businesses. Increased foot traffic downtown equates to better profits, she explained.

Gutierrez does not own her Main Street building, but the former First National Bank’s original walk-in safe still occupies one corner of her shop. The safe’s brass combination lock dial is engraved with the date Aug. 24, 1869.

“All the older people that come in say this is where Oxford used to keep all their money,” Gutierrez.

Other portions of the state have long been involved in historic preservation, said David Schneider, who works as a consultant on historic preservation projects.

“For whatever reason we’ve been a little slow in these parts to get on the bandwagon,” Schneider said.

Identifying and designating properties as historic is critical to saving them, Schneider explained.

Anniston's Historic Preservation Commission has been around for many years, but only a small percentage of endangered structures have been designated as historic, Schneider.

“If you don’t have a commission to even study it, it’s hard to know what you should do,” he said.

A move by Oxford to establish a commission would be a step in the right direction to save the city’s historic structures, Schneider said.

“There’s still a lot left. It would be a good thing,” he said.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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