“To me it’s nice to have this finished, but it may be more important to have the community work together,” Smith said. “It’s great.”
The old building was once used to ship and store freight and to service passengers traveling along the rail lines that ran just feet in front of it, but after years of lying vacant it was picked up by local residents as a pet project.
Sunday the structure was reintroduced to the public as a multi-use building that will serve as a resting place for bicyclists or walkers passing by on the Chief Ladiga Trail.
The project began with the dream of Earl Poore, a retired Jacksonville State University professor who first considered restoring it while on trips along the trail, which was laid along the old rail bed in the late ’90s.Tackling the project became more feasible as he garnered support from the mayor and other professionals who were also willing to work on the project.
Much of the structure refurbished inside depot was original to the building. Possibly most noticeable is the 16-inch raw brick walls, which have the same unadorned appearance inside and outside the building. According to Poore, those bricks were crafted by hand locally and fixed together with the mortar that holds them in place today.
The building’s honey-colored wood floors shine like new, but many of the planks are also original to the building. They were lifted and replaced by a company from Georgia which offered to do the work for a dollar per square foot.
The exposed longleaf pine timbers that lay horizontally along the roof line are original, too. At the beginning of the project they were cleaned and pressure-washed of years of dust along with the interior walls.
“For about 2 1/2 hours that day, this floor looked like the muddy Mississippi,” Poore said.
Volunteers also used portions of the old floor to frame and place new woodwork around the four double doors that open into the building’s meeting room. Wood was also cut to fit around two windows that replaced two former door openings during the restoration process.
The volunteers had to measure each frame, cut the old wood to size and replace it with hammer and nail to get the job done. Much of that work was completed in the basement of Noxi Taylor, who gained experience in woodwork from years of building churches with Carpenters for Christ.
“It took a lot of time and patience, more than anything else,” Taylor said of the project.
Unlike the walls and the floors, the exposed planks on the underside of the vaulted roof are new to the building, but that doesn’t mean they’re not aged. They were donated from a nearby factory where cotton was once processed.
Volunteers laid the boards out along the trail to pressure-wash them.
After the structure’s original features were restored, new touches were added to repurpose the building. It will be used not only by pedestrians and cyclists, but also as office space for the city’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program and as a rentable meeting place.
To serve those purposes, offices were built in the portion of the building believed to have been used to hold the heaviest items brought in on the train. The main room, which was also used to store freight, was also spruced up to suit the building’s new purposes. Next plumbing was installed to outfit bathrooms and a small kitchen.
To make the old space more user-friendly, the old doors were replaced and rustic light fixtures were hung from the ceiling beams. The new touches may not be antiques, but you might not know it without careful inspection.
Poore, who has an appreciation for old structures, made sure that the new details, doors and awning added to the building appeared as though they could have been placed there originally.
“I like old buildings and I like to see them saved,” Poore said. “It’s very gratifying.”
He was helped along by professionals who volunteered their skills. Architects with Dean Tyler and Burns Architecture in Anniston saw the project through, as did Wallace Gunnells, who retired from the Army Corps of Engineers 21 years ago.
Gunnells now works in the private sector as a construction manager but said the depot project was no work at all.
“Any work that is fun is not work and I’ve enjoyed this one,” Wallace said.
But the project isn’t quite over yet. The two-story portion of the building that was once the waiting room for rail passengers was left unrepaired.
It was burned in a fire some years ago and today stands boarded up. Smith said the city would like to refinish that portion of the building, too, but he doesn’t know when that will happen.
Even so, most of the standing-room-only crowd who attended the open house hardly noticed. They were caught up in the like-new atmosphere of the old place.
“I’m happy about it because we’ve lost a lot of historic buildings in the city and we almost lost this one to fire,” said Jacksonville resident Kenny Griffin. “I’m just glad one of the most historic buildings in the community has been saved.”
Contact staff writer Laura Johnson at 256-235-3544.