s p a c e s: records & recording
place: montgomery county courthouse, montgomery, alabama
time: c. 1990
Welcome to the Montgomery County Courthouse and Administration Building in historic downtown Montgomery, Alabama. Is it in the heart of the historic district? Write-ups about places frequently pin destinations as being in the heart of a larger location, which stirs up questions about land anatomy and whether other destinations could be located in the pancreas or the spleen of a town. Maybe the Montgomery County Courthouse and Administration Building is in the cerebral cortex of Alabama’s capital city, this mid-century marvel being home to the county’s public records archive. If someone bought property, got married, died, or applied for a fishing license within county boundaries, there’s a record of it here. For folks who want to learn about Montgomery County’s own land anatomy, this is the prime destination.
The courthouse is not a tourist attraction. It’s not even a courthouse in the sense that TV and film present it — where defenders defend, prosecutors prosecute, and judges dole out justice. Here, in 1990, Montgomery County has two courthouses — one for all the courtroom theatrics and life-altering verdicts and this one, which is now devoted primarily to matters involving Probate Court and Circuit Court, the least sexy of all the courts. Here, the Judge of Probate presides over matters like estates and property disputes while the Circuit Court judges deal with cases concerning family matters or ordinance violations. Nobody comes here unless absolutely necessary, like to pay overdue property taxes or get hitched before the baby comes or to sit quietly while their parent who can’t afford child care completes a records search for work. Anyone who might have a fascination with archives and public records and the stories that can be pieced together from the county’s roughly 200-year history will find the Montgomery County Courthouse and Administration Building to be a blessed treasure. They’ll also find that most of those stories, much like the meandering tales of a neglected grandparent stuck in a care home, are about long-dead strangers and places that used to exist but have been replaced by other places.
In theory, Montgomery needs two courthouses to keep up with the Baby Boomers and their growing needs for property ownership and law interpretations. This city is always expanding and has already outgrown three courthouse buildings. The city-block wide structure that looms before us is the third county courthouse, and the second to be built into this hillside of S. Lawrence St. Before becoming a model of functional modernity dedicated to preservation and progress in 1957, the Montgomery County Courthouse was a stately Greek Revival repository for records and justice featuring prominent Doric columns and a tower potentially overlooking the Alabama River and other points of interest circa the earliest 20th century for anyone permitted access for seeing such sights. That was the 1894 expansion from a modest 1854 two-storey build of similar design, sans the observational tower. Presumably, the cost and availability of materials prompted the decision makers to demolish what might’ve been a handsome landmark and replace it with something far less iconic yet perfectly serviceable. But in a place where history has unfolded, refolded, and then folded over onto itself, the actual details have gotten lost in the creases. We are left with postcards from the past and the ironic amusement over the dearth of archival material covering the place constructed to hold archives.
After the new four-storey courthouse was built in 1987, just up the hill from here, this courthouse underwent interior renovations and improvements. For a couple years, all of the Courts were squeezed into the freshly-constructed justice centre. The new courthouse is all function and no form and brutally plain. One might wonder if it’s providing some hint as to the sort of justice one might expect from a towering beige square. The concurrent changes to their workplace and the Coca-Cola formula disgruntled some employees, who groused about working inside a giant photocopier that only stocked New Coke in its vending machines. When the renovations were complete, probate staff were eager to get back to Courthouse Classic and their morning Coca-Cola Classic.
The exterior of the Classic Montgomery County Courthouse and Administration Building — or the Annex as it’s supposed to be known — remains relatively unchanged in 1990, save for the addition of a two-storey brown polished stone portico at the S. Lawrence St. entrance. The original combination of eggshell-tinged aluminum panelling and rosy brown stone walls with concrete breeze block insets has weathered the cultural and literal storms with minimal impact. Compare the Washington Ave. entrance today with photos from the 1960s and the only discernible difference is the models of cars parked along the street.
The steps leading up to the sheriff’s department entrance on Washington Ave are exactly as they were on March 17, 1965, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the demonstrators from that day’s voters’ rights march from Jackson Street Baptist Church over the resulting negotiations and discussions with city and county officials regarding police brutality against the Black protesters. In 1990, there’s little reference to this moment. The county employees who worked here 25 years ago, who may have been privy to behind the scenes actions or just witnessed one of the most prominent civil rights leader of the time passing through the corridors, have either long retired or feel no inclination to gush about that rainy Wednesday afternoon when Dr. King came to the courthouse in pursuit of justice and equality.
A glossy tourist brochure claims that Montgomery has the “distinction of being the birthplace of the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement.” However dubious the claims of origin, the town tries to use both events to its advantage. So far, the monuments and tributes to the Confederacy vastly outnumber those for Civil Rights. It will be years before there’s a historical marker dedicated to the voters’ rights marches and the state’s first sit-in by the Black students from Alabama State and museums devoted to presenting the efforts of Rosa Parks and fellow champions of Black equality.
There is one historical marker on the corner of Washington Ave. and S. Lawrence St., which provides a little insight into Montgomery’s origin story. According to the embossed sign, Montgomery county was established in 1816, three years prior to Alabama’s official statehood and first entry into the Union, from lands forcibly ceded by Creek Indian Nation in 1814. The sign has omitted “forcibly,” presumably for spacing reasons. The historical marker goes on to share the fun fact that Montgomery County and the city of Montgomery are named for two entirely different men named Montgomery. For future reference, Montgomery County is named for Major Lemuel P. Montgomery, notable as the first officer killed in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the Creek War in 1814 — oh, the same war where Andrew Jackson pushed a bunch of Indigenous people off their land? Major Lemuel also has a bronze statue erected in front of the New Courthouse. The City of Montgomery is randomly named for Major General Richard Montgomery, who notably died in 1775 during an unsuccessful attempt with Colonel Benedict Arnold to attack and capture Quebec City in Lower Canada. Ah. Well. Things are starting to make sense.
All you wanted to do was get your new car tags? Okay. Let’s go inside.
The entrance on S. Lawrence St. leads straight into the second floor of the Annex. The belly of bureaucracy. This is where the magic happens — if the filing and processing of license applications is still considered magic. Rumour has it that some real witches work here. Well, even Southern hospitality is pushed to its limits for county clerks who face daily the general public’s demonstration of all the various ways to incorrectly complete a form.
From the foyer, visitors choose their own adventure. Turn left to either take the elevators up to the third floor Circuit Court or down to the first floor to the Sheriff’s Department. Proceed further down the hall to reach the Tax Assessor and Tax Collector offices, the Judge of Probate’s office, and other assorted Probate offices. Straight ahead from the foyer leads you to the Tags, Automobile Registration, and License offices. But our destination is to the right — Probate Records and Recording Division, the department devoted to storing all the open secrets about how this ill-gotten land has been dissected and divvied up through history.
Through the glass double doors we arrive at the launching point for all public records investigations. At first glance, it’s hard to believe this unassuming open-plan office would be the place to find out whether Tommy Shaw of Styx owns any real property in Montgomery. While that information might be in the computer database, the Records Room staff are unlikely to help you search for it. They generally discourage amateur sleuths looking to while away a rainy Thursday with unofficial requests, not that many walk in with such intents. Most visitors come looking for parcel maps to settle disputes with their next door neighbours regarding stuff like property lines for fence erections and fallen tree possession.
Before the renovations, the Records Room was starting to show its age with migraine-inducing banana-tinted walls and avocado-tinged file cabinets and pumpkin-dyed vinyl desk chairs. The paint chipping off the edges of the cold metal desks and the wood laminate curling up along the undersides of chair armrests gave the space a worn and tired look. Concentration was frequently imperilled by heels clacking along the speckled linoleum floor, the clanging brrrrngs of rotary dial telephones, the clinking of phone receivers returned to their cradles, and the constant droning of the overhead fluorescents. The staff have returned to an altogether different environment — soothing slate gray walls, soft mulberry-hued swivel chairs with adjustable height, molded black plastic and imitation granite laminate surfaces promising a modern, more sophisticated atmosphere. The department is now decidedly more peaceful with wall-to-wall neutral gray Berber carpeting mutes the sounds of oppressive footwear, multi-line push button phones issue gentle brrps and bzzts, and the overhead lighting hums along quietly with the soothing tones of Firefall and Bruce Hornsby on FM soft rock radio. Sometimes the radio is tuned to the local country station to remind everyone that we’re still in the gallbladder of the Deep South.
The office is divided into two zones — Recording and Records. Along the north side of the room, with the row of windows overlooking Washington Ave., sits the County Records Supervisor and her staff, hard at work behind their counter, organizing and preparing all the newly-arrived paperwork for imaging and entering into the massive archives. Every day, new deeds and mortgages arrive all signed, dated, and notarized by all the necessary parties from just-closed property purchases. While families and newlyweds are excitedly moving houses, the recording staff are wearily moving giant stacks of documents into slightly smaller stacks to be stamped, scanned, and squirrelled away in file cabinets, file boxes, and file rooms down in the basement. Posted in a couple of spots around the department are signs noting the most current searchable record date, usually two or three months back from the day’s date. Supposing today is June 14, 1990, the most recent record you could find in the system would be from April. This can fluctuate as vacations and holidays and general malaise empties the desks behind the Recording counter.
On the south side of the room, there’s a selection of record books and assorted technology dedicated to accessing copies of records. When the courthouse first opened its doors in 1957, all of the records were analog. The most sophisticated technology was the Remington typewriter. The Records Room was nearly floor to ceiling with ancient hardbound tomes which were set on roller shelves — shelving comprised of multiple rows of what looks like rubber-coated steel toilet paper holders — an innovative design alternative to regular solid shelving which would buckle under the weight. To find when a specific deed was recorded, staff had to slide these books out and flip through delicate pages of records handwritten in the cursive du jour, deciphering the penmanship of yore for confirmation which William E. Jones was the grantor of a property sold on February 7, 1945. If anyone needed a copy of that deed from 1945, staff would then run the original typed document through the electric Thermofax. Time and technology marched on and the Records Rooms added microfiche readers, then computer terminals, then microfiche printers and photocopiers and facsimile machines. The collection of hardbound record books has been reduced to a couple of short stacks along the western wall, the oldest volumes relocated to make room for faster, more accessible means of data searching. This side of the Records Room is now a living display of the Evolution of 20th Century Record Keeping Technology.
The most advanced piece of whizbangery here and now, set along the eastern wall between the north and south divisions, is an automated Kardex Lextriever. This oversized beige monstrosity houses every record in Montgomery County’s history that has been imaged onto microfiche. It’s a large electric storage system with a vertical carousel that whirrs noisily whenever the clerk runs it to retrieve a microfiche for viewing over on the microfiche reader. It is the tenth or seventeenth wonder of the world and a joy to behold for those who are easily joyed by automated storage systems.
Two rows of padded cubicles separate the five computer terminals and five microfiche readers into cozy workstations for researchers. On one side, the small DEC computer screens glow monochrome green with a quaint 25-line display that shows five search results at once. Searching for John H. Smith and his wife Bessie can mean pressing the forward arrow on the clunky keyboard dozens of times before getting a promising lead. The second row of cubbies house the desktop microfiche readers, where tiny pictures of documents like deed warranties and marriage certificates are magnified to near-readable point size. Despite signs posted reminding users to turn them off after use, one machine is always left on, its bulb illuminating the glass tray that holds the microform in place. Once a month, whichever reader has been left on unattended longest gets a “out of order” Post-it stuck to the screen. How much longer will microfiche reader bulbs be manufactured as we approach the turn of the millennium and proliferation of holographic technology?
Hunkering over the computers, squinting into the microfiches, furiously scribbling cryptic notes onto yellow legal pads are the professional researchers come to find out who owns what, when they got it, and how they’re paying for it. They’re hired by lawyers and lenders on behalf of homebuyers to get the lowdown on the home sellers. Many researchers are tasked with travelling around various parts of the state, visiting different county courthouses and completing their reports — known around the biz as title abstracts or title examinations. They jockey for their turns at the one multi-line business phone available to visitors. They beg the department’s staff across the room to use the fax machine behind their counter so they can get rushed reports back to their clients by lunch or end of business day. They fill out stacks of orange index cards to request microfiche of records relevant to their property searches. Sometimes they dash off to other departments around the courthouse, frantically filling in details about tax payments and divorces and property liens.
If this seems like a workplace without dramatic tension, rest assured there is plenty of interpersonal conflict simmering for those who thrive in such environs. Unbeknownst to casual visitors — the researchers who pop in a couple times a month or so — there’s an undercurrent of resentment amongst the researchers and abstractors who work exclusively in Montgomery county. For reasons unknowns, the Records Room maintains permanent desks for two real property abstract firms. One could argue that Montgomery Abstract and State Abstract are the area’s oldest title research companies, dating back to the early 1900s and 1880s respectively, and therefore deserve the privileged workspace. Another might joke that some of those abstract companies’ employees are so old they were recording land parcels during the Confederacy. But they don’t argue or joke. They resort to petty possessiveness over the use of a telephone and subtle bribery to encourage the Kardex clerk to prioritize pulling one’s microfilm over another’s. Many of the career researchers in the room, perhaps unsurprisingly, have worked for one or both of the ancient abstract companies over the decades. Close co-workers become distant colleagues while trying to keep track of property transfers as lots get lumped together and split apart by the whims of wealthy developers and landowners. The one table allotted to all the rest of the transient researchers becomes a dumping ground for briefcases and leatherette folios and unattended offspring. Ultimately, these stories do nothing to advance the plot, only serving to make the workday uncomfortable.
Most days pass without incident. Abstractors and researchers do lunch together in the snack bar and gossip about the latest in the Don Martin/C&C Land Corporation mortgage scandal or the new subdivisions being dug up out past Eastdale Mall. Their assignments covering residential properties are completed without issues. Couriers deliver a fresh stack of new deeds and mortgages from around the county to be sorted and filed. People buy houses, people live in houses a while, people sell houses. “Ventura Highway” strains to be heard on the radio over the whirring carousel of microfiche.
The majority of homeowners lead boring lives, doing the occasional refinancing on their mortgages, getting divorced and remarried only a couple of times but always updating their wills. Title searches for hire usually only track the last 30–50 years of a property and its owners, but sometimes those years can have some real twists and snags. Willie Jones’ ex-wife appears to have filed a claim against his property. John Smith bought his sister Temperance a house but 20 years later, John’s dead and his wife Bessie wants to sell Temperance’s house. James Williams has outstanding UCC liens against his business, which might complicate the sale of the McMansion he and his wife built a couple years ago out Pike Road.
Rarely does a property have as ridiculous a tale as the place that some people insist on calling the first White House of the Confederacy. The place originated in the 1830s on the corner of Lee St. and Bibb St. as a Federal-style townhouse built by William Sayre — that’s great-uncle to Zelda Sayre “Mrs. F. Scott” Fitzgerald and uncle to Alabama Supreme Court Judge Anthony Sayre, author of the 1893 Sayre Act, which sought to disenfranchise Black voters. When William Sayre moved on in the 1850s, the property passed through the hands of several owners before landing in possession of Colonel Edmond Harrison who in turn leased it out to the new Confederate government. From February to May of 1861, the Confederate president and his wife stayed in the house, entertaining the “important people” of the day. After three months, the Davis family skedaddled up to Richmond, VA. The “Jeff Davis house” was passed along through two more owners, ending up in the hands of Archibald Tyson, plantation owner and enslaver of 300+ Black people. Tyson’s daughter inherited what he called “the Bibb house” in 1874 but, since she lived in Georgia, the house fell into disrepair. Before it could be rightfully demolished, a determined organization of Confederate descendants spent years trying to negotiate with Sallie Render to buy the property and restore the house. Mrs. Render died and her heirs finally agreed in 1918 to sell the house — but not the increasingly valuable land. The whole house was relocated from its original lot to a bit of prime real estate across the street from the state capitol building, in the heart of the Confederate monument district. Since 1921, the house has operated as a museum commemorating those three months of fancy parties for posh racists and is one of the top field trip destinations for area fourth graders. Maybe the Union was too forgiving?
Despite the fascinating deep dives one can do into any one property history, the researchers and abstractors restrict their findings to what has the most immediate impact, to answer only the question of whether a property sale can go through as planned. There’s no time to ruminate on one particular property, to speculate about the chain of events that led to someone’s five federal tax liens and three judgments, to empathize with the folks who were conned into a mortgage scam, or to feel remorse about how all this land was obtained in the first place. Researchers don’t point out houses on their commute and reveal the secrets they uncovered about the owners.
Nobody comes to the Montgomery County Courthouse and Administration Building unless absolutely necessary. Nobody comes to downtown Montgomery anymore. The county as it is drawn is large and still mostly underdeveloped and white landowners happily play pioneer forging new towns with big box stores and shiny new subdivisions just off the Interstate. Look at the maps in the Records Room’s plat books and it’s easy to track the white exodus from the city’s centre over the last forty years. White residents, amed with their delusions of heritage, head to new neighbourhoods to escape the reminders of history and the reality of the city’s makeup, leaving behind the monuments to be gawked at by grade schoolers and out-of-state tourists. Montgomery’s transit system is under-served and underused as residents stubbornly pivot to car-dependent living. All the department stores that once made 20th century downtown Montgomery a destination for wives and mothers have migrated eastward to the popular malls and shopping centres sprawling around the suburbs. Two hundred years from now, Montgomery may have two historic downtowns, ten courthouses, and be in a completely different country. Whatever happens, there’ll probably be record of it on a microfiche.