Alys Stephens Center's ArtPlay
Thanks to Jane Stephens Comer’s generous donation to UAB’s Alys Stephens Center, a brand new arts education initiative called ArtPlay has opened its doors. This beautiful Victorian house, located in the heart of Southside only blocks away from the Alys Stephens Center, is home to ASC’s expanded education and outreach program.
The ASC’s Arts Education & Outeach program is at the root of our mission to make the performing arts accessible to the broadest possible audience and cultivate an understanding of and appreciation for the arts. We are committed to providing meaningful interaction with renowned artists and exciting opportunities for artistic growth and development for students, parents, and teachers.
The ArtPlay house has been renovated to provide quality art programming for every generation of aspiring artist, a community venue with an array of programming for creative learning, and a beautiful setting for special events.
Built in 1896 by Henry Murray (H.M.) Robertson, the house served as a residence for its first 44 years. Robertson founded the Alabama Home Building and Loan Association in 1891 in Birmingham to lend money to members and hold and lease property.
He was a transplant, born during the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 in New Iberia, La. Likely, Robertson was among the many men who came to the boomtown of Birmingham to make his fortune.
Many of the bank’s major investors and employees were from the city. William Van Murray (W.V.M.) Robertson, Henry’s brother, was general manager and served as president until his death in 1927. Newspaper reports said that he died in his bathtub from an ice pick to the heart, which authorities reported as suicide.
The building became a boarding house during the Great Depression, possibly even before Henry Robertson’s death. In 1946, a chiropractor by the name of Mrs. Merrell purchased the property, likely for either her home, her practice or a combination.
She sold the property to its last private owner, T. Lawrence Johnson, in 1949. Johnson kept the property mostly intact, which included the beautiful oak double doors original to the house, made by E.T. Burrowes Company. Renovations made the basement and second floor into apartments; the Johnsons lived on the first floor, except for Johnson’s second-floor bedroom, which included the turret at the front.
The elaborate design of the house included 12-foot ceilings, an entrance hall, a music room and a dining room chandelier — placed by Johnson — that once hung in the first Jewish synagogue in New Orleans. The property also included a servants’ house that Johnson also converted into apartments.