The historic “Gingerbread House” in Opelika, Alabama is nothing short of a national treasure. Built in 1865, the house is one of three registered gingerbread houses in the United States.
Looking at it now, one would never imagine it being anything other than picture-perfect. However, that has not always been the case.
Restoring the Foundation
Peter Weiss, associate professor at the McWhorter School of Building Science at Auburn University and former president of the Opelika Historic Preservation Society (OHPS), saved the structure during its worst days.
“The house was in total disrepair, an absolute mess,” Peter said. “I went to the preservation society of Opelika, asked them if they’d be interested in buying the structure to save it.”
Also known as the “Edwards House,” the Gingerbread House had been in the Edwards family for several generations. Peter sent letters to the heirs of the Edwards. According to Peter, the process of getting the Gingerbread House into the hands of the OHPS took “a number of years.”
The OHPS bought the Gingerbread House. Peter and D.K. Ruth put architecture students and senior building science thesis students to work on the project. “We went in to the Gingerbread House and tore everything rotten out of it and restructured from the ground up and stabilized the system,” Peter said.
Working on the Gingerbread House was an excellent learning experience for the students. “We showed them how to re-cut and re-do the gingerbreading and re-make all of the cute parts. We re-built the windows, we re-did all of that sort of stuff.”
The students and professors set the foundation that kept the house alive. “Our job was to stabilize it,” Peter said. After that work, the OHPS sold the property. Those owners eventually sold the property to John Hendricks, who restored the historic home. “He spent a lot of time and a lot of money doing it, but he did a great job,” Peter said.
From Gingerbread House to Clock Shop and Museum
The Gingerbread House is now home to the Old Timers & Chimers Clock Shop and Museum, LLC. John Hendricks, who owns the shop and museum with his wife, Margaret Hendricks, was looking to relocate his clock shop from Auburn, Alabama, to Opelika.
John had had some difficulty finding a place to house his clock shop. The journey from “Gingerbread House” to Old Timers & Chimers Clock Shop and Museum, LLC, begins.
John retrieved a newspaper from a display in the museum. A newspaper so old, the pages have yellowed. As he looks at the paper, he begins recounting his history with the Gingerbread House. “1976, I think is the year, and this is the first time I ever saw this house. I saw that picture,” said John. The picture was of the Gingerbread House during some of its worst years. Even through the black and white print, it was evident the house needed a miracle to survive.
John’s eye for potential saw the beauty of the Gingerbread House. “I just said, ‘My goodness! What a beautiful old house, why doesn’t somebody buy it and restore it?’” John stored the newspaper in a bedside drawer, where it stayed untouched for years.
Fast-forward a few decades. John was looking for a place to move his clock shop. Barbara Patton, president of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce and member of OHPS, had been helping Hendricks in his quest for a location for his clock shop.
One day, Barbara and John had walked in Opelika, looking out for potential locations. “I was getting very frustrated because I couldn’t find the building that I was looking for,” said John. “You know, you have this image in your mind, or a vision of the building or the type of building. I wanted an old house.”
John got in his car that day, frustrated that he still hadn’t found a place that would suit his vision.
Suddenly, things took a literal “turn” for the better. “I always turn right up on Avenue B, and this is the important part of the story,” said John. “I’d never been down this street in my life and I’d never seen this building in person.” John cranked the car and made his way to the traffic light where he always turned right onto Avenue B.
“That day, that moment, I drove straight across the intersection. Well, somebody else was driving,” said John. “I remember remarking out loud, ‘Lord, where are we going? There’s nothing down here!’”
John continued to drive. He noticed the Gingerbread House. The Gingerbread House from the paper that he had saved in the bedside drawer all those years ago. John was stunned. “I got chill bumps and I said…‘this is it, Lord. This is it,’” John said. “True story. I got chill bumps. I get chill bumps telling the story, just thinking about it.”
Barbara remembers the day John told her that he had found the Gingerbread House. Barbara said, “I just thought, that it was just made for him,” Barbara said. “They did a lot of work to it because it was in terrible shape. He did an enormous amount of work to it,” Barbara said.
“It’s an architectural treasure,” Barbara added. “It’s one of the few left in the state of Alabama.”
Barbara loved the idea of the Gingerbread House as a clock shop and museum. “It makes a great museum, and it fits with his vintage clocks,” Barbara said. “The fact that he restores clocks and repairs them, it was a perfect fit for him. We wanted him over here. It was like he belonged.”
This feature story was originally published in Chattahoochee Heritage on April 3, 2015. The story was written as the “side bar story” of the feature story for the final project assignment in my JRNL3320 Magazine and Feature Writing course at Auburn University in fall 2014.