Bush was part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, or HABS, a federal project for unemployed photographers, architects, and draftsmen during the Great Depression. Their assignment was to document historic buildings across the country. In Tuscaloosa alone, they made hundreds of exterior and interior photographs and numerous measured elevation and floor plan drawings.
Most of the documented buildings were erected during Tuscaloosa’s years as the capital of Alabama. Typically, these structures were built by slaves using mostly local materials, and they often featured thick masonry outer walls, high ceilings, heart pine floors, fine woodwork, and elegant plaster ornamentation.
Many of the HABS and other local historic structures were demolished in the period from about 1940 until 1965. This was before the development of a strong local historic preservation movement and a time of rapid growth, when Tuscaloosa’s population more than doubled.
One the greatest loses was the former Alabama State Capitol located at the western end of Broad Street (University Boulevard). It was owned by the University of Alabama, and for many years housed the Alabama Central Female College. It was destroyed by fire in 1923, 10 years before the implementation of the HABS. However, photographs from another source are included in the HABS files.
Many historic buildings were concentrated along Greensboro Ave. and University Blvd. and were dilapidated or occupied property deemed more valuable for other uses. At that time, these streets were also the routes of U.S. Highways 11, 43, and 82, and Alabama 69. Before the limited access Interstate System and the Skyland Blvd. bypass, these streets carried extremely heavy loads of out-of-town traffic. Adjacent properties became desirable for motels, service stations, parking lots, and other highway related facilities. Other nearby properties became offices and shops.
Much of Tuscaloosa’s architectural, social, and cultural history was lost when these buildings were destroyed. Fortunately, many were documented through the efforts of people like photographer Alex Bush and are easily accessed on the Internet in the Library of Congress’s digital collections.
Due the efforts of individuals, the Tuscaloosa County Heritage Commission, the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society, and the University of Alabama, many buildings were saved from the wrecking ball and converted to other uses. Some of the surviving structures, including the Jemison-Van de Graaf Mansion, the Battle-Friedman House, the Old Tavern, and the University Club are open to the public and provide visitors with an interesting perspective on part of 19th century life in Tuscaloosa.
*The cameras used for the HABS utilized flat pieces of individually loaded photographic film. The 5x7 inch film used by Alex Bush and others produced high resolution images, approximately equivalent to 500 megapixels, many times the resolution of modern digital cameras.