This house was built in 1834 by William Sayre (an ancestor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda Sayre). William Sayre was from New Jersey and had arrived at Montgomery in the fall of 1818 with his younger brother, P. D. Sayre. After renting out his first house to an apothecary store in 1832, he quickly began building this home. The architect is not known, but the builder was a well-known contractor, A. M. Bradley. Successive owners, all prominent Montgomerian’s, were George Whitman, William Knox, George Matthews, Fleming Freeman, and Colonel Joseph Winter. Those men were instrumental in modernizing Montgomery into a bustling Antebellum city by 1861. They revolutionized river transportation, spearheaded the building of the railroad, built the banking industry, lit the streets with gas lanterns, brought the telegraph office, and built the iron works factory.
It was Colonel Winter who in 1850’s had renovated the two-story Federal frame house to the then fashionable Italianate style. Originally the home had a narrow one-story portico with a triangular pediment supported by four square columns. The eves were boxed without any ornamentation. Colonel Winter removed the old portico and added the new one with an interesting “rustication” detailing under it and the metal “tatting” on top of it. He closed the rear porch and added what Mrs. Davis was to call “commodious pantries” to the rear of the house, with a breezeway off the dining room to a detached kitchen. The original roof was removed and elevated three feet for ventilation. Italianate brackets and Liberty Cap vents were added. Beyond the kitchen lay a vegetable garden, stables, and other dependencies. Unfortunately, when the home was moved in 1921 only the home itself was moved.
This home was originally situated near the river (on what is now the corner of Lee and Bibb Streets), diagonally from the Exchange Hotel where the newly elected President Jefferson Davis, C.S.A. and his family would reside until the house was ready for them in the spring of 1861.
Colonel Edmund S. Harrison of nearby Prattville, Alabama, who purchased this home in 1860 from Joseph Winter for use as a townhouse, offered to rent it, completely furnished and staffed, for $5,000 a year-an enormous sum which caused considerable comment. And so, on February 21, 1861, the Provisional Congress authorized the leasing of an Executive Mansion.
En route to Montgomery, Mrs. Jefferson Davis stopped in New Orleans to hire a French chef and butler, to contract for the manufacture of an elaborate executive coach and to have gowns fitted at a French couturier’s. She arrived in Montgomery by riverboat to cheering crowds on the afternoon of March 4, 1861. From their temporary suite at the Exchange Hotel, Mrs. Davis began supervising the redecoration of their new residence. By the first of April, she returned to Davis Bend to fetch some “silver, china, linens, lamps, and a few favorite books.” She returned to Montgomery on April 14 with their three small children to move with the President into the White House of the Confederacy.
President Jefferson Davis maintained offices at the Government Building, he also conducted the urgent business of forming a new government at the Exchange Hotel and made grave decisions in his study at home. All seven of President Davis’ Cabinet dined frequently with the President in the house dining room and held Cabinet meetings around the table afterward. During the spring of 1861, The White House of the Confederacy in Montgomery sparkled as Mrs. Davis, eighteen years her husband junior, gave lively dinners, levees and teas and held salons.
On May 20, 1861, the same day North Carolina seceded, the Provisional Confederate Congress passed a resolution to move the Confederate Capital to Richmond and to reconvene there on July 20. Although President Davis did not agree entirely, the politicians found an early May record-breaking heat wave in Montgomery debilitating and the crowded conditions, hotel accommodations and food not to their liking. On May 26, 1861, Sunday, President Davis walked out of this home for the last time and attended morning services with his family at St. Johns Episcopal Church a few blocks away. After the service he boarded a train en route to Richmond, Virginia.
The First White House of the Confederacy survived the War. It passed through several owners at the end of the nineteenth century and became a boarding house by 1919. The home sat in the heart of what was called the “Cavalier District”. One of the oldest neighborhoods in the city comprised of homes, churches, and businesses. By 1900 the entire district was converted into a new commercial district and the structures quickly began to be razed due to rising land prices. The house became entailed property because the owner refused to sell due to rising land prices. With demolition imminent, local civic organizations refusing to help, and litigation complicated, in 1919 a sympathetic governor came to the rescue. After 19 years of persistence, The White House Association comprising of 167 members, was given the necessary funds to purchase and relocate the house. Governor Thomas E. Kilby signed into law a bill appropriating $25,000 for the project. On June 23, 1921, The White House Association gave the newly restored home to the people of Alabama.
Copyright, 2021 by the White House Association of Alabama. Photography by David Robertson, Montgomery, Alabama.
644 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama 36104