Professor charts history of local architecture

Robert Mellown, now associate professor emeritus, has been at the University of Alabama for the last 44 years.

By Thomas Joa
Contributing Writer

TUSCALOOSA—When most students go to college, they don’t expect to spend more than half their lives at the same university.

Robert Mellown, now associate professor emeritus, has been at the University of Alabama for the last 44 years.

Mellown graduated from the University of Alabama in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in studio art. From there he received a fellowship in art history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he earned his doctorate in 1975. Mellown was hired by the University of Alabama as an art historian and has worked for the university ever since.

“I actually started out here as an undergraduate in 1963,” Mellown said. “I applied for jobs all over the place and ended up getting a job here.”

While Mellown’s background is in art history, he has spent much of his career researching architectural history.

“Very little had been written about Alabama and [more specifically] Tuscaloosa architecture at that point,” Mellown said. “For the past 40 years I have been researching and documenting Tuscaloosa architecture and the University of Alabama architecture.”

Mellown has written and contributed to many books about important archeological sites at the university and in Tuscaloosa.

“To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the university, Susan Wolfe wrote a book called the pictorial history of the university,” Mellown said. “She asked me to do the archeological research so I ended up doing a series of maps of what the university looked like at various stages of its development.”

Mellown has worked on many of the major archeological projects in Tuscaloosa and at the university. Some of the projects include research on the Old Rotunda and research during the creation of Capital Park from the remains of the old capital.

Mellown also has done extensive research on the Bryce Mental Hospital and most recently the archeological dig before the building of the new Embassy Suites downtown.

Mellown said he was annoyed with the way the university is handling the Bryce hospital. Mellown said that the way the hospital was built was part of therapy process and that it has lost some of its significance now that one outer wing has been destroyed.

“The most significant building was Bryce in its entirety,” Mellown said. “The Rotunda would have been a very significant building that was second only to Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Had that survived it would have made this campus one of the most architecturally significant in the country.”

Mellown said he has enjoyed working on all of these projects over the years. He said that he has also enjoyed working with the people involved in these projects. Mellown said that he has formed strong connections within the University of Alabama Office of Archeological Research.

Mathew Gage and Brandon Thompson are two people who have had major roles in some of the projects Mellown has worked on.

Thompson is the cultural resources investigator at OAR and worked with Mellown extensively on the Embassy Suites project downtown.
“He was an invaluable resource during our excavation,” Thompson said. “He is an avid researcher and provided copious amounts of data on the people of Tuscaloosa and its history.”

Gage, the director of OAR, said that Mellown does a great job conducting research and that he goes above and beyond when it comes to his work.

“Dr. Mellown is a constant researcher,” Gage said. “He spends the time to do watercolors of what the block would have looked like in a specific time in history. He goes into the detail of the construction materials that would have been used and the style of architecture that would have common and really works to try and bring that little snapshot in time to life.”

Both OAR employees said that Mellown is great to work with and they hope to get the opportunity to work with him in the future.

“He is very soft spoken and is someone who you might not be able to appreciate at first the depths of his knowledge,” Gage said. “Sometimes you have to listen very closely, but usually you wont be disappointed in what you hear.”