Q: Was the Wiregrass Museum of Art building formerly used for generating electricity?
A: Yes. The structure was formerly the Dothan Municipal Light and Water Plant, constructed by consulting engineer W.F. Thornton and contractor G.M. Lunsford between 1912 and 1913. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Oct. 3, 1991.
According to information in the registration form, the Wiregrass region of Alabama where Dothan is located was not extensively settled until after the Civil War due to its poor soil.
Fertilizers helped improve agricultural conditions and a timber industry developed in the region. At least three major railroad lines provided transportation for agricultural and timber products.
Dothan was incorporated on Nov. 10, 1885. Houston County was formed by an act of the state Legislature on Feb. 9, 1903, and Dothan became the county seat.
The local economy flourished, and between 1910 and 1920 the population of Dothan grew by 48% to 10,034.
New industries such as the Dothan Ice Cream Company were moving into the area and Dothan needed modern government and public works facilities.
A larger power plant was needed to serve Dothan’s growing population, so work began on the new light and water plant in 1912.
The only coal-generated power plant in the Wiregrass region when it was completed in 1913, the facility provided electric and water service to the local area. Under the first floor of the middle section was a large water pump with a million-gallon ground storage tank and a 150-foot tall, six-sided smokestack on the south side of the building.
The pump had a capacity of 2 million gallons per day. Two 3,000 KW generators capable of supporting a town of 20,000 were installed.
Dothan began to use the plant as a promotion device to get industry into this primarily rural area, but by 1928 the municipal plant had become outdated and expensive to operate. The plant was shut down and the city began purchasing electricity from Alabama Power Company.
Five years later, when the contract with Alabama Power was completed, the city made improvements to the Dothan Municipal plant and the switch was made back to “home manufactured electricity.”
However, in 1942, Dothan again began buying some of its electricity from Alabama Power, and by 1949 all of the city’s power came from Alabama Power. The city’s generators were shut down and removed.
The facility originally consisted of a powerhouse and substation, office buildings, garages, a tool shed, cooling pond, coal yard, and several other storage buildings and structures related to the complex. Only the powerhouse and a substation remained when the building was added to the national historic register.
After the Wiregrass Museum of Art was founded in 1988, a dozen sites were evaluated for the prospective museum. The powerhouse was the overwhelming choice, and the museum moved into the building in the early 1990s.