EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was recently published in the Dothan Eagle’s Wiregrass Pride 2019 edition. It’s now being shared on a variety of our digital and social media platforms.
When people ask Joe Donofro where his interest in old structures comes from, he tells them “I didn’t choose historic architecture, it chose me.”
Donofro has been refurbishing old properties most of his 40 years as an architect.
“I probably enjoy taking an old building and repurposing it and doing adaptive reuse – and maybe get another hundred years’ worth of life – as much as I do designing a new building,” he said.
After graduating from Auburn University in 1979 with an architecture degree, Donofro joined his father’s firm in Dothan.
“A lot of my classmates at Auburn, they went to Atlanta or Birmingham,” he said. “I thought I’ll just go back and practice with dad. Now I realize that was probably a wise decision that I just kind of fell into because you can come back to a community like this and you can make a difference.”
As president of Donofro Architects, Donofro oversees the Dothan, Montgomery and Fort Walton studios. He has been involved in many projects in the Southeast, served as an officer in the Alabama Council of the American Institute of Architects, and been associated with various community and civic groups over the years.
His link to downtown Dothan started about 1987, when his father wanted to move their offices from South Oates Street to Ross Clark Circle.
“Dad thought I was crazy for wanting to come downtown,” he said. “I said let’s go look and see if we can find something.”
The Porter, Farmer and Thrower families were in the process of divesting themselves of real estate “and the Farmer-Porter Building (on Foster Street) was the first one that they sold.”
The Donofros paid $90,000. “We started renovating it and then a year later we moved in,” Donofro said.
They gradually finished off other spaces and now the building is full.
“It took a while, but it turned out to be a good investment,” he said.
The Donofro firm was hired for other downtown projects and its reputation spread.
“Fortunately we’ve been able to go over to Bainbridge and do some work there in their core area,” he said. The firm has done jobs in Donalsonville’s core area as well as buildings in towns such as Andalusia, Thomasville and Evergreen.
“We enjoy taking old architecture and bringing it back to life,” he said.
Donofro was a driving force behind the Howell School project, which will convert the historic building a few blocks from the Dothan Civic Center into senior living apartments.
The building was constructed in 1901-1902 as a grammar school. It closed as a school in 1942. It was part of the post-World War II industrial development of Dothan when it served as a textile factory from 1947 through 1997.
The building is architecturally significant as an example of the blending of Late Victorian styles that was popular in institutional architecture in Alabama around the turn of the 20th century.
“There are a lot of neat features on Howell School that are unusual to other pieces of architecture in the city,” Donofro said. “That building had a huge collection of terra cotta trim on it which you don’t find.”
Donofro got to know about the original architect, J.W. Baughman, who was involved in many local building projects during that era. Baughman was born in South Carolina in 1861 and died in Dothan in late 1923. He is buried in the Dothan City Cemetery.
Getting a project like Howell School started was a task in itself.
“I didn’t have a developer, and I really sunk my teeth into that building in the late 1990s,” Donofro said. “Chip George and I started looking around for ideas how to make that work.”
Donofro approached the city about moving city hall there but officials didn’t want to relocate. A museum wasn’t plausible, then they came up with the idea of making it an apartment complex.
“We dug around and tried to find some investors and some developers,” he said. He stumbled onto Rob Coats, president and CEO of Banyan Foundation out of Birmingham, and things started to click. The project was promoted as a way to increase economic development in one of Dothan’s oldest neighborhoods, the Newton-Burdeshaw-Cherry-Appletree-Range Historic District.
“That truly is a public-private partnership,” Donofro said. “There are nine layers of financing, so that has not been an easy project to see happen.”
Historic projects have to have a funding source and an idea of how a building can be retrofit and reworked.
“The rest of it is just a lot of blood, sweat and tears just to make it happen,” Donofro said.
Donofro’s firm has touched a lot of buildings downtown. “Every one of them has got its own hairs and warts,” he said. “A lot those hairs and warts you don’t find until you start digging into the bones of the building.”
He sees potential in a lot of older buildings.
“Howell School was probably in the worst shape you can get,” he said. “If I can get my hands on a building before the roof collapses, there’s always something we can do with it. And downtown Dothan is running out of real estate, so right now anything in the building inventory that hasn’t been retrofitted yet to me is a valuable piece of architecture that can be used for something, whether it’s a restaurant or office building or whatever.”
Donofro would love to see more contemporary architecture come in downtown “but until that happens let’s renovate what we got.”
“We lost too much really nice architecture on Main Street west of the courthouse,” he said. “There were some beautiful old houses and they’re gone. We had stuff that would rival Eufaula.”
He said a lot of neat things are starting to come back to downtown.
“My hat’s off to people like Bob Woodall (of Bob Woodall Air Care Systems) for buying the Mayer Electric building and using that structure,” he said.
The old Coca-Cola bottling plant on North Saint Andrews Street has been converted into an entertainment venue called “The Plant.”
“We’re working on phase two for that right now,” Donofro said.
He sees potential in the former Moody Hospital building on North Alice Street, not far from First Baptist Church.
“It’s a great building and it’s in relatively good shape,” he said. “That building could be a catalyst in that neighborhood just like Howell is going to be for Dixie.”
Donofro is glad he’s had the chance to give new life to old structures.
“I enjoy designing a new building immensely, but Howell School is one of those projects that comes along in an architect’s career that really is kind of a signature,” he said. “I’m glad to have been a part of that thing. That one really has been a joy to work on the last several years.”