All dolled up: Former Alabama Senator Maryon Allen restores WPA handicrafts
Among our still-living local luminaries, few are more overlooked or helpful to the Birmingham History Center than the multi-talented Maryon Allen.
The former U.S. Senator for Alabama, now 86 , lives in a Vestavia garden home decorated with memorabilia from her days in Washington D.C., where in 1978 she assumed the senate seat of her husband, Sen. Jim Allen, who died of a heart attack.
Maryon lost the democratic primary runoff to run for the unexpired term. But, not to be regarded as “one of those dumb Washington wives,” she stayed on in Washington, dusted off her journalism career, and at the request of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, wrote the column “Maryon Allen’s Washington.”
People warned me against this,” she said. They said, ‘Washington is not really real.’ But I was 55 at the time and had to prove some things on my own.”
In December 1978 she christened the USS Birmingham nuclear submarine (SS N695), and has donated to the center photos of the vessel surfacing during a maiden voyage. The Allen senate chair and other official items are also destined for the center.
But Maryon’s gifts aren’t limited to those of public office: In her workshop on Creekstone Circle, she is restoring 16 of 27 cloth dolls found tossed in a box years ago at the former Lakeview School on Clairmont Avenue. [The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, is leased to a commercial tenant.] The 12-inch dolls, clothed in traditional dress of world nations, are believed to be a handicraft project of the Works Progress Administration (1936-43), although their exact origin remains a mystery.
They were found in a box by the late Penny Cunningham, a retired Lakeview teacher and charter BHC board member. She jotted the following note on the box: “Made during the 30’s by WPA (I think). Scattered and finally discarded at Lakeview School.”
That’s a good educated guess. Such handicraft projects got their start as work-relief programs for women within various sections of Franklin Roosevelt’s vast WPA. State-run projects under the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects produced jobs as varied as sewing and canning to administrative work and musical, literary, visual and performing arts.
Further down the hierarchy, 24 states–including Alabama–operated crafts programs under the Museum Extension Project, producing educational visual aids such as book illustrations, dioramas, models – and international dolls — cataloged and marketed to public schools. However, there’s scant evidence that they
originated in Alabama. More likely a Birmingham teacher ordered them from one of the more prolific Midwestern programs, where handicraft projects in Kansas, Ohio, and particularly Milwaukee County (WI) dominate the Internet. (Eleanor Roosevelt herself visited the noted Milwaukee Handicraft Project in 1936, taking away two dolls as gifts.)
However they arrived at Lakeview, Cunningham passed the artifacts to the history center, which has 11 on display. The rest were given to Maryon, who still makes a living restoring antique clothing and wedding gowns.
Maryon says it takes her about 20 hours to restore one doll, including remaking wigs, mending some mouse-eaten cloth, and washing and starching costumes. Her progress has been interrupted by two major surgeries, not to mention filling orders at her own clothing restoration business. But these are minor interruptions for a career as productive and distinguished as Maryon’s.
The indomitable former senator begins her life story in 1946, leaving the University of Alabama with two years of journalism training. She was married and divorced and, with
three children, found work as columnist for the weekly Shades Valley Sun. Here, she says, her social contacts allowed her to regularly scoop The Birmingham News’ social section. In time, The News came calling, hiring Maryon in early 1964, only to lose her the same year to a storybook love affair with then-Lt. Gov. Jim Allen.
Maryon met Allen during an interview assignment. Both she and The Senator (as she was later to call him) fell instantly in love and were married four months later, she said.
Jim Allen was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1968 and from Washington, D. C., Maryon wrote the syndicated column, “Reflections of a News Hen,” carried by local Alabama papers. Allen’s death midway through his second term left Maryon deep in mourning, but unwilling to leave D.C. until she had conquered the city on her own terms, she said.
Her third and last column ran three years in the Washington Post 1979-1981.
When Allen returned to Birmingham, she bought a rambling house at 3215 Cliff Road, reputed to be a former brothel. She immersed herself in restoring the house and developed her interest in restoring vintage clothing. By the mid-1980s, fueled by her national contacts, the pastime had grown into a profitable business, Maryon Allen Co.
“I was so fortunate to be able to do something I enjoyed, and to make a living at it,” she said. “I just think the workmanship of the past was exquisitely beautiful.”
Maryon in 2004 sold the house and took her business to a Vestavia garden home, christened Creekstone Cottage, where she putters, gardens, reads, entertains, and works.
The house is a museum of Allen’s colorful life, with one room painted blue, the color she wore when she first met Alabama Lt. Governor Jim Allen on April 2, 1964.