Alabama #6: Vulcan Park

A series of weekly posts about Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding area.  See Post #1,  Post #2, Post #3, Post #4, Post #5. This is Post #6.

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Vulcan Park in Birmingham, Alabama offers an expansive view of the city and is home to the world’s largest cast iron statue, named Vulcan.  As you may recall, Sloss Furnaces, also in Birmingham, is famous for its role in the iron industry. At the turn of the 20th century, Birmingham wanted to highlight its industrial accomplishments and abilities, so city leaders hired Giuseppe Moretti, an Italian immigrant already well known for large statues.  Vulcan was chosen because he is the Roman God of the Forge.  The project took only six months to complete and was ready for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.  After the World’s Fair, Vulcan was sent back to Birmingham, where he sat in a variety of locations before the WPA created a park in 1939 on Red Mountain in order to give Vulcan a respectful home in the city.

Read “About Vulcan” on the Vulcan Park and Museum website for a more detailed history and interesting facts about Vulcan including his days of holding a coke can, a pickle, a light that indicated if there was a traffic fatality that day, his variety of paint colors, ;and how the hollow statue was filled with concrete. In 1999 the Vulcan Park Foundation formed to raise money to restore Vulcan after the statue suffered from years of deterioration. The statue was disassembled, repaired, recast when necessary, and reassembled piece by piece in Vulcan Park atop the original pedestal. Since 2003, the park has been open to visitors with a history museum about Birmingham on site.

We visited Vulcan Park late in the afternoon, and thus didn’t have time to venture up to the observation deck or into the museum. However, we were able to spend time looking at the Birmingham skyline, read the historic markers, gaze at Vulcan, and explore the giant stone map that is next to the pedestal.

Vulcan

Vulcan

Although it was a cloudy afternoon, the grey skies appropriately matched Vulcan’s paint color. What immediately struck me about Vulcan was the giant antenna in very close proximity, which detracted from the viewshed. Also, the elevator/stairs to the observation deck create an odd aesthetic alteration.

Note the antenna

Note the antenna

The addition for the elevator to the observation deck

The addition for the elevator to the observation deck

Shown for scale

Shown for scale

Looking up in between Vulcan's pedestal and the addition

Looking up in between Vulcan's pedestal and the addition

However, aside from the conflicted thoughts about the addition, I enjoyed the visit to Vulcan Park. And it brings to mind interesting discussion topics about additions and accessibility and things like cell phone towers or radio antennas.  Thoughts, anyone?

While Vulcan is very impressive, my favorite part about the park was, however, the giant stone map of Birmingham. It is drawn to scale and features neighborhoods and important landmarks.

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img_4617Admission to Vulcan Park is free if you just want to walk around and not visit the museum or the observation deck. It’s a nice spot in Birmingham to learn a bit of the city’s history and get a visual overview of the city. And, who can pass up visiting the world’s largest iron statue? Now that is some roadside architecture.

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View of Birmingham from Vulcan Park

Alabama #5: Linn Park

A series of Wednesday (Thursday this week) posts about Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding area.  See Post #1,  Post #2, Post #3, and Post #4. This is Post #5.

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Linn Park in Birmingham, Alabama is located in the center of the government buildings and civic and commercial buildings – it is the heart of the Birmingham – Jefferson (County) Civic Center. On a beautiful spring day, it was the perfect place for strolling and looking at the Alabama blue sky.
Linn Park

Linn Park

Linn Park History, as seen on plaque in park

Linn Park History, as seen on plaque in park

Linn Park map, close up

Linn Park map, close up

[Summarized from the plaque, seen above]. The park has a long and interesting history. In 1871 the city plat map identified the space as “Park” but was then called “Central Park” before being named “Capitol Park” in 1881. At that time, it was the center of residential neighborhood.  In 1918 the park was renamed “Woodrow Wilson Park” and a master plan in 1919 proposed that this site be the civic center of the city.  Soon after the plan, an auditorium, a library, and the Jefferson County Courthouse were built. They still surround the park today.  Over the next few decades, the remaining houses were demolished to create lots for City Hall and the Birmingham Museum of Art. The park was renamed Linn Park in 1980 to honor Charles Linn, the city’s first banker and industrialist.

Jefferson County Court House, Linn Park

Jefferson County Court House, Linn Park

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Spanish American War Memorial, Linn Park

World War I Memorial, Linn Park

World War I Memorial, Linn Park

Today, one entrance to the park greets visitors with statues honoring the Spanish-American War and World War I.  Beautiful reflecting pools and a waterfall welcome people to sit and linger and enjoy the warm weather.  A flower garden in the shape of the state of Alabama is obviously more visible to workers in the skyscrapers rather than those of us on the ground, especially when attempting to read “Reach for the Stars” in the design.  While it is almost impossible to read from the ground, it is nice to know the businessmen can be connected to park dwellers. Spring and summer seasons bring concerts and other events to Linn Park, and the gazebo provides a perfect stage.  

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Reach for the Stars, in the shape of AL

On this beautiful spring weekend, walking in the water felt perfect. It was a shame that it wasn’t concert season. If you are visiting, definitely take a walk through Linn Park.

The reflecting pool and court house, Linn Park

The reflecting pool and court house, Linn Park

The perfect place on warm spring day, Linn Park

Alabama #4: Alabama Theater

 A series of Wednesday posts about Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding area.                     See Post #1,  Post #2, and Post #3. This is Post #4.

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The Alabama Theater in downtown Birmingham is called the “Showplace of the South”, with good reason. Built in 1927 by the Paramount-Publix Corporation, it is gorgeous beyond words, and welcome change to a typical, modern theater experience.  Generally speaking, for most of us, a theater means a school auditorium, a modern movie theater that is built solely for function, or for beautiful theaters – opera performances, or something we do not frequent.  From the exterior, I did not expect anything spectacular, but as soon as I stepped inside, I was amazed. Seldom will you visit a theater as beautiful as the Alabama. Photographs from a point-and-shoot camera cannot capture the detail, and the flash does not substitute for professional lighting, so I took only a few shots before I settled on gazing at the interior. For much better photographs, see the HABS collection.  Or view the virtual 360 tour of the theater.

Alabama Theater Interior: Perspective View of the Stage Looking from the East. Photograph by Jack E. Boucher, 1996. United States Library of Congress, HABS.

Alabama Theater Interior: Perspective View of the Stage Looking from the East. Photograph by Jack E. Boucher, 1996. United States Library of Congress, HABS.

The Alabama functioned primarily as a movie palace for its 55 years of life, though it olds fame as a practice location for the Mickey Mouse Club and the stage for the Miss Alabama Pageant.  The theater closed in 1987 after a few changes in ownership, but in 1998 underwent a complete restoration from cleaned carpets to repair of or repainting the gold leaf details.  The theater is still home to the Wurlitzer Theater Organ, which was used to accompany silent films and is one of the few remaining, functional Wurlitzer Theater Organs in the United States.

Today the Alabama Theater is home to special events, stage performances, dance competitions, a summer film series, and more.  If you are ever in or near Birmingham, a visit to the Alabama Theater is well worth your time. Despite my adoration for architecture, few buildings have left me in such a state of awe as this one.   For more information visit the website or view the photograph collection at the Birmingham Public Library (found through wikipedia).

Walking on the same side of the street as the Alabama Theater is located offered no indication of the grand interior.

Walking on the same side of the street as the Alabama Theater is located offered no indication of the grand interior.

Alabama #3: Sloss Furnaces

 A series of Wednesday posts about Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding area.                     See Post #1 and Post #2.  This is Post #3.

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Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama is a National Historic Landmark and the only 20th century blast furnace in the country to be preserved and interpreted as a historic industrial site.  Sloss Furnaces began operating in 1882, and in the 1920s, at its height, 500 workers produced 400 tons of pig iron per day.  Pig iron is smelted iron ore and coke (fuel derived from coal) that is used to make wrought iron, cast iron, and steel. Birmingham is often referred to as the Pittsburgh of the South, for the abundance of iron producing resources located within 30 miles of the city: minerals, coal, ore, and clay. The furnace, just one of many around Birmingham, operated until 1971, after undergoing modernizations and holding out in a dying industry to due changing production methods.

Sloss Furnaces has been a National Historic Landmark since 1981, the first industrial site of its kind to be considered for this designation. The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documented the site. To see the documentation (photographs, data pages, documents, measured drawings), see here, in the American Memory project of the Library of Congress. Today Sloss Furnaces serves as a historic site as well as a location for community and civic events.

Visiting Sloss Furnaces was a unique experience. We could walk almost anywhere we wanted to, gaze at old engines, furnaces, pipes, and other unidentifiable (to us, anyway) mechanisms. We arrived with about 30 minutes to spare before closing, but could have easily spent much more time wandering around inside and outside. Without having industrial knowledge, it is difficult to describe. Yet, it was my favorite place in Birmingham. To walk around in this place and imagine how it must have smelled, the sounds, the dust, the employees working long hours in the heat, is almost like stepping back in time.

There were a few engraved, informational plaques throughout the furnaces, but mostly it was unguided in all senses of the word. Nothing was blocked, though common sense tells you not to walk down the basement stairs that will lead to two inches of standing water in the same way that it tells you not to climb up the ladder to the ceiling even though it’s open and within reach. Having only experienced places where everything is so guarded, an opportunity to roam free and see everything on your own was amazing. The downside was that we couldn’t really answer our own questions, whereas a guide could have helped. However, we did not visit the gift shop and information desk before walking through (again, we were short on time) – but it would have been a good idea.

It seems like there would be many liability issues with open stairwells and so many mechanisms (albeit nonfunctional) within everyone’s reach. But I hope that the freedom for visitors of Sloss Furnaces remains because being able to slip around a corner and not feel like you’re on this forced path is a rare chance at historic sites. Some paths are clearly marked on the outside, but once inside it was the free roaming experience. Most of us cannot imagine what it was like to work during the industrial age. Visiting Sloss Furnaces increased my appreciation and awe for this period of history. I would gladly go back to spend a few hours (with more information to enhance my visit).

Because there are so many pictures to share, I’m including a gallery. Click on the photograph to get the larger image. Depending on your browser, you may be able to zoom in further. Some remain unlabeled because I do not know what it is.

Alabama #2: Downtown Birmingham Streets & Buildings

 A series of Wednesday posts about Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding area. See Post #1.  This is Post #2.

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Most everyone who asks about our trip to Birmingham wants to know our first impressions, since they have not visited nor do they think of Birmingham in the modern day sense. What is there, they ask.  My preservation influenced first impressions? Downtown Birmingham is an interesting place. And no, I don’t know what I expected because I hadn’t imagined visiting Birmingham until recently.

The afternoon began in the Arts district at a great locally owned coffee shop and cafe, Urban Standard.  With exposed brick walls, locally made gifts, delicious food and cupcakes, antiques, wifi, and great coffee, it is certainly a nice place for breakfast, lunch, or coffee. This part of downtown was fairly busy, including the company of a herd of skateboarders going up and down the street while being filmed.  Down the block are loft apartments and a few stores. It seems like the area is experiencing a resurgence of interest from citizens and many buildings are undergoing rehabilitation into apartments.

Urban Standard

Urban Standard

Interesting home accessories for sale

Interesting home accessories for sale

Brick walls and coffee

Brick walls and coffee

A beautiful latte sitting on the counter, an antique store display case

A beautiful latte sitting on the counter, an antique store display case

We walked around on a Saturday afternoon, a truly beautiful day with 70 degree, sunny weather, the first nice weekend of the season.  Despite this, the city felt very empty in places. Near the government offices, this made sense since most people do not work on weekends. A few people, but not a crowd by any means, sat in beautiful park, Linn Park, in the center blocks of these buildings (courthouse, libraries, city hall). And the skateboarders appeared again. Linn Park will be the subject of a separate post.

After Linn Park, we walked down a typical historic streetscape, but one with very intriguing buildings that call upon decades earlier. Once again, this section seemed oddly lacking pedestrians. Some stores were in business, others in transitions, and still other buildings sat vacant.

Third Ave in downtown Birmingham

Third Ave in downtown Birmingham

More of the Third Ave streetscape

More of the Third Ave streetscape

One store, formerly Kessler’s, showcased an unusual storefront window.  Today this building is being converted into seven loft apartments with commercial space on the first floor. See this University of Alabama – Birmingham article for a discussion on downtown Birmingham lofts. This was my favorite building and these pictures cannot do it justice (cars would have obstructed better photographs).

Entrance to Kessler's

Entrance to Kessler's

Kessler's storefront - quite impressive! Note the matching floor and ceiling swirl and curved glass windows

Kessler's storefront - quite impressive! Note the matching floor and ceiling swirl and curved glass windows

Another interesting storefront was the California Fashion Mall.

On the corner of Third Ave and 19th Street

On the corner of Third Ave and 19th Street

Further down on Third Avenue is the Alabama Theater, the showcase of the South, and one that deserves its own post.

Downtown Birmingham is large and small at the same time. Obviously, there is a lot to talk about – it won’t fit in one post. Before citizens of Birmingham correct me, let me clarify that I realize that Kelly Ingram Park is also in downtown Birmingham, as some other sites I mention will be; but some places such as Kelly Ingram Park deserve their own post. Granted, some of the talk is about empty buildings; however, don’t let that lead you to assume that Birmingham is sleeping and a boring place. As our friend and host said, you have to look for something to do, but there is a lot to be found, from little shops to events to art galleries to good restaurants and more. See his recommendations at bhamsandwich.com.

For those interested in early to mid century architecture, the streets of Birmingham provide endless entertainment. Birmingham seems like it’s an up-and-coming place, one that will revitalize itself with years of hard work by citizens and growing interest from the students of the numerous universities in and around Birmingham.  Parts of downtown are a bit lonely, but not lonely in the sense of rundown and abandoned – just missing people. I would expect that more people will find their way downtown in the near future. But, now would be the time to visit so you can see the before and so you arrive before prices increase! It is an intriguing place.

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More posts about downtown Birmingham attractions to come next Wednesday.

Alabama #1: Kelly Ingram Park

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Sweet Home Alabama, where the skies are so blue.

As some vigilant readers may have noticed, Wednesdays tend to be travel days here at Preservation in Pink. This past weekend, Vinny and I visited a friend in Birmingham, Alabama.  Our friend is a wonderful host and catered to our interests, which included a lot of preservation related sites. Thus, Birmingham posts will be a series. This is Alabama post #1, the Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham. Alabama posts will appear on Wednesdays for the next few weeks.

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16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL

The Civil Rights District in downtown Birmingham, Alabama is a six block area recognizing important events of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Among these sites are the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park. The 16th Street Baptist Church, a National Historic Landmark, is the site of a September 1963 bombing that killed four young African American girls. The church had become the site of civil rights demonstrations and after the bombing, the United States and other nations around the world openly condemned segregation. See the HABS documentation of the 16th Street Baptist Church here from the Library of Congress – photographs and historical research and measured drawings.

Closer view of the 16th Street Baptist Church

The brick construction and the neon sign of 16th Street Church.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the opposite corner of 16th Street Church is Kelly Ingram Park, formerly known as West Park, where police and fireman attacked civil rights demonstrators in May 1963. Men, women, and children were hosed with high pressure fire hoses, beaten with policemen’s night sticks, and arrested. One man attacked by a police dog. Men, women, and children as young as six years old were arrested and jailed. Images of these tragic incidents were broadcasted all over the world. Seen in the above photograph is a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the park.

Kelly Ingram Park memorials

Today, the four acre is park is home to the Freedom Walk, which leads visitors in a circle around the park through sculptures of the police dog attack, the fire hoses, and a jail cell. The park was named Kelly Ingram Park in 1932 for Osmond Kelly Ingram, a sailor in the U.S. Navy who died in World War I and received the Medal of Honor posthumously. In 1992 the park was renovated and rededicated with the Civil Rights Institute.  Visitors may take an audio tour or their own self guided tour to enjoy the peacefulness of the park today. Seen below is the police dog attack sculpture in the park.

The police dog attack

The sculptures are powerful images, a contrast to the beauty and unity of the park today. It is across the street from the Civil Rights Institute and worth a visit, as a tribute to those who fought long and hard and suffered in order to earn equal rights in the United States.  See the National Register of Historic Places Travel Itineary for additional historic sites of the Civil Rights movement.

The fountain at the park

The park fountains.