Tonight the Powell School, the City’s oldest school building (1888), caught fire. By the time I arrived about 10 PM at the corner of 24th Street and 6th Avenue North, multiple fire trucks and dozens of firemen were battling the blaze. Sadly, the damage is major. While the fire now appears under control, it remains to be seen if the shell is salvageable. Let’s all pray this is the case; architecturally there is nothing else like it in the City, and historically it is without parallel as our first “Free School”.

While the News has better pictures here, I post a snapshot I took above, of a sad Mayor William Bell, consulting his fire chief and watching the blaze for some time. My great-grandmother walked to this school from her house a few blocks away as a little girl; by 2004 it finally closed when the new Phillips Academy opened nearby. For everyone interested in this City’s history, this is indeed a sad, sad night.

13 responses to “Tragedy.

  1. My grandfather John Dabney started school here in 1888 or 1890

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  3. So, so sad to come home last night and hear about this. But thank you for sharing this poignant picture.

  4. Amanda Schedler

    We drove by the Powell School today and it looks gutted. Thank you for letting people know about the importance of this building. Let’s hope someone will be inspired to renovate it, if it can be renovated. It is such a handsome structure.

    • It does appear fairly gutted–but with its exterior mainly intact. It would be a major undertaking, but it should be renovated. It is too important to our city’s history not to be.

      • We’ll need some vision and some heroes to keep it standing. Has anybody said whether the school system’s historical archives were still in the building?

      • Don Lupo with the Mayor’s office Friday night said he and a team had just been in there some days ago to better secure the building and remove flammable items. I’d assumed that anything of value like archives would have been removed when the building went vacant–but that’s an assumption based on nothing. Great question.

        Jeremy C. Erdreich, AIA, LEED AP Erdreich Architecture, PC 2332 Second Avenue North Birmingham, AL 35203 tel 205.322.1914 fax 205.322.1925

      • The Birmingham History Center says that “armloads” of materials, including 6 student records, 2 photos, a bell clock, a graduation certificate signed by Phillips and a some report cards were rescued from the fire and donated to them.

  5. Would it be tacky to push for a 21st Century interpretation of Powell School as a 12 story condo tower? I understand Post-Modern isn’t in style anymore, but who cares?? Great designs are transcendent (or should be).

    2600 Highland is a contemporary structure inspired by another precedent.

    • Well, in general the best modern buildings that are inspired by older context use subtle associations between form, material, and scale to respect that context. Less good are the “inspirations” that are direct, water-down copies of certain elements (like the twin “spires” at Concord Center which were inspired by the old Courthouse, or the little fake roofscape at 2600 Highland inspired by the old mansion; both of these come off as cheap and nowhere near the quality of the original designs that supposedly “inspired”.)

      So you have to be careful–it’s very, very easy to fall into tacky when you go this route.

  6. Oh, I meant to say rebuild Powell School, then build an inspired tower somewhere else in the City Center. I think that would underscore Powell’s importance as a landmark worth preserving and promoting. Concord Center and to some extent the Alabama Power Tower are also much appreciated nods to Birmingham’s rich architectural heritage.

    • Yes, I assumed that’s what you meant. I would say no, Concord Center is not a good example to follow-it’s massing and cladding is too banal, it’s spires both too literal and too conventional. Alabama Power Tower is perhaps better, since it uses material and scale to complement the original tower rather than “copy” any of its elements.

      I’m all about getting inspired and building a cool new tower generally though!

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