City as artifact

Worth documenting

As the City prepares to demolish the 4-block-plus area between directly south of Railroad Park between 14th and 16th Streets South to prepare for the new ball park for the Birmingham Barons, we are about to lose a good bit of historic, warehouse fabric that’s been little discussed. It is the opinion of this blog that the ball park is a good thing for downtown and the City, and that the old warehouse neighborhood around it (tentatively dubbed Parkside) has vast potential to be revitalized into a vibrant mixed-use district connecting UAB to the park. Before the bulldozers arrive, however, it would be great to try to document the buildings that are about to disappear forever (example above).

Remnant of another era

Some of these old structures serviced prominent retailers located several blocks north in downtown’s shopping district, such as the above warehouse which still has its “Jefferson Home Furniture” sign prominently displayed.

Not something you see here often

In a central city laid out on a relentlessly orthogonal grid, it’s downright shocking to see this curving alley way between two warehouses (above), which followed the curve of a rail spur. Goods could be loaded directly onto rail cars from the warehouse docks. Wouldn’t it be great if the new ball park facility had a graphic display somewhere with images and history relating to this neighborhood and its (unsung) relationship to the better-known areas adjacent to it?

First sign of progress

Once these buildings are documented properly, and their history outlined for the public, we hope that upon completion of the ball park many of the surrounding warehouse-type buildings will be renovated to complement new, infill construction in a district with housing, restaurants, bars, shops, offices, and other amenities. A hint of what could come is seen above at the corner of 18th Street and 2nd Avenue South, where the real estate firm Shannon Waltchack moved from the suburbs into a freshly renovated former National Biscuit Company building (they plan phase 2 with loft apartments next door; architect for the project is Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds).

Yes you are

Only a few years ago, the building across 18th Street from Shannon Waltchack had fully rented storefronts. The tenants left and took the storefronts with them; now all that remains is a (still beautiful) shell. Understanding the value of historic buildings is important, and we hope this one can be returned to service. Part of what will make this neighborhood work are built-from-scratch projects like Railroad Park, the Barons park, and proposed new UAB buildings. Destruction of some existing historic buildings will be inevitable. Let’s get them professionally documented before they go.

30 responses to “City as artifact

  1. What about the street? There was a high mound of big, old Graves bricks by the Skate “Park” two nights ago. The guys laying the gas line were putting them aside and kindly put some in my car trunk for me, Antonio got some, but many may still be there. They are fat like cobble stones, were laid in sand only, and I WISH THEY WERE STILL VISIBLE AS THE STREET! They are still under the asphalt, I’m sure.

    • What about the street? There was a high mound of big, old Graves bricks by the Skate “Park” two nights ago. The guys laying the gas line were putting them aside and kindly put some in my car trunk for me, Antonio got some, but many may still be there. They are fat like cobble stones, were laid in sand only, and I WISH THEY WERE STILL VISIBLE AS THE STREET! They are still under the asphalt, I’m sure.

    • This is a great point–whether it’s old bricks/cobbles from the streets, or old brick/timber from the warehouses, the City and developers should be making every effort to save and recycle these into the new structures. This was done to great effect at Railroad Park, where lots of old bricks were used in the landscape elements. Thanks.

  2. I absolutely love that shell, I think it would be interesting to turn it into a space that rebuilds some of it, but leaves the majority as open, 1/3 restaurant with patio dining on the exposed parts? Event space?

  3. Do you know what the building is in the first photo you publish, or the industry it was designed for? I have been trying to figure that out for a long time. It’s the one with the prominent multi-story raised portion in the center. Really seductive as an historical curiosity…

  4. Btw, what beautiful old steel framing on that curving structure in the third photo. That should definitely be salvaged!

  5. From a ‘librarian/historian’s point of view’, I hope that many people take many pictures with addresses, locations, and business information, AND, that you send them to the Birmingham Public Library Archives. Dr. James Baggett and Don Veasey would very much like to have such information.

    • Thank you. This is what I mean by professional documentation, suitable for archive at the BPL (and, of course, also suitable for conversion into a “layman” exhibit for the public at the new ball park).

  6. Great suggestion for BPL Archives. I did notice in one computer rendering of the new ballpark that the tall brick structure with the narrow-profile (squint and it looks a little like an Aldo Rossi building) is shown saved and incorporated into the ballpark. Hope that can be done. It sits on the east edge of the ballpark footprint.

  7. Michael Hallisey

    Jeremy, et al., I couldn’t agree more are about the need to document these structures before demolition. The depression era WPA photos of Birmingham buildings are invaluable as a resource for restoration and development. We should take the time now to do the same for future generations…

    Also of note, three of the city’s old streetcar lines border the eastern and southern edge of the site (16th St S and 3rd Ave S). The Idlewild and South Highlands lines ran west on 2nd Ave S turning south at 16th Street and west again at 3rd Ave S. The Phelan Park/Collum Street line also follows this alignment, but turns south again at 15th Street S. It would be interesting to see if any of this track still lies under the asphalt.

    Thanks for bringing this issue to light. This should be a fun time for fellow urbex fans out there!

  8. Pingback: New home for the Barons « emsontheroaddotcom

  9. I hope this urban revitalization doesn’t become “urban revitalization”, aka tear everything down because it is old. Also, Shannon Waltchack needs a sign, I had no idea they were there.

  10. I’m always in favor of thorough documentation.

    Judging by the demolition plan and site plan you posted earlier, there may be some potential for a “power alley” curving away visibly from center field. Not sure if that makes any sense as a ballpark feature.

  11. Don’t have permission to view John’s flickr link (sadly) but after seeing that curved alley I’m going to stop by the area after work and see what there is to shoot.

  12. Robert Christopher

    I too love the old-meets-new of these older buildings (I am biased as I live in the Phoenix Building). There are a number of talented Photographers living/working in the Phoenix. Perhaps someone can get their help?
    Nothing against the amatuers doing the photo/documentaion but the quality of the photos would go way up. I have bias in that area as well as in the mid 90’s I worked as Lithographer/Scanner Operator doing mostly high-end photo conversions. I was lucky that I got to do a large number of analog to digital scans of various original 8×10 black and white photos of Birmingham in the early 1900’s. These were all done for the BPL.

    • We are checking this situation; it seems that a professional photographer has actually been hired to document the buildings, just not sure to what extent or whether the BPL has interest in its archives for this and other building info. We’ll report back when we know more. Thanks so much for your interest, and glad you’re in the Phoenix Building!

  13. Has any of the recent documentation been gathered into one (or more) spots?

  14. I noticed that the tall brick building discussed earlier in the post is still standing; one would assume it lies beyond the perimeter of the baseball property. I’m glad. One can hope that it will be preserved and gifted with an interesting inhabitant that suits the new district! Does anyone know if the curvilinear freight corridor, also discussed, escaped the wrecking ball?

    • I was actually talking to someone at the City last week who was lamenting the sad but necessary loss of that brick building–so maybe it just hasn’t come down yet…I’m afraid the curved one is coming down too. Looking at a site map, basically everything from 1st to 3rd Ave, and from 14th to 16th, comes down (with the exception of B&A Warehouse). The very, very fast track of this project means that reconsidering at this point would be highly unlikely…

  15. Sorry to hear. Maybe at least it will be documented…

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