Surprisingly elegant

A couple days ago the Birmingham News reported that the Elyton School (above), just a few minutes’ drive out of downtown Birmingham at Tuscaloosa Avenue and Center Street, may be demolished as part of a development proposal for senior housing at the site. The former elementary school, closed for about 10 years, is the second-oldest in the City after Powell School. It was built in 1908 in what was then the independent town of Elyton (which would soon be merged into Birmingham).

While I was prepared to appreciate historic architecture, upon my visit I was struck not just by the solidity and high quality of the structure, but by the particularly fine level of architectural detail. Many of these older schools have more recent additions, and this one is no exception–although in this case the addition is a wonderful, 1920’s era wing that works well with the original.

Brimming with potential

One can see that later addition to the right above. Many of us are mildly perplexed that such an historic structure would be considered for demolition, right in the middle of ongoing efforts to save Powell School. Time after time, old school buildings in other cities have been renovated with great success for new uses (see this earlier post here). Unfortunately it would appear that Vantage Development, judging from their website, has had little if any experience with anything but suburban, stick-built senior housing.

Not good, and seemingly inexcusable

Back in 2005, there was indeed a proposal to renovate the existing building into senior housing–but the City and the Board of Education could not agree on the price for transfer, and the deal died. Since then, the building has not been properly secured (see above), and neighborhood residents are understandably upset about squatters, etc. While the situation is frustrating, it’s not a reason to abandon hopes of recycling this building.

And more potential

The surrounding neighborhood has challenges–more boarded up structures across the street, for instance–but also great assets, like the historic commercial structures a block south where First Avenue North meets Center Street (above), Arlington Antebellum Home a few blocks west, or the thriving Princeton-Baptist medical a few blocks past Arlington. Elyton School could become a shining jewel in a rejuvenated Arlington-West End neighborhood. Let’s hope the neighborhood, and City leaders, will do all in their power to explore the viability of saving the structure. Because folks, they don’t build it like this anymore. And our City is that much poorer with the loss of another piece of its history.


UPDATE: Here’s a rendering below, courtesy of Vantage Development, of the proposal (shown along Center Street):

Out with the old, and in with...

33 responses to “Again?

  1. Out with the old and in with the generic Hoover apartments.

  2. The proposed demolition cannot be allowed to happen. Surely no one in our city government could be so tone-deaf and impulsive to okay this…

  3. My father was one of seven children and attended Elyton School. It is a beautiful building and surely with all the vacant lots in West End, they could find another location that doesn’t require destruction of a historic building.

  4. Michael Calvert

    In any case, an alarm system with motion detectors should be installed ASAP lest vagrants start a fire and the option of restoration becomes far more difficult as it has with Powell School.

  5. Having recently done a community survey near the area I can attest that the frustration with vacant/blighted properties is pretty high in the neighborhood.

    It’s not just the school of course but a seemingly never ending litany of rental properties and even whole apartment complexes vacant, unsecured and serving as a haven for all sorts of unwelcome activity. It’s death by a thousand cuts for a sense of community. If someone could do something about all the privately owned vacants and I suspect neighborhood residents would be more willing to be patient with Elyton.

    Is there no law requiring the securing and upkeep of vacant properties?

    • No doubt. At a certain point, if properties are left vacant/blighted for long enough, the neighborhood residents get so tired of waiting for rehab, that demolition becomes a default that seems better than the existing alternatives. Property owners are not by law able to keep buildings unsecured, especially if that’s leading to squatting, drug deals, etc. The reality is, it’s very hard to enforce. One person’s definition of unsecured varies from another’s, and in Alabama the property owner is considered innocent until proven guilty. And, this is perhaps even harder to enforce (ironically) if it’s the City or the Board of Ed who’s the owner (sort of the enforcer having to enforce itself). Thanks.

  6. Riverside school in Decatur, where my grandfather, mother and uncle went to school, was refitted into senior apartments at least 20 years ago, if not longer, and has functiooed successfully, both economicly and in the good homes provided. The thing about an older school building like this one is the large size of the classrooms, which allows re-purposing without having to tear out many load-bearing walls.

  7. It would be nice to see this building reused. Do you think it is cost prohibitive to renovate it?

    • It all depends on the condition of the structure, and the proposed reuse. It’s my understanding that the property in this instance would be given by the City to the developer for free, in exchange for the new development. If instead it were being renovated, the City could offer certain incentives that would help defray costs of rehab. The “high cost” of renovation is often an excuse given by those that have no interest in renovating, so I’m always wary until I see some objective analysis.

  8. The proposed new building doesn’t look bad, but should be built around or adjacent to Elyton School. I think D. O. Whilldin designed this structure (along with Legion Field, the Thomas Jefferson, most of Mountain Brook’s mansions, Woolworth’s downtown, CBS42 & transmission tower atop Red Mountain, Tuscaloosa City Hall & Bama Theatre, Pepper Place, Tuscaloosa’s tallest building, Tuscaloosa High School, Bush &
    Iris Elementary Schools, PHILLIPS SCHOOL, Boutwell Auditorium and Shades Cahaba School

  9. D.O. Whilldin designed this school along with most of the great icons of Central Alabama (Tuscaloosa City Hall & Bama Theatre plus Tuscaloosa’s tallest building ; Phillips School ; Bush & Glen Iris Elementary Schools ; Pepper Place ; Woolworth’s downtown ; Legion Field; the Thomas Jefferson; almost every mansion in Redmont Park and Mountain Brook; the Richmond Apartments; Avondale Masonic Lodge; and the Florentine Building just to name a handful. This is an important building that cannot be replaced or replicated.

    • It astounds me that developers ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS target the most beautiful or interesting buildings for demolition while ignoring adjacent vacant lots. It has to be some type of psychosis. Why does every historic structure or pristine watershed around here have to come under attack when there are so many vacant lots and fields to build on? I don’t get it.

    • Thank you for reminding us of the fame of this particular architect locally. Indeed, a building like this cannot be replicated today.

  10. My own brainstorm is much in the pattern used by UAB with the Hillman hospital bldg when University hosital was built. Use the original Elyton building, renovate it as an “anchor” and take down the connecting hall and the addition, to replace them with more space-efficient elderly housing, but build the new part as the addition was built, in the same general style as the original building. Use the original building for administration etc, and both puposes are served – the original building renovated and preserved, and the needed housing built, all preserving the aura of the historic value.
    (BTW, I am an Elyton School product, class of 1967)

    • Great idea. As lovely as the 1920’s wing is, a compromise like the one you state could be a great solution. Unfortunately, developers like this–in a mode similar to typical suburban subdivision planners–prefer “clean slate” properties where they don’t have to bother with preservation, sensitive, contextual architecture, etc. Thanks.

    • This is also similar to the design of the new Adult Psychiatric Hospital (Bryce Hospital) in Tuscaloosa. They used an existing historic structure (not the original Bryce) as the admin building and then connected the new construction hospital to it. The design of the hospital is likely similar to senior housing. The hospital is currently under construction, I’m a good bit of press will follow once it’s complete.

  11. Sorry for my run-on sentence and poor grammar in the previous comment. I’m SURE a good bit of press will follow once it’s complete.

  12. I had thought in this direction because of actual floor space in the addition – as I remember, there were only 6 actual classrooms in the addition, plus library, gym, auditorium and lunchroom. It certainly could be done on a larger footprint as a much more efficient apartment-type structure, but still in the same style. The addition was built with enough forethought to follow the style of the original building; surely the young creative architects today could do the same in a cost-efficient way. These structures were built, and in this case added to later, to represent style, dignity, and culture, and so many of these structures have now become worth preserving 100 years later. Let us do it again.

    • Well put. I agree this type project should be doable. The question is, will the neighborhood insist upon its getting done this way? So far the answer seems to be no; and I believe it will be tough for others to insist, if the neighborhood itself does not. I hope I’m wrong.

  13. The school buildings are always the most beautiful! I do not consider myself to be one who loves history or “old” things but the thought of just demolishing these buildings (and all the other cool buildings in downtown Birmingham) is very sad. There is so much history in each of these buildings! How can people just knock them down?! As much as the area in West End needs to have occupied buildings, I hope they come up with a better plan.

  14. The developer, Lowell Baron, Vantage,LLC is trying to use tax credits and HOME money from HUD to finance this project. Those federal dollars require a NEPA study that requires approval of the Alabama
    Historical Agency in Montgomery. It is hard to believe they would approve this. If anyone knows anyone there, please call them.
    Hard to believe

  15. Decatur, Al had an old school, unused but with much sentiment and potential attached, and it was adapted into senior housing 25-30 yrs ago. It is still quite viable, a community asset, near a historic main street which was struggling to emerge as a major district at that time.

    Has there been any consideration of restoring for alternate use, rather than tearing down & starting over?

    • Thanks for pointing out the Decatur example. It’s unclear to me how much sentiment there is within the actual Arlington neighborhood surrounding the Elyton school; plenty of us feel strongly about exploring preservation. But unless the local neighborhood is also interested, it’s a tougher sell…my hope is there is at least a delay for further study, and education, regarding the feasibility of reuse.

  16. I hear it is up for the re-zoning on March 8th. If it gets delayed from March 8th it will be too late to get the HUD money they are applying for and the project will not be able to move forward.
    Let’s hope there are enough of us there to move for a delay!

  17. I attended Elyton School back in the mid 60’s early 70’s. Those wonderful walks from Elyton Village to school are still times I treasure. I visited Elyton School the year before they closed. Wow, what an experience. I always wonder what happened to school mates and teachers, expecially my 7th grade teacher, Mrs Peggy Carlisle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s