Flickering out

A visual time capsule

This morning’s Design Review Committee approved painting over an historic mural advertising sign (above) which has delighted passerby for years at the corner of 19th Street and First Avenue South. The sign, which shows two couples in evening dress enjoying a television program, was presented by the building owner’s representative as too costly to restore, and not worthwhile to preserve in its current state due to unfavorable warranties on clear sealers (the owner plans to repair, repaint, and waterproof this entire brick wall).

Another Tom Collins please

The mural is based on the above print ad for Sentinel TV, ca. 1953. Why are painted murals like this so important in an urban environment? They give character and texture to otherwise blank expanses of brick; they remind us of the layers of history old building have; and they make the public space we move through unique. Without them we have just a bunch of painted brick walls.

Others see the value

One irony of this unfortunate decision by the committee (despite a valiant plea from member Nolanda Hatcher to save the sign) is that literally a few yards away is the Birmingham Printing and Publishing sign (above) which was carefully preserved when design firm ArchitectureWorks renovated the building for their offices a decade ago.

It's all happening here

Perhaps a greater irony is the mural’s context (above), which includes Railroad Park a block away, proposed mixed-use development directly across the street, and the soon-to-be-decommissioned Alabama Power Steam Plant with its intriguing potential right beyond that. Oh, and a new baseball park under construction a couple blocks west with all the anticipated surrounding development. One can imagine few places in town where we shouldn’t be trying harder to maintain what’s unique about our historical buildings, as we anticipate lots of new construction and foot traffic to be joining them soon.

[thanks to Vintage Ad Browser for the print ad]

28 responses to “Flickering out

  1. The name of the company that owns this building is Healthcare Realty in Nashville, TN. Julie Wilson, Senior Vice President is responsible for their properties. According to their website, her email address is: Properties@healthcarerealty.com.

  2. According to this older article (http://blog.al.com/birmingham-news-stories/2011/08/vintage_sign_in_downtown_besse.html) on al.com, this restoration of an entire wall was budgeted at $ 400.00. Seriously? This mural is too costly to restore?!

    • I don’t believe any serious attempt was made to budget a restoration. Of course I’d imagine it would be well over $400 at this point–but unfortunately the Committee can’t really demand to see budgets and dollars; they are supposed to focus on design only, and be wary of “economic hardship” as an excuse (with the reasoning being if you don’t want to own/maintain within an historic district, sell or don’t buy in the first place). Thanks.

  3. Say it ain’t so! What can we do – I am not in town to help in person.

  4. Michael Calvert

    A very unfortunate decision! Were cost estimates provided? Unless it was far more than I would expect, it would have been been worth the expense on this major property to restore this painting as Johnson Development did when it was originally renovated 35 years ago. A bland, blank wall will reduce the vitality of the City Center.

  5. While it is easy to condemn the property owner for take the “cheap and easy way out” with regard to the vintage sign, what metric do we use to determine worth? At some point the economics is greater than the historic value, but who makes that call? I doubt it was it the intention of this sign painters to have this image last in perpetuity, so at some point the sign will simply fade away to time. If we want cities to change and evolve over time they can’t remain static.

    An interesting note is the under current zoning and design review guidelines painting this (or a similar sign) would not be allowed.

    • Good points, and all hard to answer. Like many other elements of the DRC purview, it comes down to a balance of objective and subjective perspectives. If downtown were littered with historic signage everywhere, we would be having another discussion. If the owner were doing new signage (and current zoning should be revised if blank walls facing streets are preferable to good graphic signage–again, a subjective metric), it would be a different discussion. But in an area where true vintage signs are few and far between–much less any advertising 60 year old TVs–I think we should all pause and consider its worth, which in my estimate is considerable. Too many buildings have been “cleaned up” in the last 30 years, and in return we have bland, totally unmemorable versions of buildings that historically always had graphics and signage. Thanks.

      • I’m sure that Harbert Realty would be happy to facilitate the restoration process if the funds were made available either from the owner or from donations. This project is being driven by the need to seal the building from moisture to prevent further rot, not to ‘remove’ history.

        Also, could you imagine the can of worms that would be opened if zoning was changed to allow painted, off premise signage (especially with the egos of our financial institutions)?

        And for the record, this property is not in a designated historic district but is located in the Midtown Commercial Revitalization District.

        Nostalgia is a hard thing to regulate let alone mandate.

      • Totally agreed on Harbert–I think their representative even told the committee a couple weeks ago he personally liked the sign, but was acting on behalf of his client.

        I know from personal experience that it’s quite possible, and can be affordable, to waterproof a building while restoring historic elements–a painted sign is like a complex old cornice: more headaches for waterproofing, but worth restoring since that character is hard to replace once it’s gone.

        I think zoning should be more open to well-designed–and sometimes larger–signage, including super-graphics (but not off-premise advertising of course!). The historic signs that remain around town we should be more cautious about preserving, since in general our downtown suffers from a lack of good graphics that are an important layer of the built environment. Regardless of their content, a lot of these signs have become “pop-art icons” in their own right.

        Nostalgia is hard to regulate/mandate–no question. But if we look at historic building stock and see its value and to a certain extent mandate its preservation through the DRC process, historic signage should fall under the same rubric. It’s all part of our history.

        Thanks for all your insight.

  6. I hate to see that. I have always enjoyed driving by that mural. Is there no way to convince the owner to keep it?

  7. If the building owner really needs to repair/waterproof/repaint the wall, a good compromise solution might be to let that happen, but then have someone repaint the mural when the wall is fixed. I believe this particular mural was actually restored from a blank painted wall once before–or else the mural was extremely faded–judging from an old photo I saw recently.

  8. I am going to email the property owner and members of the committee. I hope you all do the same.

  9. Well, doggonnit, no email addresses for the committee.

    • There is a formal appeal process; and then there would also be an informal process of contacting owner and expressing community wishes, perhaps even a fundraising campaign to aid in costs, etc. Thanks.

  10. Jessica Cannon

    So sad we have to fight to keep these treasures. Do we have time to stop this from happening?

    • The owner appears to be a pretty substantial company based in Nashville, with Harbert Realty representing them locally for this matter (another substantial company). So they probably have the resources to act fast. One hope would be that, once they hear from the community, the Nashville company may reconsider (they are probably totally unaware of the value this mural may have here). Thanks.

  11. I sent my email to the email provided by Chuck above. Does anyone else have any other contact information to make attempts to raise awareness to anyone else in this company to prevent this from happening?

  12. After doing further research on the owners website, I see that one of their Board members is Batey M Gresham, Jr., A.I.A.

    Mr. Gresham is the founder of Birmingham’s Gresham Smith & Partners architectural firm.

  13. Hi Jeremy, I don’t see a spot for general comments. I just heard from a friend in Birmingham that Moshe Safdie’s Callahan Residence has been torn down. Do we have any information on that?

    • Brett, the last I heard that property has been subdivided into two lots; the house is torn down to allow construction of two new houses. I don’t think there’s really been much publicity if any…

  14. I have received word from a very reliable source that the the owner of the building have decided NOT to paint over the vent age ad, but restore it!

    At some point the DRC will receive this information as well. My assumption is that this change will be reason to submit a new plan to the DRC?

    • Well that is rather fantastic news…although we will hold our breath until it’s confirmed. Yes I assume then a new plan would be submitted (and it would be a pretty quick “yes” vote if I had to take a guess!). Please keep us posted if you hear anything else!!!

  15. Pingback: ..and flickering back on? | Bhamarchitect's Blog

  16. Pingback: Historic Birmingham mural update: the hours passed, the picture will stay | Birmingham news, bargains, events - Magic City Post

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