Checking in (3)

Your Polish great aunt may be disoriented

We’ve discussed good urban hotels (or the lack thereof) in a couple of previous posts (here and here). As innovative boutique hotels have gone up in cities large and small, somehow Birmingham still lacks a truly memorable urban hotel that captures the city’s spirit. Yes, the Tutwiler Hotel has its charm, but the Hampton Inn vibe holds it back. We look forward to the new 4-star Westin–although its location at the BJCC and the new entertainment district makes it feel less integrated with the historic core (as can be the case with convention-oriented hotels). We dream of a Birmingham version of the new Wythe Hotel, shown above, rehabbed in an old factory in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn that meshes the rough-hewn, immigrant aesthetic of that historic place with the uber-hip(ster)  reality of its modern-day environs. Think custom beds made from the building’s reclaimed pine beams and in-room surround-sound controlled by your iPhone.

Just use your imagination

Recently it was reported in the Birmingham News that the developer of the new downtown Westin, National Ventures Group, has been analyzing the former Regions Plaza building–currently vacant after Regions‘ merger with AmSouth–as a mixed-use development including a 4-star Wyndham Grand hotel at the lower portion (above, looking west along 5th Avenue North towards 20th Street). A 2007  plan for this site called for redevelopment into a Marriott Renaissance hotel, but this plan fell victim to the recession. National Ventures is quoted as stating the hotel would be unique to the state of Alabama, and inspired by–of all places–the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg, Russia.

That’s a lot of old-world imperial glory to inspire us

The Russian reference is odd because of the severe difference in architecture between the two buildings. The Regions Plaza–formerly First Alabama Bank Building–is an early-1970’s bronze and dark-tinted-glass period-piece of limited elegance and panache. The 5-star hotel in the former capital of the Russian Empire (above) is all neoclassical opulence, inside and out–from the fine stone carvings and cornices, to the crystal chandeliers, to the Art Nouveau woodwork of 1910 (the structure dates from 1875).

The way we were

Ironically, the Russian inspiration might make more sense if we still had the original building on the site–the Tutwiler Hotel (above, looking east along 5th Avenue North, ca. 1956). Constructed in 1914 and demolished in 1972 to make way for the current structure, its grandeur and luxury were–at least for a time–renowned throughout the South. Stylistically it certainly shared more with the Europe than its replacement does. It will be interesting to see how this project develops.

A less glamorous precedent

A quick search of Wyndham Grand hotels turns up the above, in downtown Pittsburgh. Now that’s a long way from St. Petersburg, but perhaps a more realistic precedent for understanding the possible look of the proposed hotel here. Because while the renovation cost of $30 million estimated by National Ventures isn’t insignificant, you can be pretty sure that doesn’t include recladding the building in plaster, limestone, and carved cornices.

Will the Wyndham answer our desire for a great, memorable urban hotel? Probably not. Could it fill a need for 4-star service in the heart of the CBD, activating the street fronts with bars and restaurants? Hopefully. If it–and the Westin–prove successful, could it help give confidence to that innovative developer to create that special boutique hotel of our dreams? Just possibly.

[thanks to Wythe Hotel for the exterior view;  deldal for Grand Hotel Europe; Birmingham Public Library for the Tutwiler; marcanadian for the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh]

19 responses to “Checking in (3)

  1. Intriguing review with apt illustrations. Thanks.

  2. It has always been my opinion that the loss of the Tutwiler was the most awful one in the City’s history– really, in functional terms, worse than the loss of the Terminal Station. A banker friend of mine told me years ago, when I was complaining about the imminent loss of the building, that I “didn’t want to know” how the process of buying it and destroying it was accomplished.

    Its replacement has been dubbed by a friend of mine, who had to look at it out her window all day, the “doo-doo building,” No pleasure in it at all. Maybe if it’s redone they can at least improve it. I personally think it should be destroyed in its turn and something much better built on that significant corner.

    • I agree it is hard to come up with positive things to say about the current building. Creative partial, or total, “re-skinning” could transform it, although again I doubt the $30 million budget mentioned by the developer could get much beyond something cosmetic on the ground floor. One can always hope.

      To lose the city’s prominent hotel in the heart of downtown is arguably more serious than losing the train station–I agree with this as well. If this hotel project could be pulled off/successful, it will at least bring full-service hotel activity back to the street.

  3. My parents’ first date = getting up early to go see the Tutwiler imploded. Please consider all possible metaphorical implications that has for their marriage and my Birmingham life…

    Meanwhile, I had no idea how energizing and animating a hotel could be for a city’s core until I spent several weeks at the Brown in Louisville, Ky. ( Nearby, the distinctive character of the Seelbach ( obscures any Hilton chain-schlock. As always, it’s hard to be optimistic about Birmingham projects like this when the prevalent civic desire seems to be only catching up to the ho-hum mainstream.

    • Yes! This city has great examples of smaller scale creative developments (restaurants for example); it’s unclear to me how that hasn’t translated to even a small hotel project…

  4. Colin Alexander

    Is any one talking about turning the old Cabana building into a hotel again? It’s an iconic historic building. And it’s location is full of potential. Just look at what’s around it: McWane Center, Alabama Theater, Carver Theater/Jazz Hall of Fame, Red Mountain Theater, Art Folk Gallery, Frank Setzer Gallery, Central Station/Amtrak Station, Rail Road Park, The Pizitz Building, The Innovation Depot. Its visible from US 31, I-65, and I-20/59, and all of those roads have direct exits onto the roads the building sits on or roads that are only a block a way. And for those concerned with safety, it’s across the street from the Police HQ.

    • I’ve not heard anything serious about the Thomas Jefferson (aka Cabana) lately. Having worked on a potential hotel project at that building a while back, I strongly believe turning it back into a hotel is its best use. Other cities would kill to have such a wonderful building to turn into a hotel….thanks.

  5. That is one ugly building. The more I learn about Birmingham’s built environment history, the more angry I become. I know it would cost far more money, but the Jefferson would make for a much better hotel. While I am sure Regions would be happy to make a deal to get that box off its books, I would think the Jefferson would sell for far less given its condition, which would make up some for the high cost of renovation.

    • No argument on the relative aesthetic merits of the Regions building vs. Thomas Jefferson Hotel. My guess is the Regions location is an easier sell at this point, given it’s in the heart of the CBD. TJ is a great location for a more off-beat, boutique-type property in my opinion…but we’ll see. Maybe increased development around it, as well as baseball park a few blocks south, will improve its prospects.

  6. Colin Alexander

    I think the Regions building would be easier to sell, but the Jefferson building would be the cheaper sell. As for the development around the property, a hotel would help that area reach its full potential. Just look at downtown Montgomery before Renaissance Marriott moved in and after. Could also help the Pizitz project get back on track

    • I think Regions is a pretty cheap sell, from what I’ve heard. That being said, I also would say Montgomery’s Marriott was part of a concerted effort–including ballbark, river walk, etc.–rather than an isolated catalyst. Montgomery has been doing a better job with coordinated development like that than we have in recent years–I hope that will change. Thanks.

  7. Who currently owns the Thomas Jefferson hotel anyway? After the failed Leer Tower development, it was never clear to me who retained ownership of it.

    • It’s not clear to me either. I feel it must be different owners than pre-Leer, because those guys kept the building in (relatively) good shape with regular maintenance work, security, etc. The current situation is the opposite, and quite depressing.

      —–Original Message—–

  8. Hmm. I wonder how I could find out. I’ll ask around the theatre/arts district.

    • Or the guys at ONB should know.

    • You can go to the dOwntown library with the address. With the address you can pull up the parcel ID, tax record a d current owner info with the computer on the third floor.

    • The City of Birmingham and Jefferson County both maintain publicly accessible GIS maps with tax data ( and The owner on file for the 2012 tax year is an entity known as “Cabana Downtown Residential Complex, Inc.”. P.O. Box 66190, Birmingham, AL 35210. According to the Alabama Secretary of State, a domestic corporation was registered by that name on September 27, 1982 by James & Louis Glodt with $1,000 capital. James Glodt was named as the president of the hotel in a May 6, 1988 “Post-Herald” article. At that time the Cabana was operating more or less as a boarding house of last resort.

      • Hmmm–sounds like the same ownership group, although for whatever reason they are no longer keeping the building in decent shape. Thanks for this research.

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