Tag Archives: Barber Companies

A little history (2)

Design worth preserving

In an earlier post, we discussed the colorful history of the area around the current Regions Bank in the Lakeview District (3rd Avenue South and 32nd Street, above). At the time Barber Companies was regrading vacant land across the street into parking; they have since started construction on a new office building, a hopeful sign this urban neighborhood will continue to see investment and revitalization. The start of the new building is seen below, across 32nd Street from the bank.

Underway courtesy of Barber

This morning at the City’s Design Review Committee, Regions presented a request to demolish the existing drive-through canopy at the rear of their building, and replace it with a new one. The existing canopy is very visible, since it faces the bank parking lot which extends to the alley; in effect the rear facade is almost as important as the front given its high level of exposure. The Committee denied the request, and asked for Regions to return with a revised proposal. Why?

It's all about proportion

As seen above, the existing drive-through canopies (to the right) mimic the thin, light effect of other canopies on the building. You can observe this characteristic at the angled canopy to the right on the front facade, or at the back entrance to the left of the drive-through. That lightweight quality in projecting architectural elements is typical of this sort of “Miami Modern” architecture.

The proposal removed the existing staggered canopy system and replaced it with a singular, heavy-set canopy that’s identical to what one sees at a typical gas station. Instead of the perhaps 8-9 inch height of the current canopy, the new one was to be 36 inches high, ostensibly to hide the pneumatic tubes that are currently exposed. Committee member Mark Fugnitto eloquently defended the architectural merits of the building, and asked that Regions put some thought into designing a canopy that’s consistent with those merits.

Hard to win anyone over with this

The other issue with the presentation was the lack of basic presentation materials. Rather than a set of good, illustrative drawings and (preferably) a rendering, only a photo (similar to the above) was presented of a generic, gas-station-like canopy from some other location. The Regions building does not rise to the level of being iconic, but it still serves as a very good example of this period of commercial architectural history. The Committee was absolutely right to insist on a more professional, and thoughtful, effort from the bank.

[thanks to rocketdogphoto for the gas station canopy]

A little history

A remnant of Avondale's past

This shot from 32nd Street South, looking east between 3rd and 4th Avenues towards the unremarkable LabCorp building, reveals little of the interesting history of this  block, now completely empty except for LabCorp. My attention was drawn to it last week at Design Review Committee, as the Barber Companies which owns the lot requested a permit for surface parking work.

Bowling alone

Above is the LabCorp building in 1960, when it was the fabulous Bowl-Lo-Mac, complete with illuminated bowling pin sign on the roof. A putt-putt golf course occupied a portion of the remaining block, as did Ed Salem’s Drive In #2, a well-known local burger joint. This restaurant later became Eunice Crabtree’s Cut Rate Delicatessen & Bait Shop, a gay bar that closed in the early ’90s. The building, uncared for and forlorn, sat vacant for years until Barber razed it a few years ago, completing the erasure of the formerly vibrant elements in this area.

Smoking encouraged at Ed Salem's

The busy recreational activity of this block in the 1960’s helps explain the Regions Bank directly across 32nd Street to the west, whose deliberate, almost “Miami-Modern”-Jetson’s profile is so at odds with the more prosaic warehouses in this neighborhood. Apparently, the building was originally Godwin’s, a favorite local store for purchasing and repairing televisions–although perhaps someone else could confirm or correct this assumption [Assumption corrected: Godwin’s was one block further south!]:

A period piece that's lost its context

It seems that the Bowl-Lo-Mac quickly lost business to larger, more glamorous lanes out in Eastwood, Greensprings and beyond, and of course TV purchases and hamburgers all moved out to more suburban pastures too. If nothing else, I’m grateful to Barber for giving me a reason to learn about this area’s past. Talk about looking on the bright side of a surface parking permit; I tried, I really tried…

[thanks to Birmingham Rewound for the Bowl-Lo-Mac pic, and to ussiwojima for the matchbook]

A tale of two lots

It has been over a year since the Barber Companies (the successor to the Elyton Land Company which platted and developed the initial city of Birmingham, and a significant landowner across the City) offered “free land” downtown to the most qualified applicant. Why is this land still on offer? And how does this offer compare to the Community Foundation‘s recently announced “Next Big Thing“, an idea competition for the vacant lot due east of the Railroad Park?

A loss

When the Barber Companies offered their 40′ x 100′ lot in the 200 block of Richard Arrington Blvd. North for “free” to the user of their choice (you can see their selection rules here), what was seldom mentioned was that just months before their announcement, Barber quietly tore down a lovely, Moderne-style building (itself a successor to the old Lunsford Hotel and Birmingham Medical College, the predecessor to UAB) pictured above in a Google Map screenshot from 2008. In my opinion, this handsome structure, clad in stone with storefront windows, had no reason to come down except Barber wasn’t interested in maintaining the older building (note: Barber’s historic downtown headquarters was vacated earlier last decade and moved out to Inverness, in an office park past I-459).

The now empty lot is engulfed by a surface parking lot–hardly an attractive neighbor, even less so since the parking does not come with the lot. The cost of building a new structure on a very small plot like this downtown is considerable, no matter how you structure it; I would imagine more viable businesses would be considering this “free” offer if the building were still there. Starting from scratch can be fresh and exciting–but harder to visualize and to pay for. Was this really an act of altruism, or a public relations stunt to detract attention from the loss of another historic building (Barber is not exactly known for historic preservation interests–beleaguered or demolished structures are common across Barber’s vast Birmingham holdings).

Any ideas?

In contrast, the parking lot across from Railroad Park is a very different situation (a portion of the property is visible on the lower right of the photo above). The City owns this lot; the Community Foundation and City have organized an international idea competition (The Next Big Thing) to determine its use. No historic building was torn down here, at least not recently; and rather than expecting the winner to also develop/finance the winning proposal, the $50,000 prize money is awarded for the idea, only. Then, the Foundation’s new Catalyst Funds will commit at least $1 million of seed money towards implementing the plan (presumably by others, whether private or public, depending on the idea). Here’s a thoughtfully laid out contest, with lots of energy and excitement, that feels natural coming so soon after the great success of Railroad Park’s opening. It feels well-considered and thoroughly planned, in stark contrast to the somewhat bizarre Barber offer a few blocks north.

If only I felt less cynical about the Barber offer. Now that the beautiful old building is torn down, our hope should be that someone can overcome the challenges of the small site and constrained location, and construct a great piece of infill architecture with an engaging street presence. Because there’s little worse than a vacant lot sitting next to a big, unlandscaped parking lot. Which can feel worse than vacant sometimes…

P.S. Spread the word about Birmingham’s Next Big Thing contest–and enter an idea yourself!