Tag Archives: Powell School

Holiday cheer

The new roof is a good start

New roof for a new start

It was this past January when the historic Powell School suffered immense damage due to fire; what a welcome sight to now see Stone Building Company rebuilding the roof, stabilizing the brick, and otherwise weatherproofing the structure (above). Kudos to the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation which, in cooperation with the City and numerous volunteers, has organized this effort and is marketing the building for redevelopment.

This was the City’s first “Free School.” Before the fire it sat vacant, garnering little attention. Ironically, the fire illuminated the building’s potential: perhaps in the New Year we’ll see plans moving forward for renovation. Which would be pleasing.

Also pleasing should be the announcement–promised soon by REV Birmingham (formerly Operation New Birmingham)–of two new major housing developments near Railroad Park totaling some 450 units. Fingers crossed that downtown will have lots of positive news to look forward to in 2013.


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...


Tonight the Powell School, the City’s oldest school building (1888), caught fire. By the time I arrived about 10 PM at the corner of 24th Street and 6th Avenue North, multiple fire trucks and dozens of firemen were battling the blaze. Sadly, the damage is major. While the fire now appears under control, it remains to be seen if the shell is salvageable. Let’s all pray this is the case; architecturally there is nothing else like it in the City, and historically it is without parallel as our first “Free School”.

While the News has better pictures here, I post a snapshot I took above, of a sad Mayor William Bell, consulting his fire chief and watching the blaze for some time. My great-grandmother walked to this school from her house a few blocks away as a little girl; by 2004 it finally closed when the new Phillips Academy opened nearby. For everyone interested in this City’s history, this is indeed a sad, sad night.