Tag Archives: Tutwiler Hotel

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]

Steaks and meatloaf

In limbo

Wedged between the Public Parking Deck #3 expansion and the former Regions Bank headquarters (which replaced the original Tutwiler Hotel) is a small, older building whose marquee still proclaims “La Paree Steaks/Seafood”. For roughly 60 years La Paree was considered one of the better downtown restaurants, until finally closing in 2003.

Most recently, when the former Regions Bank was slated for a Marriott Renaissance Hotel, the old La Paree was to be demolished to make room for a new steak house associated with the hotel. Now that the larger building has instead been sold to West Second Street Associates out of Flint, MI (for office or mixed-use), the future of the La Paree building is uncertain.

Back when the bellhops could get it delivered

Above is a shot of the restaurant soon after it first opened; notice the Tutwiler Hotel to the right. The impressive neon marquee survives in a later incarnation. It’s important to realize that, until the last few decades, Americans did not eat out very often; when they did in a medium-sized city there were few choices–a handful of well-known steak or seafood places like La Paree; an ethnic restaurant or two; or cafeterias. So the fact that La Paree had white tablecloths on the tables instantly made it one of the “best”, although it was by no means fancy or inventive. The current influx of restaurants into downtown is not a renaissance as much as a new thing–downtown’s restaurants were always perfunctory (with the exception of Joy Young perhaps), rather than noteworthy.

Uncertain futures

While we should be concerned about the future of La Paree and the historic building that houses it (as well as the future of our transit system, as we are reminded in the pic above), we should also be happy about two things: 1. while the Regions Building won’t be a Marriott, perhaps it will soon be filled with offices and even a boutique hotel; 2. we expect an announcement about a very, very cool new restaurant that will open downtown soon, and hope to report on it shortly. As usual, stay tuned.

[thanks to Birmingham Public Library for the historic pic]

Sizing it up

What can we learn about Birmingham and its urban core after comparing it to Mobile’s, the third-largest city in the state (but second biggest metro, at about half the size of our 1.2 million)? On a recent trip I was able to get a quick glimpse of downtown Mobile, and observe some interesting things.

Pointing in the right direction

First, wayfinding. Central Birmingham has basically none–and we need it. Bad. For anyone visiting (whether from afar or just the ‘burbs), graphically clear signage which helps you navigate a city is essential. The above is an example of signage found throughout downtown Mobile–simple, to the point, and informative.

Good signage is good place-making

Second, good urban signage. Birmingham–thanks in part to enlightened members of the Design Review Committee, is more likely today to approve well-designed, projecting and/or illuminated signage for businesses in our urban areas. But the process can still feel like a struggle (one sign we designed for a project downtown took over 3 months to work its way through the City Legal Department after DRC approval). To the left you see some excellent signage at the hip Dauphin Street Taqueria ; in downtown Mobile, the city has a financial incentive to encourage owners to upgrade signage and illuminate it. Fantastic incentive, and the nice projecting signs across the core are a testimony to its success.

Third, Mobile’s older street grid means narrower dimensions–so instead of our wide avenues with 5 or 6 traffic, turn, and parking lanes–you get 4, or 3 total lanes which makes for a more pedestrian friendly environment (quicker to cross, and less traffic on the streets). Below is a shot looking towards the Battle House Hotel, Mobile’s smaller version of our old Tutwiler Hotel, demolished in the 1970s for the First Alabama Bank Building. In Mobile–where development pressure downtown was so slight, it makes Birmingham look like an Atlanta–the hotel was just quietly boarded up and remained vacant until the Retirement Systems of Alabama incorporated it into its huge RSA Tower complex completed a few years ago. Because of the RSA’s muscle, downtown Mobile now has 2 4-star Renaissance hotel properties–while Birmingham has no 4 -star properties anywhere close to downtown (though a Westin is planned to break ground shortly).

Narrow streets, restored hotel

Fourth–of interest to those saddened by the demolition of the old Birmingham News building for the creation of….a surface parking lot: in Mobile the local Press-Register donated their old facility to a non-profit called Center for the Living Arts which promotes the arts throughout downtown Mobile. An 8000 SF center for contemporary art is part of the new reuse of this building, seen below:

A better use than surface parking

Yes, we’re thrilled the News built a new facility downtown. It’s just a shame that instead of visualizing a new use for an outdated building like they did in Mobile, they tore it down for a few parking spaces instead. A very, very 1969 solution to a problem.

Which brings us to the train station. In 1969 we tore ours down. Mobile’s still stands, although mostly vacant (they lost their passenger service long ago), and at a disadvantaged location down Water Street (it was a hardy 20-minute walk down a warehouse and gas-station-laden 6-lane highway from the Battle House). If Water Street could be re-envisioned as a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, with mixed-use and a waterfront promenade–then the old station could be a wonderful terminus again.

Any takers?

Mobile’s core is much smaller than Birmingham’s by any measure–fewer office workers, fewer residents, fewer buildings–and the scale is very different. It feels more like a small city than, well, a medium-sized one. This smaller scale is one factor that can make redevelopment easier. Lower Dauphin Street is lined with bars and restaurants and even some retail shops–but all the buildings are mainly one or two stories. Big, complicated, and expensive redevelopments are not necessary on this scale.

However, some basics of adaptive reuse, signage, even public postings of imminent Design Review hearings are all instructive as we work to create a better Birmingham. It’s clear that Mobile has made some real efforts to reinvigorate their center. And, the City is considering adopting SmartCode for their downtown, similar to Montgomery, to help propel development in the right direction. This is something we’d love to see here too.

When in Mobile...

On a last note, I couldn’t help notice that city parking meters downtown allow 15 minutes per quarter–rather than the 60 minutes per quarter in Birmingham. And we have a much, much more congested downtown than Mobile. I believe Birmingham ranks as one of the largest cities with the cheapest on-street parking. This puts more cars on the street, circling for those cheap spaces–rather than considering decks, or walking, or transit. We’ve got to get used to paying more at the meter here.

Next post–Austin, TX! Happy New Year everybody. Here’s to a great 2011 in the ‘ham.