Tag Archives: Webb Building

Design time

Good graphics shape public perception

First, great news from City Hall: the same City team that has been rolling out the visually impressive Civil Rights Heritage Trail markers above (designer: Ford Wiles of Big Communications) is working on a complete wayfinding project for the City. As we’ve stressed in numerous posts, it’s long past time for a city our size to have a comprehensive plan for visual navigation through the urban environment. If the Civil Rights markers are any indication, we can expect high quality, thoughtful graphics and other environmental cues that will make our City more user-friendly for resident and tourist alike. We’re excited about this news, and look forward to a roll-out in 2012. We’ll report more when we have more details.

Second, not so great news from the  Design Review Committee: the Webb Building, whose initial renovation proposal we praised here, before the owner switched course and did something completely different which we lamented here. Before the holidays, the owner engaged a new architect, Herrington Architects, to present a “compromise” solution, which the DRC approved (below).

Disappointingly off-base

The above rendering shows the unevenly scored stucco (which had angered the Committee previously, and which was such a departure from the originally approved sleek metal banding) now being presented with contrasting paint colors, creating a “panel” effect. It is surprising that this blank/solid feel of this stucco portion, which continues to make the building top-heavy, was approved. There is an unfortunate parallel with these new panels and the ubiquitous applied panel schemes of the 1960’s, which were used to cover up historic facades across this downtown and others. Most likely, the new architect was given very little leeway to be creative, perhaps even constrained by the owner. The Committee itself does not have the power to force someone to return to the previously approved design; in this case, I sure wish they did.


Finally, a new business is planned for downtown as part of a renovation of an historic building. Look for details in the next few days in the Birmingham News. The pic above is a small teaser, hopefully whetting your appetite for more info.

[thanks to vizual2 for the Civil Rights Trail pic,  Herrington Architects for the Webb Building rendering, and wendy_tsang for the yogurt pic]

Ask and ye shan’t receive

Design Review Alert: The Webb building, on 20th Street North and Second Avenue, has undergone a renovation definitely not in keeping with the design approved by the Design Review Committee back in March (see our initial post, with the approved renderings, here).

Going rogue

Instead of the sleek, metal fascia coursing (with the ability to host signage) proposed by architect Pete Pritchard in March, that was unanimously approved by the DRC, we get scored stucco panels that…don’t seem to be approved by anyone. Unless I’m missing something here, this is an example of a building owner going through the correct motions of hiring a good architect, preparing renderings, going to DRC, and getting approved—and then doing something completely different. Why? And what repercussions are there? This is such an important intersection, and to replace solid, blank infill panels with, well, solid, scored infill panels is not acceptable. What was originally storefront glass transoms needs to be replaced either with glass, or with projecting metal/signage, in order for the building base to be correctly proportioned to the top.

Next door, moreover, the owner also owns another great historic building. Guess what he started doing today? See below:

Are you kidding me?

Yep–they’re painting all that beautiful cornice, trim, and historic brick what appears to be battleship gray, in a manner similar to what we saw in the 1970s when downtown property owners were desperate to try to camouflage all that old-fashioned detail in order to compete with suburban malls. This paint job, unless I’m wrong, did not go to Design Review and is literally going up on the whim of the owner.

[It is my understanding that architect Pete Pritchard has not been engaged in either of these situations.]

I’ve learned today that DRC will review what’s happening at both properties and ask the owner to come into the next meeting to explain himself. Penalties? Not sure, but one obvious one is denial of certificate of occupancy. Let’s hope we’re not left with a recalcitrant owner, a partially painted and heavily stuccoed pair of forlorn buildings,  and a frustrated City in a reluctant standoff mode. Stay tuned.

[thanks to Chuck Strahan for the pics]

Ask and ye shall receive…

A healthier skin

As promised, the Design Review Committee met this morning, 7:30 AM sharp. Yours truly was first on the agenda, and good news–we passed with flying colors. But, as earlier hinted, more good news…Pete Pritchard presented his design for renovating the facade of the Webb Building. The section between the storefront and the second story will be replaced with a stucco surface to match the upper floors, and then wrapped with an aluminum horizontal band whose simple, flowing lines recall the art deco style above. The storefront, which has been painted over in parts, will be cleaned and repaired.

And then the first step will be completed. Let’s hope that a new tenant that would really activate that corner will be tempted by the fresh facade. Thanks Pete!

A new beginning for the Webb Building

Skin-deep Beauty (2)

Update on the Webb Building: I opened up the agenda for Wednesday’s Design Review Committee meeting (see previous post)–I’m presenting the design for renovating a small historic structure on 24th Street. Next up on the agenda I noticed my friend Pete Pritchard is presenting a design for renovating—the Webb Building! (see the post Skin-deep Beauty from last week) It sounds like a modest renovation, but we’re delighted to hear it. We’ll see Wednesday what Pete’s come up with, but until then I’ll leave you with a pic of Nooch, another cool restaurant designed by Karim Rashid (this time in Chelsea in NYC)–aglow on a city corner. Tasty food, by the way. Pic courtesy 24gotham.

Illuminating an urban intersection

Skin-deep Beauty

The good, the bad and the ugly

Last night at dinner, my friend K was ranting that she wished we could tear down all of downtown’s “bombed out” buildings…a heated argument ensued, but I get the gist.  The empty old buildings weigh more on your eyes than the renovated ones, the new ones.  So if we filled all these empty buildings with ground floor activities, that would go a long way to fixing her (and others’) perceptions — if all the buildings were fixed up, but still empty — that would look good, but not get to the goal.

A building in an urban setting serves multiple purposes: it shelters its inhabitants; it welcomes visitors; it facilitates commerce; and it defines the public space outside. It is this last item which concerns a building’s skin: where the surface of a building meets public space. You could argue that a building with an ugly skin could still have a positive effect on public space if this skin is permeable enough–both physically and visually–to encourage lots of human activity at the street (like this rather grim building above in Manchester, UK that nonetheless has continuous retail and restaurant storefronts at the street–thanks to deltrem for the pic). But if a building also has beauty, then it raises the public perception, and instills satisfaction within the viewer. Of course a building that neither encourages human activity, nor provides the casual viewer with a happy feeling–well, that building has problems — and that is what K and a lot of others see all too often.

Take for example the building at the corner of 20th Street and 2nd Avenue North downtown, the Webb Building (originally constructed 1871–and among the first brick 3-story buildings in the city).

Cri de coeur

Owned for years by Southtrust Bank, it has been vacant for a while, and is now privately owned after Southtrust’s successors sold both it and the entire half block it sits in. You would be hard-pressed to find such a prominent corner on the most prominent north-south street in town looking so darn tawdry. Although very small in size, the corner position of this forlorn building magnifies a message to those passing by: no one cares about this corner. Although nearby large office buildings may have occupancy rates averaging over 90%, often that occupancy is invisible, occurring on the inside. What’s visible is this peeling facade, desperate for renovation. This small building ends up speaking louder than an office tower that’s 90% full just a couple blocks away. It’s all about the bad skin.

Pizitiz selling with good graphics

Just a block down 2nd Avenue is the Pizitz Building, another distressed building that would radio the same depressing message, except for one fact: it’s entire skin, intricate terra cotta and masonry, is slated to be meticulously restored to the standards of the National Park Service in an imminent restoration (more on this project soon). Assuming this project goes through, we’ll get the best of all worlds–both a beautiful skin and lots of human activity in the form of retail and restaurant tenants at street level. People exiting the McWane Center or IMAX Theatre will no longer confront a major symbol of urban blight, but instead a thing of beauty.

And again, beauty makes people happy. Leaves ’em with a smile on their face. That’s what great urban environments do.

Phoenix Building pre-renovation

All of that facade restoration is often quite expensive, when you’re dealing with old buildings–especially those that have lots of decorative elements in disrepair. When we renovated the Phoenix Building, we were not required to restore the terra-cotta detailing, or remove the paint from the original copper transom frames. The federal Historic Tax Credit program let’s you choose to leave such things alone. But we just couldn’t imagine renovating the building without making it beautiful on the outside again. In the street shot taken before renovation, you can see the copper transom frames painted over, and dirty, chipping terra-cotta details. The detail  pic shows how artisans remolded shapes to match the original terra-cotta that had chipped off long ago, and a sample of the copper being burnished and restored.

Old skin on the left -- new on the right.

Back on 20th Street, the Watts Tower was renovated just 10 years ago into apartments, but the skin…not so much. This building, an Art Deco tower designed by local firm Warren Knight and Davis in 1927 (replacing a charming Commercial Second Empire style 1888 building of the same name), derived much of its original, streamlined, simple beauty through the contrast of its vertical brick spandrel/window stripes with terra-cotta at the corners. In 1977, the whole facade was “modernized” by painting everything a bland cream color. When the renovation occurred in 1999, this unfortunate situation was unremedied. Almost worse, certain windows were boarded up on each floor and ugly exhaust vents were unceremoniously stuck in their place.

sad skin

Add in the lack of a building standard for window treatments, and the lack of anything graphic telling you there’s something new in the building (except for some very off-the rack “for rent” and “for sale” signs)—-and you end up with a very sad looking skin. If I were a visitor looking up at this building, I would guess it was a low-rent apartment building redeveloped in the 1970s, not a high-rent condo building redeveloped just 10 years ago.

Watts Tower in better times, before the paint and the neglect--and the window vents

K can be tentative about her relationship to an urban environment. Sort of like a residential neighborhood where you see one house abandoned with windows out–it makes K want to keep driving to a better neighborhood. And when K sees one building downtown with bad skin, or several running down a street–this doesn’t make her want to linger. It makes her search for another, happier neighborhood.

OK K.  We will get right on it.  Better skin in Aisle 2.