JCHA NEWSLETTER –FALL 2019

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World War II bond rally with Bechtel-McCone-Parsons employees in fromt of main buildings and hangers.

World War II bond rally with Bechtel-McCone-Parsons employees in front of main buildings and hangers.


Bechtel-McCone-Parsons and the
Birmingham-to-Berlin Bomber Plane Project

—by: Ellie Guyader, Vulcan Park and Museum Curatorial Intern


O

irmingham has had many impacts in national history throughout its 148 years. During World War II, Birmingham’s wartime production contributed greatly to the Allies’ victory. During World War II one particular company’s investment in the city would help make it one of the world’s largest construction companies today.

Founded by Warren Bechtel in 1898, the W. A. Bechtel Corporation, as it was initially called, was a construction company that operated out of California. Just before the outbreak of the war, the company had joined with five other construction companies to form Six Companies, Inc. to complete their first major government contract, the Hoover Dam. In 1937 Stephen Bechtel, Sr., Warren’s son and the President of the company at that time, teamed with former Berkley classmate, John McCone to form the Bechtel-McCone Corporation. In 1942, Ralph Parsons joined the partnership, and the newly formed Bechtel- McCone-Parsons began entering bids for government contracts for wartime production.

Birmingham, already an industrial hub years before the outbreak of World War II, was slowly emerging from the Great Depression. Jobs began returning between 1939 and 1941 as America began supplying their allies with food, weapons, and machinery. While most of Alabama contributed their vast agricultural yield to this effort, Birmingham contributed its industrial resources. Birmingham’s economy thrived when the United States joined the war due to President Roosevelt’s strategy to "out-produce them overwhelmingly, so that there can be no question of our ability to provide a crushing superiority of equipment in any theatre of the world war."

In 1942, Birmingham leased the Birmingham Airport and runways to the United States Air Force for one dollar a year to test-drive planes before they were sent into battle. Also, in 1942, Bechtel-McCone-Parsons (BMP) won a government contract to modify and complete airplanes made in Henry Ford’s Willow Run factory in Michigan. BMP needed to build a modification center in order to carry out the work on the Willow Run planes. They decided Birmingham was an ideal location due to its large female workforce, the lack of land options available in California where BMP was headquartered, and the proximity of the modification center to the airport resulting in easy transport and low cost. In order to fulfill the terms of the contract, BMP broke ground for the huge facility in January 1943.

Betchel-McCone-Parsons Security Guards’ Honor Guard detail.

Betchel-McCone-Parsons Security Guards’ Honor Guard detail.

The "Birmingham-to-Berlin Bomber Plane Project," as it was called by The Birmingham News, promised to be one of the "largest engineering and construction companies in the world," finishing planes "geared to solve the problems of modern warfare."

However, contradicting stories of the actual functionality of BMP’s Birmingham Modification Center exist. Thomas M. West, Jr. once wrote "Eyewitnesses that I have interviewed told of a Birmingham sky constantly filled with the war planes being flown in, often by female ferry pilots, being test flown after modification and then flown off to war." But author, Laton McCartney reported claims that "the planes are not even flying over the city, much less away from the city as finished projects...Employees... talk glibly of men being paid large...salaries for 'waiting orders.' "

In fact, a lawsuit was filed in July 1943 against BMP by George Alexander, a Birmingham citizen, for mismanagement of government funds. His claim was based on numerous affidavits and reports stating that workers clocked in at 9:00am, went home, and were only seen again clocking out at 5:00pm. According to court transcripts, others reported being paid large sums of money for training on automobiles instead of airplanes. Another woman who was trained at Bechtel apparently attended a training class for 21 weeks but instead of being trained, she "loafed all day long every day, drawing pay thereof from the defendant [BMP], for which the defendant presented claims on the United States."

Alexander’s lawsuit further claimed that due to the terms of the contract, the army played a very small role in the management of Bechtel, relying on the company to selfreport its production. The contract determined that every six months BMP would report to the army how many planes they expected to make and how much it would cost. The army would then pay in full all contracted work and materials, plus a "management" fee. Though sources differ in the percentage of the fee, ranging from 4% to 10% of the estimated cost, they agree that BMP would receive this money regardless of how much work they managed to produce.

Ultimately, the lawsuit was thrown out. It was decided that BMP worked within the parameters of its contract, though there was indeed a lull in production in the summer of 1943. A shortage of critical materials to Michigan’s Willow Run facility significantly slowed production as fewer airplanes were shipped to Birmingham for modification. Naturally, this left many trained Birmingham workers with less work to do and rumors of profiteering began to spread, ultimately leading to the lawsuit. The summer of 1943 also marked the end of Parson’s partnership in the company. It would be up to Bechtel and McCone alone to finish the government contracts.

In order to complete these contracts, BMP hired both skilled men and women at their Birmingham Modification Center. Forty percent of workers trained to work on these fighter airplanes were women and were known as "riveters," an idea made popular by the "We Can Do It" campaign encouraging American women to join the workforce. In fact, Frances Carter, founder of the American Rosie the Riveter Association, worked at BMP as a riveter.

Birmingham, England, City Coat of Arms.

Birmingham, England, City Coat of Arms.

In Birmingham, women in general did not work in iron and steel factories, such as Sloss Furnaces, because of the extensive manual labor. The workforce at steel and iron facilities were made up of 70%-80% African-American men, and this trend continued throughout the war. Black men were often prevented from registering for the draft and those who did register were the last to be called up. While BMP did hire women in their facilities, they only hired white women for such jobs. Birmingham’s US Employment Service offices refused to refer black women for any jobs other than maids. This violated President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, issued on July 25, 1941 officially outlawing racial discrimination in federal and war-related agencies. However, the South, where Jim Crow laws still governed, fought fiercely against integration of any sort.

By the end of the war, BMP modified 5,710 planes, made 600 sets of B-24 wings, and produced 5,600 quarter-ton army trucks. Their modest investment of $400,000 in 1943 had returned an estimated $100 million in 1945. World War II revamped the United States’ economy and made Bechtel-McCone one of the leading construction companies in the nation.

The partnership with Bechtel and McCone disbanded after the war with Stephen Bechtel, Sr. buying out John McCone’s shares of the company, thus launching today’s Bechtel Corporation and McCone’s political career. Under the direction of BMP’s wartime Public Relations manager, Lewis Jeffers, the Birmingham facility was sold to Hayes International Corporation in 1951. It has since changed names to Alabama Aircraft Industries and continued to work government contracts in Birmingham until 2013. Today, Bechtel is the largest construction company in the United States and operates in over 100 countries. Remarkably, it has managed to stay a privately-owned and family-run company, with its current CEO, Brendan P. Bechtel, serving as the fifth generation of the Bechtel family to lead the company.

Artifacts from Birmingham’s Bechtel-McCone-Parsons Modification Center help tell the story of Birmingham’s Home Front, on display in the lobby of Mountain Brook City Hall until November 2019. The small exhibit features artifacts from the Birmingham History Center Collection at Vulcan Park and Museum that tell of life in Birmingham during World War II. Visitors can see artifacts from Bechtel-McCone-Parsons, ration cards, and other artifacts related to the war effort and businesses in Birmingham.

Sources:
–Friends in High Places: The Bechtel Story by Laton McCartney
–Big Dams and Other Dreams: The Six Companies Story by Donald E. Wolf
–The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World by Sally Denton
–Riveting and Rationing in Dixie: Alabama Women and the Second World War by Mary Martha Thomas
–"Remembering Bechtel-McCone World War II in Birmingham" by Thomas M. West, Jr.
–"Blacks and the Draft: A History of Institutional Racism" by Paul T. Murray
–U.S. of America ex re. George B. Alexander v. Bechtel-McCone-Parsons


Mrs. Todd's ad
 
 
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Alabama Theatre Corner shot.

Alabama Theatre Corner shot.


The Historic Alabama Theatre

"The Showplace of the South"

—by: Tom Badham


I

n March of 1927 construction started on what was planned to be the finest movie theater in Alabama. The Paramount Publix Corporation’s “fire proof” brick veneered, steel framed concrete walled theatre cost, for the time, a very huge 1.5 million dollars (An ounce of gold equaled one twenty-dollar gold piece. Today an ounce of gold costs $1,500. So, in today’s dollars the Alabama cost $112,500,000.) Seating 2,500 patrons on three levels, the Alabama Theatre’s career began on December 26, 1927, with a grand opening celebration. Mr. Sidney Dannenberg was its first manager with the film, Spotlight, opening the theatre.

It was the first public building in Alabama to have air conditioning. Built just as the "Talkies" began the sound revolution in the motion picture industry with The Jazz Singer in 1927, the theatre was designed to easily switch over from silent movies. To provide the musical scores for those silent movies, the Crawford Special Publix One Wurlitzer Organ was built into the theatre. This was no ordinary organ, either.

"The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ" not only dramatically raised up to a spotlighted front corner of the stage while playing, it was fancy enough to be a show in itself. The case was as fancy as could be made and every sound effect that could be made at that time thundered out of speakers and pipes above each side of the stage. That sound system was modified and adapted when the "talkies" became the norm. Various live stage acts along with a stage band or a pit orchestra along with the Wurlitzer organ were included with feature film screenings.

The theatre was used for other events as well as movies. Starting in 1935, the Alabama hosted the annual Miss Alabama Pageant until 1966.

Walt Disney’s cartoons were distributed through the Paramount Theatre organization. They were so popular that in 1933, The Mickey Mouse Club was formed. Meetings were held every Saturday at theaters across the United States and England. Children would perform for each other, watch Mickey Mouse cartoons, and participate in other activities such as food and toy drives for the under-privileged.

In June, 1933, manager George Nealeans launched the Alabama Theatre chapter of the Mickey Mouse Club. By 1935, the Birmingham Mickey Mouse Club had over 7000 members; making it the biggest Mickey Mouse Club in the world. Membership eventually peaked at over 18,000 before the Club closed in 1945. A television only Mickey Mouse Club show was begun in 1955, but it had no theater gatherings.

When the theatre was designed a three-foot-thick concrete wall was specified to separate it from the building directly east of it. In 1934, that wall saved the Alabama when the Loveman’s Department Store next to it burned. Stains on the theatre’s ceiling from smoke that was pulled into the building from the street were the only damage. Those stains were visible until the 1998 restoration.

Photo taken during the fire at Loveman’s in 1934.

Photo taken during the fire at Loveman’s in 1934.

Alabama Theatre 1934. Note: Fire damage to Loveman’s on the left.

Alabama Theatre 1934. Note: Fire damage to Loveman’s on the left.

Alabama Theatre under construction in 1927.

Alabama Theatre under construction in 1927.

As the decades passed, the theatre passed through several corporate hands. In 1981, Plitt Theatres of Chicago closed the Alabama and sold it to Cobb Theaters of Birmingham.

Cobb attempted to reopen the Alabama several times, but was unsuccessful. Cobb eventually sold the Alabama to Costa and Head, developers working to revitalize the downtown area. Costa and Head initiated series of classic movies at the Alabama with some success, but ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 1986.

The decline of downtown Birmingham through the 1960s and 1970s saw the closing of most of the downtown’s movie theatres. Birmingham’s Terminal Station’s destruction in 1969 opened Birminghamians’ eyes to the error of tearing down our city’s beautiful and unique early 20th century buildings. Citizen groups began seeking ways to protect and preserve them.

It was that marvelous Mighty Wurlitzer organ that saved the building. The Alabama Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society approached the property owners who were planning a parking lot where the Alabama stood. There were only twenty-five of these organs ever built. The Society asked the property owners if they could buy the organ.

Alabama Theatre mighty Wurlitzer.

Alabama Theatre mighty Wurlitzer.

The realtor handling the property was smart enough to recognize the Wurlitzer’s value and refused to sell it separately. The Alabama Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) had been maintaining the Alabama’s organ starting in the 1970s. The Society continued to find support and ultimately raised enough funds to purchase not just the organ, but the entire facility. In 1987, the non-profit organization, Birmingham Landmarks, Inc, was formed with the sole purpose of saving the building and saving the Mighty Wurlitzer.

The theatre was renamed the Alabama Theatre for the Performing Arts. In 1993 the Alabama was designated the official state historic theatre of Alabama.

In 1998, the Alabama Theatre underwent a complete restoration. The gold leaf and paint were cleaned or replaced along with seats being replaced or recovered and carpet and drapes replaced.

Then Birmingham Landmarks also purchased the Lyric Theatre across the street. The Lyric built in 1914 was designed as a vaudeville theatre with no electronic sound equipment. While the theatre was being totally reconditioned with most of the seats removed, it could be seen that the theatre was designed as a giant auditory horn which could carry unamplified voices from the stage to furthest back row of seats.

In 2011, the Alabama Theatre received the Building of the Year Award from the Alabama Architectural Foundation. The award is presented to the one building statewide that best exemplifies how architecture can provide a meaningful impact on the citizens of Alabama in the past, present and future.

The Alabama hosts roughly 250 entertainment events every year. More than 400,000 people annually for a variety of theatre, ballet, opera, music concepts, and film. Although, now the movies are all shown digitally on the big screen via re-mastered digitally enhanced formats. These are so much clearer and sharper than the originals that it is an experience in itself.

 

Note the soot damage around the air vents in the ceiling in this 1986 photo.

Note the soot damage around the air vents in the ceiling in this 1986 photo.

 

 

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