JCHA NEWSLETTER –OCTOBER 2013

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Birmingham’s First Skyscraper


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hat was on Second Avenue?

The Jefferson County Bank Building was constructed in 1884 as the home of the Jefferson County Savings Bank on the southeast corner of 2nd Avenue North and 21st Street. The five-story building, one of the tallest at the time, was commissioned by the bank’s owner, Christian Enslen and executed in a heavily-ornamented French style with a mansard roof above a deep bracketed cornice.

Enslen retired in 1911 and left the bank to his son, Eugene, who immediately began planning for a monumental new bank building. He commissioned the 27-story Jefferson County Savings Bank building which became the tallest building in the South when it was completed in 1913. It later became known as the Comer Building and currently the City Federal Building.

The older building was sold. It housed the Southern District offices of the Independent Pneumatic Tool Company in 1918 and was used to register draftees during World War I. On August 1, 1919 it became the home of the Birmingham Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. The second floor housed the U. S. Quality Shoe Store in the 1920s.

The building was demolished to make way for the Florentine Building, originally planned as a 10-story tower, but capped off at two stories in 1927.

It was built between 1925 and 1927 for the Club Florentine by Henry Upson Sims. Architect David O. Whilldin designed the foundations to support an eventual 10-story building, but only the lower two floors, totaling about 23,000 square feet, were ever completed. One legend has it that the excavation revealed an underground stream which required the change in plans.

The Italianate style is highly decorated with colored terra-cotta ornament framing two arcades supported by marble columns. Cast iron lanterns and shop windows enhance the decorative scheme. At the time it was said to have been the most costly building constructed in the city (by the square foot.) Legend has it that Sims built the exuberant structure to honor a much loved schoolteacher, Hannah Elliott, who had taken him and his classmates on a tour of Italy.

Jefferson County Savings Bank

Birmingham’s first “skyscraper” was the Jefferson
County Savings Bank located on the southeast corner
of Second Avenue and 21st Street, North
(O. V. Hunt photograph, Birmingham Public Library).


The club itself was unsuccessful. Other tenants have included the Alabama Acceptance Corporation, Tony’s Terrific Hot Dogs & Sandwiches, Brunswick Billiards and armed forces recruitment offices, Shelby Finance, Nuke’s Barber Shop and Loretta’s Alterations Shop. The upper level has housed a succession of nightclubs, including Focus Phase II and Club 21.

In 2008 Ken Effinger and Rebecca Corretti, the owners of Corretti Catering, purchased the building from attorney Jack Hall. Plans were laid for an Italian restaurant and bakery on the ground floor which were not realized.

Because of its ornate and detailed construction, it is one of the city’s most photographed structures.

 
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The Birmingham Athletic Club Entered New Era of Growth
Part 2

—by: Craig Allen


D

uring the period of 1894-1903 the Birmingham Athletic Club grew at an unprecedented rate. This was accomplished under the leadership of Solon Jacobs. The idea to build a new facility, one that would properly represent the club in the city, was universally accepted by the membership. The financing to buy the lot and build at 510 North 20th Street was accomplished by selling life memberships in the club. Historian Hill Ferguson wrote, in 1943, the following:

Hill Ferguson

Hill Ferguson
(BPL Archives)

"In April 1901, the Birmingham Athletic Association was formed, in whose name the enterprise was conducted. 150 shares of stock at $100 per share were sold to members of the club, and this roster truly pictured the Who’s Who of Birmingham’s enterprising and public – spirited citizens in the early days of the century. As I recall the transaction, each share of this stock was endorsed over to the Athletic Club in exchange for a life membership certificate in the club".

By 1903, the Birmingham Athletic Club was known throughout the Southeast for the athletic endeavors of its teams. These sponsored events included: track & field, bicycle races, football, basketball (in 1906, the B.A.C. defeated Yale during a basketball match – the score – was 24‑18), tennis, boxing, wrestling, and gymnastics. The records show the Birmingham Athletic Club teams were always competitive and successful in every sport. After all, they delivered the "Crimson Tide" its first‑ever football defeat.

Birmingham Athletic Club c.a. 1906

Birmingham Athletic Club next door to the Southern
Club (left) in 1906 (Birmingham Public Library).


The Society Circus

From a social standpoint, the B.A.C. organization became increasingly acknowledged by the community as a venue for social events. As was the case with its Fifth Avenue neighbor, the Southern Club, the Birmingham Athletic Club staged many social events in the city in the early 1900’s. In 1899, the gymnastics’ program and team initiated a club-sponsored event which would remain a major social happening in Birmingham for several years – the B.A.C. Society Circus, a combination of acrobatic exhibition and vaudeville performances. The treasured event was held every year from 1899 to 1915 at the Jefferson Theatre. The Society Circus was billed as the South’s greatest amateur show. Some of the proceeds helped pay for the B.A.C.’s building refinancing and associated improvements and mortgage related costs. In 1906, the Age-Herald reported that, "the Society Circus was a quite brilliant affair socially on account of the number of well‑known society women who will take leading roles in its presentations." The Society Circus was often mentioned in the society and social columns of both local newspapers.

he Merry Widow Chorus of Society Circus of 1908

The Merry Widow Chorus of Society Circus of 1908.

While the Birmingham Athletic Club continued to attract a greater number of members, gain in social prominence, and receive athletic awards, Herbert L. Cobbs continued his involvement with the club with more and more enthusiasm. He joined committees and became the club’s vice-president in 1914‑1915 and 1917‑1918. His brother, Billy Cobbs, was also active in the club. Herbert Cobbs first served as president of the Birmingham Athletic Club in 1919 and 1920.

The Birmingham Athletic Club, circa 1912, was a club composed of prominent citizens, middle management clerks, railroad employees, teachers, and city leaders — a diverse group but devoid of blue‑collar workers. The diversity of the membership represented the developing middle‑class in Birmingham as well as the emerging upper class. A new generation of officers was also emerging in the club. By 1914, Edward L. Anderson was B.A.C. president and Herbert L. Cobbs was vice president. Once again, there was a movement to both make the club more exclusive and to build a new building. Included in the B.A.C. Bulletin of 1914, President Ed Anderson reported to the membership that there were plans to make the B.A.C. the "most modern sports and social center in the South." This could not be done at the present facility—thus the implication—a new building was required. "If we all work together, we can build that ten‑story club building that has been our dream for a year." (Ed Anderson, 1914.)

B.A.C Logo

B.A.C Logo

The Board of Governors in 1914 raised the initiation fee and the club dues and restricted regular membership to a limited number which had been as high as 850. This was done to promote exclusivity and in the words of President Anderson, "This was a period when the equalitarian nature of athletic competition and the need to maintain a large membership base pulled the organization in one direction while the social aspects of the club pulled it in another." In response to the dues increase President Anderson stated, "We did this to make the club more exclusive. By ‘exclusive’, I do not mean snobbish, for fundamentally the Athletic Club is the most democratic of institutions. However, we prepare to use greater discretion in electing applicants to membership and to do that we must to eliminate from consideration a certain class that has not here to fore made up a loyal and praiseworthy membership. Now, to obtain greater quality, and not so much quantity, we have taken means as the first aid to our new plan." It was apparent by his comments that the new Board did not believe the membership of the 1914 B.A.C. was exclusive enough for it’s taste.

The timing for the announcement of the new building and the reduction in quantity and increase of quality of the membership was to prove most untimely as the First World War began and the membership ranks were diminishing. Thus, so many of the B.A.C. members were called to active duty during this period that the older members were forced to financially support the club. Out of an active membership of 622 on the club’s roster, 418 were in active duty in the Army or Navy. The financial situation deteriorated to such an extent that, by 1918, the membership ranks fell to below 150. This was not part of Ed Anderson’s plan for making the club more exclusive; this was, in fact, the beginning of the end of the Birmingham Athletic Club.

The last rebound for the B.A.C. occurred immediately following WWI, as the ranks of the B.A.C. rapidly grew. By 1920, under the presidency of Herbert Cobbs, membership grew to over 800. As encouraging as the increase in membership would appear, times were changing. Athletics were beginning to be dominated by colleges, schools, and professional organizations. Where once the B.A.C. sponsored practically all the local amateur sports competition, the Country Club’s (the County Club of Birmingham) Invitational Golf and Tennis Tournaments now overshadowed the B.A.C. sports events. Football in 1920 was no longer played by the B.A.C., and the Society Circus, although still functioning in the early ‘20’s, appeared dated. The influence of the club was waning and its range of sports and social events was narrowing.

In 1924, the Board of the B.A.C. made the decision to build the multi-story building that had been planned prior to the WWI. More than a need, this was a "knee jerk" reaction to the diminishing influence of the club. If the club was to continue to be influential in the city, their facilities would need to be enhanced.

Herbert L. Cobbs

Herbert L. Cobbs

In 1924-1925, there seemed to be no one more involved in the decision and planning stages for a new facility for the B.A.C. than Herbert L. Cobbs. Although extremely involved with the management of the B.A.C., Herbert had a "day job." He was assistant paymaster for T.C.I. Company (U.S. Steel). His office was in the Brown‑Marx Building. He was involved in his church and the Inter‑ Frates Club (the president of the Inter‑ Frates Club in 1926, was Zipp Newman, Sports Editor of The Birmingham News). Herbert Cobbs was unmarried and, in 1925, had lost his father, J. B. Cobbs, who died in March. Most assuredly, most of his enthusiasm and time were spent on and with the workings of his beloved Birmingham Athletic Club.

Financially in 1924 the B.A.C., as a club, was overmortgaged in regards to the 20th Street North facility. In a financial study of the B.A.C. completed by Historian Hill Ferguson in 1943, Mr. Ferguson wrote, "evidently some refinancing of mortgages was done during the years following WWI for the deed from the association to Eugene Wolff and Leo and Leopold Loeb. On May 31, 1924, there showed a $90,000 consideration, evidenced by $90 of Internal Revenue Stamps, plus the assumption of a $35,000 mortgage to the University of the South at Sewanee and a $15,000 mortgage to the Birmingham Trust & Savings Co., as trustee, all in consideration of the property building and building improvements on 20th Street."

The total debt was approximately $140,000. To recoup their money, the Loeb family took on the responsibility of selling the 20th Street property. The property and the building of the B.A.C. on 20th Street were sold to the Robert E. Lee Klan of the Ku Klux Klan for $180,000. The B.A.C. facility was a building with ample space for meetings and recreation for Klansmen and their families. Less than a year later the Klan sold the building on 20th Street to the Y.M.C.A. for a tidy $20,000 profit. Thus, the Ku Klux Klan was for a time in 1926 situated with their headquarters located next to the Y.M.C.A. and the Southern Club, located on the most prestigious city block in Birmingham.

 

 

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