NEXT MEETING: April 20, 2017
Reception at 6:30 p.m. Meeting at 7:00 p.m.
Emmet O’Neal Library, Mountain Brook
SPEAKER: James Lowery
TOPIC: Birmingham Mineral Railroad
To: Members of the Jefferson County Historical Association
What: Quarterly Meeting
Date: Thursday, October 14, 2010
Time: 6:30 p.m. Social Period, 7:00 p.m. Program
Where: EMMETT O’NEAL LIBRARY— Crestline Heights
Speaker: John R. Stewart
John R. Stewart, PE has worked as a civil engineer for 36 years in the general area of transportation design and planning. He graduated from The University of the South in liberal arts in addition to receiving his BCE from Georgia Tech in 1974.
John worked for Gresham, Smith and Partners (GS&P) for 29 years before retiring in May, 2010. He worked in the Birmingham office from 1992 to 2010. His work in Birmingham has included a broad range of assignments in the transportation design and planning field for public and private sector clients. He served as senior civil engineer, transportation marketing principal and for 6 years as Division Vice President.
John has been working a variety of planning projects in Birmingham both as a volunteer/advocate and a paid consultant. These include the US-280 corridor, Green Springs Highway Corridor Revitalization, Birmingham Area Transportation Corridor Alternatives Analysis Plan, and several small community improvement plans. He has served as a Board Member for the Friends of the Railroad District, Chair of the Chamber’s Transportation Council, Board Member and President of the Horizon 280 Association and as an at-large member of the MPO’s Transportation Technical Committee. John is a member of ASCE, ITE and APWA.
John and his wife Nancy have 3 sons grown sons living in Birmingham, and are active in the music program at Riverchase United Methodist Church, where Nancy retired as the Director of the Riverchase Day School. John’s other interests include photography, model railroading, music, reading and local history of technology which is reflected on the website www.bhamrails.info, a resource about railroads, iron and coal in the Birmingham District.
Mildred Walker Lackey, who was descended from pioneering families in what is now Jefferson and St. Clair Counties, passed away August 20. On her maternal side, the Jones and Nail families were established in Jefferson County before Birmingham was founded. On her father’s side, the Walkers arrived in the Springville area shortly after the Revolution. John Jones, for whom Jones Valley was named, was one of the first settlers arriving in Jefferson County in 1815.
After the completion of the Title Building I really was in love with Downtown Birmingham real estate. Every building had wonderful stories and many memories that people shared with me. Not growing up in Birmingham, the names of those involved with these great old buildings initially did not mean anything to me but as I became more involved I began to feel like I knew the original owners, architects, builders and even former tenants.
My next large project was the Massey Building that was built in 1925 at the height of the Birmingham building boom. The building was developed by Richard W. Massey, designed by William Welton and the contractor was Smallman-Brice Construction Company. The original cost was $500,000. The original name of the building was the Bankers Bond Building, the original tenant for whom the building was built. After the depression Bankers Bond went out of business and the building was renamed the Massey Building and became a multi-tenant building. The building was later purchased in the mid 1980’s by an Atlanta development group who a local bank foreclosed on in 1990. I was representing the law firm of Hare, Wynn, Newell & Newton and after many meetings and preliminary drawings by Moody & Associates we obtained good cost estimates from Charles & Vinsant. Our Pro-forma and their need for a new location of the firm convinced them to purchase the vacant building and renovate their firm’s needs and other tenants. We purchased and renovated the building in 1990 and started leasing in 1991. The building has been a great success and has remained full since 1991.
In the early 1990’s we saved several small buildings on 3rd Avenue North, primarily 4 law firms to own and occupy. In 1997, then-Mayor Richard Arrington called Bob Moody and asked to set up a meeting with Bob and me to see if there was any way to save the Clark Building, which was scheduled to be demolished in 90 days. The Mayor did not want another vacant lot, especially at the corner of 4th Avenue North and 20th Street North next to the new SouthTrust Tower.
The Clark building was built in 1908 by real estate entrepreneur General Louis Verdier Clark. It was designed by Harry B. Wheelock and built by T. C. Thompson. The original idea was for the building to be the home of Drennen’s Department Store, but the Drennens had a change of heart and chose another property during the construction of the building. Mr. Drennen a few years later ended up being a General Motors dealer in Birmingham, and the story goes that General Clark was so outdone due to the misunderstanding over the building that he would never own a GM car the rest of his life. The building became a multi-tenant building. Recognizable former tenants were the Smith and Hardwick Book Store for over 60 years, Café Italiano, Central Bank, The Cane Break, Charles Arndt and the Birmingham Club.
When we first visited the building it was a total mess. The roof system had completely fallen in; the only living things in the building were rats, pigeons and vagrants. Our structural engineer told us in spite of everything the foundation and structure were in excellent shape. In a few weeks we had wonderful renderings and floor plans to work with. I was working with several law firms at the time and one was growing very fast and retained me to look at all options for them. The firm was Lightfoot, Franklin & White. The building was over twice the size of their needs of 20,000 square feet and contained 47,000 square feet. We continued to explore if the building would work for the firm. The firm had some interest thanks again to Bob’s wonderful renderings. Now the real test was a visit to the building!
When the firm visited the building and saw the condition, the filth and other things unmentionable we know we were in a struggle but we continued to talk while obtaining redevelopment cost estimates. Over the next 30-45 days things started to look better and again Mayor Arrington called and told us if the firm was interested in saving the building the City would find a way to help in short term low-interest loans, new sidewalks and other benefits. All of these incentives were a great help to the process.
Like everyone, I love stories with great endings. The firm moved forward because the cost to own and occupy 25,000 square feet initially was about the same as being a tenant in a Class A office building, plus they had over 20,000 square feet to expand into if the firm grew over time. The Lightfoot, Franklin and White firm now occupies all 47,000 square feet of the building and have loved their home for close to 13 years. Several of the old members of the firm were told they were crazy for being involved in this project 13 years ago. Those same folks today look like very wise people. The old and new members of the firm love their building and have many more years to enjoy it especially since it will be paid off in less than 3 years.
During this same time 1997-2000, I became interested in 7 buildings that were all vacant on 2nd Avenue North between 20th–21st Street North. We ended up purchasing all of these buildings over a short period of time and each one is owned and occupied by several different clients. One building could not be saved but is now a wonderful courtyard adjacent to the Birmingham Bar Association dedicated to a great lawyer friend who lost his battle to cancer, Ronnie Noojin.
Our plans were to redevelop all these vacant building not just one or two. One building next to the Bromberg Building, now the Longshore Building, was owned by the Bromberg family and used for storage and gift wrapping. We met with the Bromberg family, told them our ideas of redeveloping. I was asked my thoughts on the value of their building. I told them $90,000 – $100,000, they asked for a few days to think it over. I received a call from Frank Bromberg Sr, two days later and he asked if I could meet with him that day, which I did. Mr. Bromberg told me he and his family were so excited about our plans that if I promised him we would do all we had planned with their buildings his family would sell the building again for $80,000. I mentioned to him I thought they could sell the building again for $90,000 – $100,000 and he told me he remembered what I told his family but they wanted to help. They had no problem selling for less than market because the family was so excited about the improvement of the area and the long term benefits for downtown. Is that not a great story? How many times does a seller take less than the market value of their property?
The Longshore Building, Meelheim Building, Berry Building, Birmingham Bar Association and Gulas Law Firm and others all own and occupy these 1881-1930 vintage buildings.
My most recent major rehab project involved the Kress Building. This lovely building was built in 1937, designed by Kress Company architect Edward F. Sibbert and build by Day & Sachs. The building was a scaled down version of the company’s 5th Avenue New York building. The Kress Company was sold in the early 1960’s but the store itself remained in the building until 1978. The Blach’s Department Store relocated to the building as part of a major downtown redevelopment plan by Costa-Head which also included the Atrium and former Burger-Phillips Building. In the 1990’s the U. S. Government occupied various floors in the building. I was representing the law firm of Wiggins, Childs, Quinn & Pantazis to find suitable space to lease but the firm was open to purchasing a building if that option made economic sense.
Over 18 months we looked at several lease options as well as buildings to purchase when out of the blue the Kress, Atrium and Burger-Phillips building all became available at a very reasonable price. Once again we went through our normal process of drawings, renderings, plans, pricing and everything made sense.
Today the wonderful rehabilitated Kress and Atrium Buildings are home to the firm and the Summerfest/Red Mountain Theater, which is located in the basement of Kress. The building is beautiful and functions wonderfully for the firm. The top floor has an entertainment area with a kitchen, bar, bathrooms, etc. The outside area is just wonderful with a great view of downtown and Red Mountain, has lovely gardens and even a Bocce ball court.
The firm has allowed many charities, friends and businesses to use the top floor for numerous functions. We sold off the Burger-Phillips building, which was totally renovated into loft apartments in 2008.
In closing, I have been very pleased to have taken part in saving many wonderful historic homes and buildings in Birmingham plus working with so many terrific clients, friends, architects, designers, contractors, and others on these projects.
The owners/users of these properties put a lot of faith in this strange guy from upstate New York that talks a little funny. I love the metro Birmingham area and all its wonderful people. Although over 85% of our company’s business is not in the City of Birmingham, I feel that for some odd reason it was meant for me to be here to help save these properties and many others not mentioned.
I want to thank again those who believed in me and worked with me over the last 35 plus years. I realize it was not easy because I can be a pain in the fanny, but what a pleasure it’s been for me and I do not think that my mission is over. I still think I have a few more historical projects to do before I retire.
Thank you Birmingham, this is “The Magic City”.