Birmingham is experiencing a renaissance, a revitalization infused with a fearless entrepreneurial spirit and youthful creative energy. Our downtown streets are bustling with artists, students, loft dwellers and business people intermingling in cutting-edge culinary hot spots and locally owned shops and galleries. Our farmers markets are filled with hardworking stewards of the land and forward-thinking makers, chefs and artisans. New annual festivals are taking root in our collective calendar, and tech companies are growing innovative companies in our backyard. In-state and out-of-state investors are developing exciting new projects for once-forgotten buildings and storefronts. And, most importantly, our diverse community is enjoying an ever-improving cultural landscape and resurgence of Birmingham pride.
To move forward, it’s important to recognize and pay respect to that from whence we came. In that spirit, check out these 25 beloved Birmingham landmarks that continue to grow and pave the way for the Magic City.
Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark is an iconic Birmingham structure. Built during Reconstruction, Sloss Furnaces produced iron for nearly 90 years and was integral to the Magic City’s realization as a player among the South’s major cities. Sloss Furnaces is now home to special events, weddings and concerts, such as the Sloss Music & Arts Festival.
The statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, is a signature Birmingham landmark and homage to our city’s roots as a major iron and steel town. In 1903, city leaders decided to erect a statue of the Roman god as a way to market Birmingham’s booming industry at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Italian sculptor Guiseppe Moretti made a full-size clay model, which was shipped to Birmingham and cast in iron at Sloss Furnaces. The massive statue was then shipped to the St. Louis World’s Fair, where it won the grand prize in the mineral category. The statue was first erected on the Alabama State Fairgrounds in 1906.
The Alabama Theatre was built in 1927 by Paramount Studios as a movie palace for its silent films. It was one of the first establishments in Birmingham to have air conditioning and, beginning in 1933, hosted the Mickey Mouse Club, a children’s group that met to perform for one another, watch Mickey Mouse cartoons and play games on Saturdays. The Birmingham Mickey Mouse Club ran charitable food and toy drives and reached 7,000 members, making it the largest one of its kind in the world. Today, the theater’s live concerts and movie screenings are enjoyed by nearly a half a million Birmingham citizens a year.
Electra was erected atop Alabama Power‘s downtown headquarters in 1926, as a manifestation of Alabama’s electrical progress. New York-based sculptor Edward Field Sanford, Jr., created the company’s golden figurehead, which is often referred to as Vulcan’s girlfriend.
5. The Peanut Depot
Along historic Morris Avenue’s cobblestone road in the heart of downtown Birmingham, the Peanut Depot has been roasting peanuts in its antique roasters for more than 100 years. Founded in 1907, Peanut Depot’s Birmingham peanuts can be found in stores across the state and the country. Take your out-of-town friends to see this charming hole-in-the-wall and slice of local history. Make sure to get a bag of roasted or boiled peanuts while you’re there, and explore the trendy shops and cool restaurant scene on nearby Second Avenue North!
6. The Storyteller Fountain
The Storyteller fountain is in the nexus of the five-point crossroads that gives historic Five Points South its name. Created by nationally renowned, Birmingham-based artist Frank Fleming, the Storyteller fountain, referred to by some as the Satanic fountain, features a ram reading to other animals and is a tribute to the Southern tradition of connection through storytelling.
In 1960, Mayor James Morgan established the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, which now has the distinction of being the largest horticulture library in the United States. Officially opened by the Japanese ambassador to the United States in 1967, the botanical gardens’ Japanese Garden features a curved-top, bright red torii or “gate to heaven,” as well as Long Life Lake with a moon bridge perfect for watching the koi fish, a bonsai garden and a traditionally crafted tea house.
The original Golden Rule Bar-B-Q opened in Alabama in 1891, and was a popular gathering spot for people passing through Birmingham on their way to Atlanta. The first location served up pork plates, cigarettes, beer and the occasional automobile repair. While its barbecue is among the best in Alabama, try the burger for a dose of tasty, old-school perfection.
In 1908, the formation of the Birmingham Art Club was the spark that lit the fire for an eventual museum for the city of Birmingham. The Birmingham Museum of Art opened its doors in 1951, and houses more than 26,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and decorative arts dating from ancient to modern times, including one of the largest collections of Wedgwood pottery in the world. The striking bronze sculpture by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, “Reclining Nude” (pictured above), is a focal point in the museum’s Charles W. Ireland Sculpture Garden. The museum hosts many cultural events for all ages as part of its mission to provide Birmingham with a cultural and educational experience.
10. Avondale Park
Avondale Park was home to Birmingham’s first zoo, which opened in 1914 and boasted the city’s most exciting attraction, an elephant named Miss Fancy, also known as the Queen of Avondale. The island in the park’s pond used to be home to the zoo’s colony of monkeys. The legendary Miss Fancy and her trainer, Mr. Todd, appear on murals and business logos and are honored in names of menu items and local craft beers throughout the booming neighborhood of Avondale.
11. The Old Mill
Built in 1926, the Old Mill is an iconic structure that is captured on the city of Mountain Brook’s official seal. Real estate developer Robert Jemison, Jr., also known as The Father of Mountain Brook, built the Old Mill House. His company also developed the picturesque Mountain Brook Parkway, which now features the Jemison Trail, a popular trail system under a canopy of trees, running parallel to Mountain Brook Parkway. When horses still trotted along the parkway, the Old Mill was used as a tea house, which closed during the Great Depression. The house was eventually sold as a private residence, which it remains today.
12. Goodyear Shoe Hospital
Founded in the early 1920s, the Goodyear Shoe Hospital is still the place to take your shoes and leather goods for dependable repair in downtown Birmingham. The sign’s antiquated patina and humble design emphasize Goodyear Shoe Hospital’s long history doing quality shoe repair for Birminghamians downtown.
13. Bluff Park
The historic community of Bluff Park was first put on the map with the establishment of Spencer Springs, 40 log cabins built as a summer resort on the bluff overlooking the magnificent view. One noteworthy spot enjoyed by resort goers in the 19th century is Lover’s Leap. Legend has it an Indian brave stabbed his overzealous Indian princess, then overcome with immediate remorse, gathered her in his arms and leapt to their death. Because Shades Crest Road has long been the main route to pass through the mountain, it is lined with many other historic spots, such as the nearly 60-year-old Bluff Park Hardware and 40-year-old Mr. P’s Deli. And, although the 25-year-old Tip Top Grill is the baby of the bunch, it embodies a charming 1950s vibe where milkshakes, fries, friends and a breathtaking mountaintop view are enough to make you forget your worries.
The original Tutwiler Hotel was developed in 1913 by Robert Jemison, Jr., once dubbed “Mr. Birmingham” by the Post-Herald, and Major Edward M. Tutwiler. The hotel opened in 1914 to much fanfare with high-profile Birminghamians dressed to the nines for the reveal of the Grand Dame of Southern Hotels. Room rates ranged from $1.50 to $6 for the top-of-the-line accommodations. Seventy chefs were hired to staff the kitchen of the hotel restaurant, where live music played for lunches and dinners for decades. The original Tutwiler Hotel was on Fifth Avenue North and 20th Street (now Regions Plaza), but the current Tutwiler still captures the spirit of the beloved original.
In 1945, a Birmingham native and World War II veteran named Raymond Weeks led the delegation to expand Armistice Day into a national holiday celebrating all veterans. President Eisenhower subsequently signed legislation, declaring November 11 Veterans Day. Raymond Weeks proudly led the first national Veterans Day Parade in Alabama in 1947, and was honored by President Reagan with the Presidential Citizenship Medal in 1982. Raymond continued to lead the Birmingham Veterans’ Day Parade until his death in 1985. As of records in 2011, Alabama boasts more than 401,000 veterans, which comprises approximately 11 percent of the population over age 18.
The 16th Street Baptist Church is the beating heart of the Birmingham Civil Rights District. Across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and diagonal from Kelly Ingram Park, the 16th Street Baptist Church was founded as The First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham in 1873. Condemned by the city, a new church was designed by black architect Wallace Rayfield in 1911. During the Civil Rights Movement, black protesters met at the church to organize protests. On September 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan members planted dynamite in the church’s basement, which killed four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair. A statue stands in their honor across the street from the church, depicting four girls, one releasing a dove.
17. Bon Ton Hatters
This third-generation shoe shine and shoe-and-hat-repair shop was founded in 1907 by the Greek Callis family, who decided to leave the dangerous steel mills and start their own operation, continuing their family’s experience with shoe stores in Greece. This old-school shop is a downtown daytime melting pot where you can see blue-collar workers rub elbows with high-powered CEOs.
Sibyl Temple is perched at the crest of the mountain as you enter Vestavia Hills from the north. Commonly referred to as The Temple of Vesta, the temple was built by wealthy landowner George Ward in 1929 in red-hued sandstone and modeled after a mountaintop temple in Tivoli, Italy. Over time, the temple changed hands and was painted white. It is now owned by the Vestavia Hills Garden Club and is open to the public for picnics and gatherings.
19. City Federal Building
The City Federal Building was built in 1913 and was the tallest building in the Southeast at the time of its completion. Now filled with chic apartments, it is still the tallest neoclassical building in the South.
Opened in 1928, the Irondale Cafe was the inspiration for the Whistlestop Cafe, the fictitious eatery in Fannie Flagg’s novel “Fried Green Tomatoes.” The Alabama author grew up around the original cafe, which was owned by her Aunt Bess from 1932 to 1972. The novel was made into a popular movie, and today, locals and tourists come to the Irondale Cafe to enjoy a taste of the 600 to 800 slices of green tomatoes fried daily on the premises.
21. 18th Street Underpass
The 18th Street underpass was constructed in 1931 to connect 18th Street North and 18th Street South at Railroad Reservation. Its striking Art Deco style was designed by architect David O. Whillden. In 2013, REV Birmingham contracted Texas-based artist Bill Fitzgibbons to design an art installation using light as the medium. The interactive rainbow of LED lights is called LightRails.
The Birmingham Zoo, once known as the Jimmy Morgan Zoo, opened in 1955. That year, the zoo’s first elephant, Mona, arrived, and the zoo’s first official exhibit, Monkey Island, was dedicated. Today, the zoo has expanded to include the Barbara Ingalls Shook Black Bear Trail, Alabama Wilds and Soaring Safari Zipline Adventure, among others. The Trails of Africa exhibit has established the zoo as a national leader in the conservation, care and breeding of threatened elephants. This year, go visit the animals to celebrate the Birmingham Zoo’s 60th anniversary!
Built in 1927 and originally known as the Little Theatre, the Virginia Samford Theatre has a long and distinguished history of cultural influence, educational outreach and stellar performances. At one point in the 1940s, a New York City newspaper listed the theater as one of the “ten leading Little Theatres in the nation.” The photo above was taken in 2012, when the theater produced “Driving Miss Daisy.” With the vintage automobile in the foreground of the sepia-toned snapshot, one can easily imagine the theater in the ’30s. | Image: Virginia Samford Theatre
The Florentine is often called “the most beautiful building in Birmingham,” as evidenced in its ornate Italian-influenced architecture—colored terra-cotta ornamentation, marble columns, cast-iron lanterns and red tile roof. It was built in 1925 to house Club Florentine, a short-lived venture that was followed by a string of other tenants in the following years. In 2008, Corretti Catering purchased the building and after multimillion dollar renovations, the space enjoys its former glory, hosting private parties and events in its upstairs ballroom and downstairs cafe.
25. It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham
The “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham” slogan was conceived in the 1950s to promote the Magic City. It was used on welcome signs, bumper stickers, buttons and other memorabilia. In 2013, graphic designers Brett Forsyth and Brandon Watkins of Yellowhammer Creative began the push to revive the throwback slogan, making screen-printed posters and T-shirts of the image. They couldn’t keep the shirts in stock, and, buoyed by this show of Birmingham love, Brandon was able to realize his dream of painting the “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham” mural in Woodlawn at First Avenue South. The mural pictured above, also painted by Brandon, is proudly displayed on the side of John’s City Diner in downtown Birmingham. Below, two female employees of Liberty National Life Insurance Company, known as Liberty Belles, pose with the slogan. Image: Bhamwiki
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