Darlene Negrotto is confident she has the coolest job in town. As President and CEO of Vulcan Park & Museum, she’s responsible for taking care of Birmingham’s most iconic iron man and the symbol of our city.
Quick history lesson: In the early 1900s, Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti was commissioned to design a colossal statue of the god of the forge that was then cast from local iron and shipped to St. Louis in 1904 to represent Birmingham and Alabama in the World’s Fair. Vulcan took home the grand prize and eventually made his way back to Birmingham, where he now sits atop Red Mountain, a fixture of our skyline.
Though a native of New Orleans, Darlene now considers Birmingham home, and the story of Vulcan represents everything she loves about the Magic City. We talked to her about Vulcan’s history, why she loves her job and more.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
One of the most rewarding things for me is hearing people’s stories about Vulcan. It’s heartwarming to hear people talk about their first date or when they were proposed to or family trips and other cherished memories that you know are so meaningful to them and that they will carry with them through their lives. Vulcan has touched people in similar ways for over 100 years. It’s just awe-inspiring — it gives you goosebumps.
What’s your favorite thing about the story of Vulcan?
The vision to create him became a reality so quickly. Just eight months before the World’s Fair opened, a handful of individuals recognized this was an opportunity to tell the world about the potential of the iron industry in our young city. They jumped on that, they seized that opportunity and came up with the idea of creating a cast iron statue of Vulcan, the god of the fire and the forge. They found a sculptor to do it and cast a 50-ton statue and shipped it to St. Louis in eight months! That was nearly 117 years ago without the technology we have today.
A lot of people at that time said it couldn’t be done. But those folks were tenacious, they persevered and they succeeded, and in doing that, they created an enduring symbol of our innovative spirit and the dreams and potential that are in each one of us.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
There’s the ever-changing and wide variety of sometimes unexpected issues and opportunities that might come our way as a part of operating what is really a community icon and educational attraction, but that’s also a 10-acre public park and green space with a 116-year-old iron statue that sits on top of a sandstone pedestal. They are exposed to the elements sitting up there on top of the mountain. Some of the challenges are related to the physical aspect of maintaining that historically important statue and pedestal, but also trying to seize the many opportunities that come our way. There are a lot of opportunities to collaborate with other entities.
What have been some of your favorite collaborations?
A number of years ago, a board member of the Red Mountain Theatre Company came across this old clipping about the crowning of the original Miss Vulcan back when the statue was first dedicated in 1939. People in the community voted for whoever they thought was the best person to be Vulcan’s queen, and it turned out to be a young lady who worked at the five-and-dime. They saw the satirical potential in that maybe some of the folks from more wealthy neighborhoods might have been a little bit jealous, so they created this great musical production we presented on the grounds of the park.
Why do you think Vulcan is so important to Birmingham residents?
Vulcan stands for our history. He stands as a reminder of the hard work and sacrifice on which our great region was founded. He stands for our future. He stands for the dreams and potential in all of us. He stands for progress and points the way for our hopes for the future. He stands for Birmingham, all of Birmingham.
I think we saw his importance 20 years ago when he was in danger of rusting away. Coming so close to losing him reinforced his importance in our individual lives as well as to our collective identity. We came together over the shared goal of restoring him, and we were unified by our love for him and what he means to us. Because we were so inspired, we succeeded in raising $16 million to restore the statue. We got national and even international recognition for that project.
How was Vulcan affected by the pandemic, and what did you do to pivot?
We were hit really hard. The park grounds remained open to provide a place for folks to come and get some fresh air. But we had to close all of our revenue-generating aspects during what would have been the peak season for field trips and private events. It was tough, but with great adversity are always great opportunities, and our team jumped on the opportunities that were presented.
We’ve launched a number of online programs and webinars to help teachers and parents who are looking for new ways to engage children and students with the lessons they need in order to become informed citizens and leaders. We’re also launching an online fundraising campaign to help us bridge the shortfall.
I’m also really excited about how we’ve transformed the Vulcan Community Awards, a celebration of the selfless efforts of everyday people. We’re going to do a virtual event in January, and it’s going to be — for the first time — in conjunction with an exhibit in the museum about folks who are doing great things in helping our community to be a better place.
RELATED: Meet BHAM’s “Baby Lady”
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
The best advice I ever got was don’t be afraid to try something new; just be sure you learn from your mistakes.
Name the things you can’t live without.
Yoga, my hammock, and champagne.
Thank you, Darlene. Learn more about Vulcan Park & Museum at visitvulcan.com.
All images submitted by Darlene Negrotto.
Meet more inspiring Birmingham women in our FACES series.