Once nicknamed “The Country Club District,” Forest Park is brimming with both beautiful homes and charming shops. Take a stroll through this scenic neighborhood and get a glimpse into Birmingham’s storied past and lively present.
Forest Park: The Beginnings
Forest Park unfolds from the rock-rimmed crest of Red Mountain into the surrounding valley. Its stately mansions — which have been home to some of Birmingham’s most prominent figures — are just part of the area’s charm. Drive through the historic district’s 231 acres of rolling hills and shaded streets, and you’ll discover a handsome enclave like none other. Birmingham real estate and civic leader Robert Jemison, Jr., first broke ground on what would become Forest Park in 1906. More than a century later, the area has held its charm and blossomed into something more than just pretty homes (although those are still in abundance).
“The overall plan of the area is designed on broad, sweeping lines with the streets, sidewalks and curves following the natural contour of the mountains around which it was built,” Catherine Greene Browne, a longtime resident of the history-steeped neighborhood, writes in her book, History of Forest Park. By the mid-1920s, Forest Park was considered one of the most prestigious residential sections of young Birmingham. It was the epicenter for much of the city’s wealth. Located just two miles from downtown, Forest Park was where the the well-off went to bask in life’s luxuries. Coined as “the cleanest and least smoky district in Birmingham,” Forest Park attracted some of the state’s most renowned architects and designers to build on its picturesque hillsides and meandering roads shaded by century-old trees.
Some of the residents Catherine writes of in History of Forest Park saw the Magic City unfold right before their eyes. One such resident was Bill Hisey. “The house where Hisey spent his childhood years was built very close to the railroad tracks on 9th Avenue, and Hisey was 7 years old when he saw a famous Birmingham landmark being loaded onto railroad cars.” The landmark, loaded piece by piece, was the mythological Roman god of craftsmen and fire, now known as Vulcan — Birmingham’s iconic “iron man.” “As portions of the massive statue lay waiting to be hoisted onto the railroad cars, a young Bill Hisey and his companions climbed on the sections and scampered through the arms and legs,” Catherine writes.
Vulcan’s journey through Birmingham isn’t the only memory that is forever stamped in the minds of residents. A favorite memory of Bessie Lester was of a Forest Park family who added a special glow to the neighborhood every Fourth of July. “The Abele family was French, and they owned a house on Clairmont Avenue,” Bessie recounts in History of Forest Park. “During the brief time they resided in Forest Park, the family dazzled the neighborhood with a brilliant display of fireworks which were ordered from France for the celebration.”
Like most neighborhoods across the state and nation, however, Forest Park went through a hard spell during the Great Depression and then again after World War II when investing in older homes fell out of fashion. While most homebuyers sought ranch-style houses with more modern amenities, some of Forest Park’s grand homes began to gather dust and fall into disrepair. By the late 1970s, much of Forest Park was in jeopardy at the hands of developers looking to demolish some of the area’s oldest structures and put strip malls and industrial buildings in their place.
Thankfully, residents stepped in and fought for the neighborhood to become a designated historic district by the Birmingham Historical Commission. The battle was victorious — largely in thanks to community members who compiled lengthy research on the neighborhood’s rich history — and in 1980, Forest Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the historic neighborhood encompasses the area surrounding Clairmont Avenue and Highland Golf Course from 38th Street South to Linwood Road and from Cherry Street to Overlook Avenue.
Forest Park Today
Walk through the streets of Forest Park and not only can you see decades’ worth of history in the fabulous architecture, but, like much of Birmingham, Forest Park has enjoyed its own rebirth in recent years. Previously vacant spaces and old homes have turned into restaurants and beloved shops that locals frequent daily. Drive down Clairmont Avenue, and you’ll see vibrant character spilling from every corner. The superior design of the neighborhood established more than 100 years ago still stands today. The only difference is that a new wave of forward-thinking individuals has moved in — bringing their own brand of beauty with them.
Mark Thompson and Jay Draper are some of the more recent tenants of the historic shopping district. Shoppe, their garden store perched high on a hill inside a restored bungalow, exudes warmth and charm to all who cross its threshold. Rows of verdant plants line Shoppe’s walls, and outside, a greenhouse greets patrons. It’s the perfect spot to pick up something green or something special for a friend, like a scented candle or a coffee table book.
Across the street, Whistling Table — the recent culinary endeavor of Shindigs Food Truck chef, Mac Russell — offers a posh dining experience for those looking to get good grub in a chic atmosphere. Aside from a delicious menu that features some of Shindigs’ most popular dishes (like the famed truffled grilled cheese, pork-belly sandwiches on fluffy Korean-style buns or “MacDaddy” burger), the restaurant also has a handsome bar perfect for kicking back with a cocktail in hand. Whistling Table is joined by other local restaurants like The Rougaroux, one of Birmingham’s best spots for Cajun cuisine, and also Little Savannah Restaurant & Bar, an upscale eatery offering classic Southern fare.
And although the community certainly still boasts a strong sense of high-brow charm, it also offers a laid-back aesthetic that is evident in its quirky stores and the colorful characters who oversee them. Thanks to the neighborhood’s eclectic and artsy vibe, it’s attracted several artisans who champion local talent. Newly opened Dreamers Supply Co. and longtime favorite Naked Art Gallery are both hot spots for finding locally made goods and art. Often opening their doors for community events, these shops prove that the heart of Forest Park still beats strong today. “We wanted [Dreamer’s Supply Co.] to be a place where people could come in and be inspired to go home and create something — a really beautiful, encouraging space that was filled with good design and illustration that hadn’t been seen before,” says Kaitlin Slattery who owns the art-forward shop alongside her husband, Alan Slattery.
When considering what caused Forest Park to flourish in recent decades — and what kept it from destruction years ago — most point their finger towards the residents who passionately preserve the neighborhood’s integrity. Their devotion is as strong as the homes that earned the area’s prestigious reputation.
“It is the energy and enthusiasm of the new residents who, teamed with the wisdom and sense of the past presented by the older, continue the traditions and offer fresh ideas to continually spark new life into the community,” Catherine says. “The houses hold a charm, which binds residents and makes them ever more determined that nothing will destroy their beauty.”
Stroll through Forest Park’s charming sidewalks, grab a bite and shop a bit. We bet you’ll fall in love with this neighborhood too!
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