“I retired three years ago now, and I’ve gone through a lot of my things, thrown things away, reorganized things, and I have found old sketch books with imaginary houses I’ve drawn — you know, those ‘one of these days’-type things,” says longtime downtown Birmingham city dweller and architecture academic Cheryl Morgan of her historic downtown loft space. “And there are a lot of elements in those drawings and diagrams that I can see have found a place here. So, I think this place has been in my brain for years.”
This urban design and architectural guru was integral to the longtime reimagining and planning of Railroad Park and the Rotary Trail, projects which have origins in a 93-year-old green-space design by the renowned Olmsted brothers — whose father, Frederick Law Olmsted, designed such projects as Central Park and the Biltmore Estate.
Each year, Cheryl kept that unique bit of history alive in her work as former professor of architecture and director of the Urban Studio, Auburn University’s Center for Architecture and Urban Studies. She’d have her students examine the Olmsted plans, study an area they once called “the cut” — the old Line Park on First Avenue South between 20th and 24th streets — and propose urban design solutions that incorporated the development of green spaces and walkable infrastructure in downtown Birmingham.
Having lived in cities like San Francisco and Paris, she was naturally drawn to the Magic City’s first downtown building to convert to loft spaces. “I moved to the Wooster Lofts in 1997, but as we began to get Urban Standard and Wine Loft and more and more neighbors, I decided I was ready to move to the next ‘edge,’ that I would relinquish my space to someone who needed the comfort level of those areas that people now had confidence in,” says Cheryl.
So, it is no surprise that this metropolitan-minded history and architecture buff was drawn to “the cut,” where she discovered an old warehouse built in 1910 by Ballard Flour. Cheryl, who’s pored through the building’s tax records and archival photos, can give you a comprehensive rundown of the structure’s history, from its days as a freestanding flour and seed distribution center and farm insurance company to becoming a mining distribution company to an aluminum window and door fabricator. “The first time I saw the building, you had to sidle between little passages between all of the aluminum stock and glass and screen material, and it was just jam-packed with their fabricating equipment and materials,” she says.
She was smitten. “I love the sense of space, this big, voluminous space, and the fact that it has that sense of having had a life before,” says Cheryl. “I also liked that it was a working part of the city, not a place of abandonment. It just wasn’t residential yet,” she says. “But a lot of architects and designers were already moving down this way — Williams Blackstock Architects, Golden Construction, Davis Architects — so there was movement down here with my ‘tribe.’”
She soon set about a major conversion of the 107-year-old warehouse, first turning the front of the building’s two stories into offices for inquiring members of her “design tribe” seeking office space. Cheryl describes the building as “raw,” saying that it didn’t have contemporary systems of any sort and had suffered some serious deferred maintenance, particularly on the back end of the roof.
“What I missed in my Wooster loft was a private outdoor space,” she says. “I mean, I had the whole city as my outdoor space, but I didn’t have a place for sitting with a cup of coffee in my bathrobe in the mornings.” So, she decided to remove the defunct portion of the roof altogether, take up the flooring, add a window wall and make it her private outdoor courtyard. Also, a replacement roof, mechanical systems, lighting and other electrical systems were newly installed, as well as a wood burning stove. Cheryl jokes that you can’t even see the results of what she spent the most money on.
“We call it the practice of architecture, because you get better with practice, practice, practice,” says Cheryl. “But also maturing as a designer, you sometimes do your best work the older you are and the longer you’ve done it. So, not only did this place give me a chance to play out in a full-scale 3D model some of the ideas I’ve been playing with for years, but also — because it was such a good building in its own right — it forced me as a designer to edit myself, to get out of the way and let the good bones of the building read through. That’s a challenge for a designer. Sometimes you want to put every good idea into a project, but here, it was a place where I wanted to be as restrained as I could, so that I did not overshadow the good elements of the building.”
So, she practiced deliberate minimalism, embracing negative spaces where walls would traditionally provide a transition. “The open spaces between allow one concentration of elements not to have to compete with the next ensemble of pieces,” says Cheryl. “So, the spaces in between are as important as the occupied spaces.”
And it is hard not feel whispers of the building’s past as you walk upon its original unfinished heart pine floors, beaten and weathered by past lives. To happen upon a hardened pool of paint, perhaps a century old, or to discover etchings of random words and arithmetic on the wood columns, all lend the visitor a strangely mysterious and visceral connection to the building’s past.
The original ceiling “track,” or hoist rail, which carried extremely heavy items, still snakes through the warehouse space, and the actual hoist apparatus is still displayed as a historical artifact in the front office. “The rail was a very important piece of the history and the character of the building that I wanted to maintain, so that you understood the life that it had before,” says Cheryl. “I’m writing the next chapter of this building’s life, but there might be another chapter after me. And it proves that with good, strong, basic design and good construction with enduring materials, that those kind of buildings can have multiple lives, and that, to me, is a really interesting thing about good design — it’s not locked into one destiny.”
Cheryl sourced decorative elements that also fit this reinvented aesthetic. She bought the rolling staircase from a retail store’s sidewalk moving sale in North Birmingham. The cast-iron kitchen sink was a cast-off from a farmhouse her family renovated when she was a teen. The sink sat in the woods, leaning against a pine tree, for 40 years until Cheryl scooped it up for her new home. The console table behind the couch is a veterinarian’s examining table that she bought from a surplus sale at Auburn.
One of the comments Cheryl often hears, especially from her overnight guests, is that they are surprised at how quiet it is. “Even though I’m downtown, next to the railroad tracks and on a busy street, the building’s good bones and the restraint we used in the design means that it also has a kind of visual quiet, and that lets you be emotionally quiet. That’s one thing I really love about the place. It’s very serene in a lot of ways,” says Cheryl, adding with a laugh, “and dusty — serene and dusty!”
The only thing that might compete with the love of her serene and dusty abode is her unabashed enthusiasm for the revitalization of downtown Birmingham. “Who knew that First Avenue South was going to become a part of the Red Rock Trail System and the Jones Valley Trail? Who knew that Rotary was going to take on the cut and transform it into the Rotary Trail? These days, there are just constantly people jogging, walking, bicycling, out with baby carriages and walking dogs. It really is walkable in all kinds of ways, and that has made it feel like a city coming into its own,” says Cheryl. “ And to be on one of the streets that is leading the way has been very exciting.”
Thank you to Eric & Jamie Photography for the gorgeous images of Cheryl’s loft in downtown Birmingham!