Birmingham – The City Beautiful

Vestavia will be featured in Birmingham Historical Society’s newest book Birmingham: The City Beautiful,Compliments of George Ward. A publication celebration will be held on November 1 at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.  The event is open to the public. The book will be available from Birmingham Historical Society, One Sloss Quarters, Birmingham, AL 35222 for $30 postpaid (cash or check) or from Amazon.

Celebrating Birmingham: The City Beautiful 
and George B. Ward, its Champion

The newest volume from the Birmingham Historical Society bears the apt title Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of G. Ward. And in its 112 pages, laced with photos of both George B. Ward (1867-1940) and the growing city he so adored, the story of early Birmingham unfolds like a novel. From George arriving in 1871 in yet-to-be-named Birmingham at the age of 4 to his ascent to city leader, the book draws the reader page to page, improvement by improvement—especially detailing Ward’s determination to beautify the city that benefited greatly from his measures. 

Ward—who during his time served as Alderman, Mayor, City Commission President—unwittingly assisted the writing of this volume by keeping news clippings and correspondence in 24 bursting-to-seams scrapbooks now housed in the Birmingham Public Library’s Department of Archives and Manuscripts. Newspaper accounts beyond his personal collection reveal the spirit of this man who shrewdly chose to first recruit women and children to the beautification notion. 

Then-Mayor Ward’s little pamphlet of June 1908 (reproduced on the book’s cover and in its title) made beautification simple with suggestions for “block improvement societies” such as: “Whitewash everything you can’t paint,” “Wherever the ground shows bare, plant something green in it,” and “Report anybody who militates or ties a horse to a tree. You get half the fine on conviction.” “For permanent screens [to block unsightly views], use hardy shrubs, or the quickly growing vines.” Most of all Ward entreated the ladies to “call all you meet to the idea of a ‘ City Beautiful.’”

As the story continues, triumphant and true, the Birmingham Beautiful initiative, fueled by Mayor Ward’s energy, worked. Newspapers of the era reported planting tips from local florists (the period’s horticultural experts) while city schools engaged children in thinking, writing, and talking about the program’s potential. A headquarters office in City Hall, bombarded with inquiries from other cities, worked to spread the beautification message. 

What came from the years of Birmingham’s Beautiful boom were parks we enjoy today: Ward, Phelan, East Lake, the pocket parks along Highland Avenue, Lane (which now houses Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the Birmingham Zoo), and Linn, the latter surrounded by public buildings, forming a city center, a prime City Beautiful era project. 

Ward’s best-known park may be Vestavia, his country estate on Shades Mountain that he ran like a public botanical garden, opening the residence in the reconstructed Roman temple and the extensive gardens to visitors—both whites and blacks—who arrived in large and small groups and in thousands during annual festivals. Today’s Ward’ temple of Sybil in its park setting on U.S. 31 commands the northern entrance to the city of Vestavia Hills, incorporated in 1950. 

George Ward’s vision for the City Beautiful movement, inspired by the great “White City” created for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, was to create “a living urban environment . . . healthy and happy to live in.” He championed the movement long after leaving office in 1917, executing his learning from nationally prominent landscape designer Warren H. Manning (who had himself worked on the World’s Fair project). Ward never strayed far from his visions or opinions, even as he spent 40 years as an investment banker, founding the firm of Ward, Sterne & Company (later Sterne, Agee & Leach and today part of 1919 Investment Counsel, Inc. and Stifel Financial Corp.) specializing in Alabama public and corporate finance and securities. The Sterne Agee Charitable Foundation, in fact, commissioned this book to honor its founder and his achievements. 

Indeed, the name George B. Ward should live on. George H. Eustis, a contemporary who served as Birmingham treasurer, described Ward as “competent, untiring, energetic, and wedded to his work. He never dodged responsibilities or sidetracked an issue. He cleaned this town up to the queen’s taste…[getting] the ladies of the city interested in a ‘city beautiful’ movement.” 

Researched and written by the Birmingham Historical Society, Birmingham: The City Beautiful, Compliments of G. Ward will be available November 1 from Birmingham Historical Society, One Sloss Quarters, Birmingham, AL 35222 for $30 postpaid, from Amazon, and from Shoppe at 3815 Clairmont Avenue South. One copy of the book will be provided gratis to 2021 Society members

Archival document originally published in 1908 by George Ward, Mayor, and reprinted in 2021 by The Birmingham Historical Society with rules for block improvements for ”the public good, health, and happiness”!